The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems. — Gandhi
Arete is a word from ancient Greek that means something along the lines of excellence, or achieving your full potential. For me, this is the dream; to develop myself to my full potential (or get close to it).
A lot of people seem to think that they cannot change themselves for the better. It is possible, but it takes work and dedication on your part. I think that improving yourself is an important and satisfying endeavor, so it is worth the effort. Decide what skills and knowledge you would like to acquire, and create a plan to achieve your goals!
Nearly a decade ago, I created a website at TheRiverStyx.net where I talked about all the Greek myths related to the underworld that I could come up with. I put a lot of work into that site mostly as a way to learn about search engine optimization, but also because I have a passion for Greek and Roman mythology and classics in general. The site was successful as far as I was concerned, as it showed up in google searches, and even helped make me some money.
I had written an article about Heracles going down to the underworld where I described him as being all brawn and little brain. This was a mistake. A college professor emailed me about this, and happened to mention that the Greek ideal was arete; physical and mental perfection. I was confusing Heracles with more modern stereotypes. I changed the site because it’s true: Heracles did do some clever things.
I thought this arete thing sounded really cool and I wanted not just to know more about it, but to develop it in myself.
Land of the Rising Sun
There are a few things that get pushed on you when you grow up in the United States. Bits of the American culture are transmitted to children again and again. Adults seem positively obsessed with encouraging kids to use their imagination. We tell kids to believe in the power of their dreams, and that if they put their minds to it, they can accomplish anything. Everyone is special. Everyone should ‘express’ themselves; whatever that means. Imagine all these special little wonders using their imagination to express themselves!
The problem is that none of this prepares a person for the hard work of self-development. Telling people that they are special and should express themselves in whatever unique way they want does not help them build a work ethic. Reverence for hard-won skill or knowledge doesn’t seem to be passed on to children by mainstream American culture. And why should they work hard to develop themselves when they’re already so damn special?
Japanese culture seems to convey different messages to children.
Dragonball Z is a Japanese cartoon that used to be a guilty pleasure of mine. In the cartoon, martial artists with freaky unnatural powers fight off villains and save the earth. The good guys decide to call themselves Z fighters for reasons that are never stated, and sometimes collect dragonballs in order to summon a magical dragon-genie. It is a very silly cartoon.
What really got me about this cartoon was the mind-set that the characters had.
Often, the villains were way more powerful than the Z fighters. When that happened, the Z fighters would train hard to increase their skills. These guys were always striving to become better. They were always working hard to improve themselves. And the underlying message was that you too can become a better person, but it will require hard work and dedication.
I’ve seen this message many times in Japanese cartoons, but rarely in American ones.
There’s an interesting book by Carol Dweck (called Mindset) about what she thinks may explain why some people may work hard to develop themselves while others do not. Her idea is that there are two general mindsets that explain this: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
In the fixed mindset, people believe that they have qualities and talents that are ‘fixed’ and cannot be changed. Thus, they do not work to improve their own abilities. I believe that American culture tends to encourage this in children through its messages about how we are all special individuals with unique talents, needs, learning styles, etc.
In the growth mindset, people believe that they can change themselves through their own hard work. Dweck observed that people with this mindset were more likely to see games such as logic puzzles as a way to practice their skills and become better, where people with a fixed mindset were likely to view them as tests of their ability.
Arete and You
To think that you can achieve arete requires that you have a growth mindset; one that allows for improvement through hard work. This message seems to be common in Japan, but sadly, not so in the USA.
In America, we are told as children that we can do anything if we put our minds to it. Am I alone in thinking that this sounds a lot like, “You can do anything if you can figure out how to do it with your mind.”? This message seems dangerously close to, “You can do anything if you are smart enough to do it.”
When I was a kid, I thought this was total bullshit. I was pretty damn sure that I wasn’t going to fly without wings or an airplane no matter how much I put my mind to it. Now, I think this saying can be salvaged. First, the “anything” bit needs to be changed. It’s just obviously wrong because it goes too far; some things are not possible. Second, this saying needs to reflect that hard work and practice will be required. So here is the message that I think should be taught to children, and that I think you should make a part of your thinking: You can achieve greatness, but you have to work for it. Or, if you like the word arete like I do: You can achieve arete, by you have to work for it.
Why Develop Yourself
If you don’t see the benefit in becoming what you consider a better person, or if you don’t think the effort required to be worth it, then there really isn’t any argument I can make to change your mind. Personally, I think that because I am going to be stuck being myself until the day I die, I should make the best of my situation and become the best person I can be. Of course, I wouldn’t want to work unreasonably hard at it; that would just take away all the enjoyment. And it is enjoyment. Being competent at something after putting in the work to achieve that competence is highly enjoyable.
Have a Plan
I’m a big fan of plans. I love making them, because it’s so much easier to make a plan and imagine what it will be like to have completed them, than it is to actually stick to one day after day. Having a plan does make the day-to-day work much easier to stick to, and it is essential if you actually want to end up at a goal rather than just endlessly mess around.
Before you can put together some sort of schedule, your first task will probably be to figure out what you want to learn, what you want to get good at, and what you want to be like. That’ll be like our roadmap to arete.
Continue to the next page….. What to Develop
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