Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

A Greek Philosopher Tackles Student Activities

October 22nd, 2008 · 22 comments

Epictetus: Student Success Guru…Epictetus

I’m intrigued by a second century Greek philosopher named Epictetus. He was a stoic. This means, roughly, that he believed the key to a good life is focusing on what you can control, not lamenting about what you cannot.

In other words: A stoic doesn’t sweat bad stuff happening. His concern is how he behaves when the going gets tough.

Because I’m weird, I recently skimmed two different translations of Epictetus’s The Enchiridion: a handbook describing 52 life lessons. There was one lesson in particular — lesson 29 — that caught my attention. It provides a piercing analysis of an issue that we discuss often on this blog: should you focus on a small number of things or experiment with many?

Here is what Epictetus had to say:

In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist.

In other words, think carefully before adding a new commitment. Otherwise, your initial energy is likely to flag. Something he calls “shameful.”


He continues:

Otherwise, take notice, you will behave like children who sometimes play like wrestlers, sometimes gladiators, sometimes blow a trumpet, and sometimes act a tragedy when they have seen and admired these shows. Thus you too will be at one time a wrestler, at another a gladiator, now a philosopher, then an orator; but with your whole soul, nothing at all.

In case his point is unclear, he gets a little cruder:

Like an ape, you mimic all you see, and one thing after another is sure to please you, but is out of favor as soon as it becomes familiar.

It’s amazing how familar this sounds to the modern ear. How often have we grappled with interests that become boring once the initial zeal wears off.

He concludes:

[D]on’t, like children, be one while a philosopher, then a publican, then an orator, and then one of Caesar’s officers. These things are not consistent. You must be one man, either good or bad.

Here lies his zinger: “You must be one man.”

To a stoic, like Epictetus, focusing your attention on one thing that aligns with your talents is not about maximizing your impact, it’s a moral imperative. Being ambiguous, be it in your virtues or your pursuits, is a recipe for disaster.

A stoic demands stability. A stoic believes this stability — a laser-like confidence in what’s important — will guide him safely through life’s unexpected kicks to the metaphorical groin. Personal pursuits aren’t exempt from this equation.

This is strong stuff. I love how much the issues of two millenia past resonate with our own discussions. Replace “philosopher,” “publican,” “orator,” and “Ceaser’s officers” with “national honors society member,” “leader of cultural affinity club,” “student researcher,” and “member of student government,” and Epictetus’s quotes would be at home in one of my focus screeds.

I’m still trying to find out, however, how I feel about Epictetus’s particular stoic take on this issue.

Here are the two questions that pop to mind:

  1. Is it really our soul’s optimal state to be aligned in one pursuit that we’ve really considered?
  2. Or is Epictetus’s old fashioned thinking missing the benefits that come from keeping many brands in the fire, and hopping from interest to interest in search of the fresh and inspiring?

What do you think?

Related Articles

22 thoughts on “A Greek Philosopher Tackles Student Activities

  1. Anna says:

    There’s something to be said for maintaining a related and coherent area of focus but remember that putting on blinders makes you miss quite a bit. I think a better approach would be to have one prime area that has the majority of your focus and then several other, although maybe unrelated, areas which you give decent focus to but not as much as the main area.

    Confusing? Perhaps. I’ve found that inspiration and good ideas usually come from well-rounded people, not cart horses who are intent only on one thing and not jacks-of-all-trades. Just a thought.

  2. David says:

    “Because I’m weird, I recently skimmed two different translations of Epictetus The Enchiridion”

    Haha…as a classics major, this actually makes you cool in my book. Being exposed to the worldview of another culture is one of the great benefits of studying the classics.

    I wouldn’t call Epictetus’s thinking “old fashioned” as it probably was probably quite contemporary in his time, but just seems rather old to us.

    I’ll be thinking about the applications of this passage as well. Maybe I can try and re-translate that part you didn’t understand (which quite frankly seems like a poor job on the translator’s part) and see if there are still other hidden gems of wisdom Epictetus gives us.

  3. Study Hacks says:

    I’ll be thinking about the applications of this passage as well. Maybe I can try and re-translate that part you didn’t understand (which quite frankly seems like a poor job on the translator’s part)

    I would love to hear your translation. The one I used was from Elizabeth Carter, whom, I guess, is a MIT?

  4. Basu says:

    I like to follow the T-rule: have a broad variety of general subjects in which you have a casual interest, but have one strong point of expertise. I’m a computer science student, so the top of my T includes web design, data structures and algorithms, testing and general troubleshooting, but the stem of my T is (becoming) programming languages.

  5. Regarding Question 1) maybe. I don’t think people have to be one trick ponies. I think the litmus test, is if you can put your whole soul into the activities you’re engaged in, then that’s the number of activities you can pursue–whether it’s 1 activity, 2 activities, or whatever.

    Regarding Question 2) maybe. If the intention is to find a passion, experimentation is fine. If there is no clear intention, then Epictetus is spot on.

  6. Alvin says:

    Doesn’t all the advice against multitasking and doing too many things at once tie in with recent research?
    Link 1
    Link 2
    Link 3

  7. mallory says:

    I looooove this post. It’s very inspiring most and I think he’s mentioned something that’s often avoided in today’s A.D.D. generation. With technological advances, the internet, and easy and quick solutions for just about anything, we’re shoved into a fast-paced culture that urges quick thinking, spontaneity, etc, so that we’re spinning off into a thousand opposing directions, without ever taking a step forward,

  8. Dave says:

    My only comment is that it can be quite difficult to determine one’s purpose (or even focus area) without exposing oneself to to many different areas. It may be all well and good if you have already found that area – but it takes most people the better part of a lifetime to do so. In this repect I agree in principle with a lot of your advice on the blog – but perhaps it would be useful to consider how to identify your focus area. I know I would find it useful, but perhaps it too personal an exercise to formulate.

