Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

New Year’s Advice from Epictetus: Don’t Get Started

January 12th, 2014 · 24 comments

Epictetus

The New Year, of course, is celebrated as a time to commit to bold new ideas. American culture emphasizes this period because we valorize action.

(If you doubt this attitude, watch an episode of ABC’s Shark Tank, a show in which a cattle call of budding entrepreneurs are invariably praised for their courage, even though most put their family into massive debt to produce an ill-fated injection molded trinket.)

I find it useful during this giddy season to remember that an emphasis on getting started, though currently popular, is not timeless.

Case in point, my friend Dale Davidson recently sent me a smart quote on this subject from the first century stoic philosopher, Epictetus:

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.

Epictetus doesn’t reject action. But he believes commitment to a pursuit must be preceded by the careful study of what is actually required for success.

He uses the Olympic games as an example. He notes that participating in the event seems glamorous on the surface, but a closer examination of what this requires reveals that you must:

…conform to rules, submit to a diet, refrain from dainties; exercise your body, whether you choose it or not, at a stated hour, in heat and cold; you must drink no cold water, nor sometimes even wine.

For most budding ancient athletes, Epictetus implies, this reality would likely dim the glamor of pursuing the Olympics. But not for everyone. As he then concludes:

When you have evaluated all this, if your inclination still holds, then go to war [emphasis mine].

I like this decision-making framework.

When considering a major endeavor, Epictetus teaches, first master its reality. This requires that you put aside your vision of how a pursuit should unfold, and embrace the reality of what’s actually required to succeed (a surprisingly difficult, and often sobering endeavor).

Most ideas subject to such scrutiny will end up discarded.

To Epictetus, that’s fine.

What matters is that when you come across that rare pursuit for which your inclination still holds — even after a thorough examination — you “go to war.”

24 thoughts on “New Year’s Advice from Epictetus: Don’t Get Started

  1. Graean says:

    Cal, your writing has become more succinct. Sentences come fast and I see your matured opinions. You let ideas carry themselves. Epictetus and Shark Tank show you form a view after consulting many perspectives. You say you like Epictetus and don’t hide or make more controversy. And you end hard–“go to war”.

    Good writing is fun and fearsome. Yours is too. I like it.

  2. Dave Small says:

    Another outstanding post Cal.

    In any serious endeavor there are enough unpredictable consequences. It seems foolish to ignore the predictable ones?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I like that summary…

  3. Hector says:

    Hmm..but are real life scenarios as easy to contemplate as they look? For e.g. what if someone belives that one would be able to bear the brunt of Olympics preparation but breaks down once one is already AT WAR. We have an innate habit or overjudging ourselves, which perhaps is good if done to a mild degree coz it helps one push forward. So how does one improve his research of what lies beyond in ones’ path, when one has not travelled it in practicallity?

  4. Stephan R says:

    This is another quote by Epictetus that is simple and yet so powerful:

    “It’s so simple really: If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you start something, finish it.”

  5. I’m delighted to see you discuss Epictetus!

    I suspect this quote is adapted from Epictetus’ Discourses 3.23.1-6. It is a great passage because it emphasizes the role of *talent* and *proper training of that talent*. A little later, after the quoted passage, Epictetus adds that you have to go about the business of being *good* at what you do, not thirsting after praise of the mob (3.23.6-9). Epictetus’ motto would be “So Good Who Cares If They Hate You.”

    Epictetus certainly believes that we each differ in our talents, but he joins that observation to an emphasis on hard training of your talents. As he says elsewhere (contrasting a bull to other cattle) “a bull does not become a bull all at once, any more than a man becomes noble, but a man must undergo a winter training [i.e. training even in the “off season”], he must prepare himself and must not plunge recklessly into what is inappropriate for him” (1.2.32-33).

    Brian E. Johnson, author of “The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life”
    Department of Philosophy
    Fordham University

  6. SR says:

    So how does one improve his research of what lies beyond in ones’ path, when one has not travelled it in practicallity?

    Experience. Early in life, you will fail often. Each failure is a lesson. Recognize when sunk costs are sunk and know when to bail. Slowly you will learn to estimate paths better, until you find one you can stay on.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I agree that experience can be a good teacher. But its importance is perhaps over emphasized. There are many pursuits for which much knowledge of their reality if easily obtainable, yet many ignore this step, jump in, and almost always fail (e.g., writing books, getting hired at a certain company, etc.) Sometimes we don’t want to know the truth because we already like the plan we have (I run into this problem all the time in my own life!).

      1. James Coombs says:

        I wrote my reply before I read this comment… Cal, you’ve just summed up what I’ve been struggling against for the last five years of my life. You’ve no idea how much that validation means. Thank you.

        – James

    2. SR says:

      “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” – Steve Jobs

      It takes courage, but it’s rewarding. My problem has been listening too much to the opinions of others and not doing what I want. As soon as I began doing what I wanted, life became better and I feel more control over my career. Secondhand accounts are often a poor way to discover the truth. Nothing can beat firsthand experience.

  7. Excellent post Cal, and thank you again for the deep insights.

    To implement, it sounds like we’d be better served to spend time researching the habits and systems associated with what we want to accomplish. Then as we read varying sources on the subject, we should look to challenge our own assumptions we build up.

    This way, we spend time ‘failing’ before we start.

    In this post, you seem to suggest we should focus on setting up the systems and habits around the pursuit.

    Does this sound about right? If not, where am I off?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      More than just habits and systems, it worth understanding the reality of how difficult something is and what hurdles must be cleared to make the goal possible.

      To draw from personal experience: If you want to be a professor at a tier-one institution, for example, it is essentially unavoidable that you need to do your PhD institution at one of the world’s best schools for your subject. So if you’re a middle of the pack undergraduate for whom these schools are not realistic, the professor path is not open, unless you’re able and willing to become a star in your department before graduation. This is an example of a reality check that a lot of people avoid until it’s too late…

  8. This advice reminds me of this line – “Are you willing to pay the price?”. To answer, you must know what the price is. If you answer “yes”, then “go to war”.

    I’m guessing your readers follow this advice early in the process and without giving it much thought unlike the contestants of “Shark Tank”.

  9. Eder says:

    I couldn’t actually understand this post. It started really nice. When you talked about not rushing to start something at all cost, because it may not pay off considering a careful holistic point of view. But “when you come across that rare pursuit for which your inclination still holds” sounds pretty much like that vague passion-talk that we learned to be skeptical about, don’t you think?
    So, would you mind clarifying how “inclinations” are different from “passions” under your framework and semantics?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      The key to Epictetus’s “inclination” quote is that he means: if you still have an “inclination” for a goal even after doing rigorous research on the reality of achieving the goal, then go after it.

      In other words, he is not talking about how you choose what field you’re in. He’s instead talking about how you choose and commit to goals within your field.

  10. James Coombs says:

    When I was 18, I started a business straight out of high school. It was my dream.

    After 18 months of running up debt and not achieving much, I had the foresight to pack it in before I got in too deep and risked bankruptcy.

    But, after the pain of failure, I still wanted to be an entrepreneur… and I decided that instead of jumping straight in again, I should first prepare.

    I’ve now spent five years preparing including attending business school and completing Josh Kaufman’s 99-business-book reading list.

    During that time people kept telling me I should just get on with it. “Just do it” they said.

    Trying to explain why I didn’t want to “just do it” has been painful as hell.

    There’s a ton of material in the self-help space telling everyone to “just do it” but there’s almost NOONE telling people when it’s better to hold back; when you should wait until you have enough career capital (thanks Cal) to ensure a good chance of success.

    Anyway… After five years of learning, considering, and experimenting (little bets); I now know what being an entrepreneur means, both the good and the bad.

    It’s no longer my dream.

    It’s now the thing I know best. How I can add most value to the world.

    It’s my craft.

    – James (Still an apprentice, soon to be a journeyman)

  11. Eduardo says:

    There’s a technique for that, it’s called WOOP or Wish-Objective-Obstacle-Plan. When you find a deep wish in your psyche, you must specify a concrete objective in an specific timeframe. After that, you have to recognise all the possible obstacles that are between you and the achievement of your objective. Finally, you have to plan the steps, and implement intentions with this structure “if (obstacle), then (action)”.

    Apart from the previous technique, having a sensory visualization of the achievement of your goal creates the motivation for not giving up. Emotions are key for persevering.

    pd: sorry for my english.

  12. Ian Gregory says:

    Great post!

    I sometimes tutor students on entrepreneurship for a UK University, and have a bit of experience starting businesses myself (with varying levels of success). Its interesting that the University (and many others) now teaches the work of Alex Osterwalder – basically prototype the business model at negligible cost – test – repeat until you find a model that works. You can often gauge response to an idea through a bit of social media/Google ads/Kickstarter campaign. This is a much better approach than running up loads of debt on a hunch, and frankly I wish I’d come across it before I started my early businesses. There’s lots of material on his website (Please note – I have no connection with him)

  13. AC says:

    I think it’s worth noting that a lot of the “just get started” advice is aimed at people who are struggling with procrastination when it comes to relatively small things, or tiny component parts of a larger project. Like exercising, or eating healthily, or doing school work.

    I haven’t actually read any advice anywhere that says “just get started” on burning through tens of thousands of dollars/pounds/euros etc of your own money in pursuit of something that may not work out.

    I agree that one shouldn’t decide to plough loads of time, effort and money into a business venture or big career decision without first doing some research into it. You need to decide whether or not it’s a viable option in the long run. What will your return on investment be?

    But what about doing that research to find out whether my proposal is viable? I should just get started on the research!

    Make sense?

    There are times when planning and research is necessary, and there are times when planning and research is nothing more than delaying the inevitable point, where eventually, you have to just starting writing that book, send that email, submit that form, make that phone call, sign that contract, do that school work etc.

  14. omeir says:

    once again,a thought provoking article . I have shared a similar thought on my blog that but have given the reality check a term called counting the cost. It all boils down to counting the cost – nothing worth comes easily therefore you must first sit down and think hard on what it take to achieve what you are trying to , and if you are ready to pay for that in terms of right type and amount of work then go for it.

  15. Francis says:

    Just read an old article of yours about Epiticus “A Greek Philosopher tackles Student Activities.”2008 post.Wow!

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