    Thanks for some great advice though.

  9. Dave says:

    Re: above – Just seen the Einstein Principle article – probably a good start.

  10. Eric Grey says:

    I think this is right on, personally. With one caveat – sometimes seemingly unrelated pursuits can really enhance one’s passion and power in another. For instance, as a medical student, becoming involved in student government has been a great way to become inspired by and focused on my future career. Networking with other future practitioners, learning more about the medical landscape in the United States and having the opportunity to meet speakers and professors from other institutions has really helped keep me firm in a difficult educational context.

    However, I wouldn’t want to let things go much farther than this. The more I focus on medicine, the better practitioner I become, the more I can help people.

    One more caveat – my first professor in medical school told me something important. He said, “Read widely.” There’s a real danger in becoming too myopic when one dives very deeply in one field of study. Spreading one’s wings seems to help keep one’s mind flexible. However, this is still in service of a unitary pursuit – the study of whatever one truly loves.

    Thanks for the great post!

    Eric

  11. Study Hacks says:

    I like to follow the T-rule: have a broad variety of general subjects in which you have a casual interest, but have one strong point of expertise.

    I tried to capture something like this in my article about the difference between experiments and goals. In some sense, everything you mentioned is the stem for the broader pursuit of being good at computer science. That is, I’m interested in the idea that you choose one broad pursuit, but then do lots of experimentation inside it…

    I think the litmus test, is if you can put your whole soul into the activities you’re engaged in, then that’s the number of activities you can pursue–whether it’s 1 activity, 2 activities, or whatever

    I hear what you’re saying, but I’m trying to think how many activities could actually honestly pass that test…

    Doesn’t all the advice against multitasking and doing too many things at once tie in with recent research?

    There does seem to be some connections here. Not direct connections — the research involves concentration while working, while this discussion is on a much broader scale — but I think the conclusions resonate.

  12. Study Hacks says:

    My only comment is that it can be quite difficult to determine one’s purpose (or even focus area) without exposing oneself to to many different areas.

    To play devil’s advocate: this supposes that everyone has some “purpose” that they need to discover. Others argue that if you can find something that seems interesting it’s what you do with it not what it is that matters.

  13. Study Hacks says:

    However, I wouldn’t want to let things go much farther than this. The more I focus on medicine, the better practitioner I become, the more I can help people.

    This is the challenge I can’t quite solve. How do you identify that balance between not straying to widely, but still introducing some randomness into the equation. Maybe it’s one of those things that’s unique to each person; a sort of, “you know it when you see it” situation.

  14. andres jimenez says:

    great share, I ignored all of this.
    also thank you to all people that comment here, is very useful to read such opinions

  15. Dorothea says:

    I am also of the opinion of getting balance between focus and getting the big picture. Focus and specialize on one thing, but don’t forget the rest of the world, or you won’t be able to connect the dots properly. There are some cases where the big picture is more important than the specialization. In medicine for example, seeing as that’s been mentioned, a general practitioner needs to be aware of the whole spectrum of illness, even and especially the 1 in a million things, because they are the ones that get missed. Once it’s identified, you can hand it to a specialist, but it needs to be recognized first.

  16. Nate says:

    Great post. I wouldn’t mind seeing more posts similar to this one with a focus on applying classical ideas to modern situations.

  17. I really enjoyed reading this article and the comments. This topic is something I think about often, as I am interested in several different fields that are quite unrelated to one another. I’m currently pursuing a PhD in Immunology and I know that if I didn’t spend so much time on other ‘projects’ (for example, web design) I would be much further ahead. However, the time I spend learning other subjects is fun, new, and exciting. At this point, I really can’t say which is better.

  18. Study Hacks says:

    I’m currently pursuing a PhD in Immunology and I know that if I didn’t spend so much time on other ‘projects’ (for example, web design) I would be much further ahead. However, the time I spend learning other subjects is fun, new, and exciting. At this point, I really can’t say which is better.

    Figuring this out is crucial. One way to approach it is to first make sure you have more than enough time for your PhD work. (The “more” is crucial.) Then add in some regular time for the extra stuff. Only do what you can fit into that extra time. (Which can be a lot.)

  19. Sesil says:

    A man’s worth is no greater than his ambitions.
    Marcus Aurelius

    my point is simple, the words ambitions is used, implying multiple pursuits rather than a few. Lets not forget that this is the man who is considered the stoic of the ancient world.

  20. Study Hacks says:

    A man’s worth is no greater than his ambitions.
    Marcus Aurelius

    my point is simple, the words ambitions is used, implying multiple pursuits rather than a few. Lets not forget that this is the man who is considered the stoic of the ancient world.

    Let’s not also forget that Marcus learned his stoicism from Epictetus, who was his tutor. Though David would know more about this than me, my understanding is that the Meditations of Aurelius are considered to be the direct result of Epictetus’s influence.

  21. apricot says:

    i thought that it is only through exposing yourself to different areas that the mind learns to be creative when it starts drawing links between the various disciplines of study, helping you to develop fresh perspectives and to really stand out from the crowd. isn’t that one of the supposed advantage of a liberal arts education?

  22. Ed says:

    Great Post

    Here is something from Bob Sutton site that kind of ties in:

    Wisdom From Steve Jobs: The Importance of Killing Good Ideas

    basically says that if you are not killing a lot of good ideas, you are focusing on too many things and not getting any one thing done well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *