Examining Epictetus #13: Becoming Beautiful

Question #1: What makes a human being beautiful?

Is it the filter on your Instagram picture? Is it the cosmetics, the surgeries, the nips, tucks, or lifts? Those things may change perception aligning you closer to society’s beliefs of what is beautiful. But does this really make you a beautiful human being? And in the end, will time not eventually prevail? Our outer shell is going to deteriorate. It is going to succumb to the ravages of nature. Our bodies are destined to return to the earth.

We might find attraction in pretty things, but pretty things do not last. And they do not make a human being beautiful.

Question #2: Shouldn’t it be the excellence of a human being?

If you cultivate the spirit and the soul, it will not deteriorate. Unlike the body, it will last forever. How do you make this excellent? Not through riches, fame, or the number of social media followers. No. If we would be excellent, then we must be good. We must find virtue. Only through wisdom, discipline, justice, and courage can we attain unto excellence. Only through virtue can we truly have faith, hope, and love. This is what we must strive for. This will make us excellent human beings.

What then makes a man beautiful? Is it not the possession of the excellence of a man? And do you, then, if you wish to be beautiful, young man, labour at this, the acquisition of human excellence.

Epictetus, Discourses 3.1

The Shortcut Is not the Way

When I was younger, I thought the shortcut was the way. In High School, I loved reading Muscle and Fitness. From the pages of those magazines, I was drawn to the one magic exercise for accelerated growth. I was intrigued by the miraculous supplement guaranteeing a 300% increase in fat loss. There was some real substance in those editions, but it was the fluff that captured my attention.

What I learned (eventually) was that taking the magic and the miraculous never worked for me. There was only one way to get stronger and leaner. I had the do the work. And the work was not a shortcut, it was an incremental daily improvement mixed with the right nutrition.

The lure of quick success was not limited only to the fitness magazines. I was also intrigued by the infomercials promising a way to get rich quick. They were most appealing when I was in between jobs or at a job I didn’t prefer. I am glad I never broke down and paid for the $1000 secrets that would guarantee me millions, but the temptation was there. But what if I missed out on the golden opportunities? I’m fine with that. If I were in my twenties with millions to burn, there is a good chance I would not have become the man I am today.

We must remember that it is a long process to get where we want to be in life. It is a journey that we may never finish. But we must not be in a hurry to get through it. It is a process that makes us better individuals. By rushing through it, we miss the opportunity to add depth, quality, and texture to our personal evolutions. C.S. Lewis said it wasn’t the load that breaks us down, it is the way we carry it. Likewise, it is not the destination that matters, but who we become along the way. No shortcuts to any place worth going. Those words from Beverly Sills hit the mark. Take the long way. You won’t regret it.

Attaching a Value to Can’t

In the book Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey wrote about one of the life lessons he learned as a boy. The first time he was “whupped” was for responding to Matt. He was told that he was not named after a doormat. The second time was for saying, “I hate you.” The third for saying can’t. The fourth for lying about stealing a pizza. It wasn’t the stealing that warranted the punishment but getting caught and then lying about it. What was the lesson he learned from these instances?

I only ever got in real trouble for the using or doing of the words that could harm me. Words that hurt. The words that helped engineer who I am because they were more than just words; they were expectations and consequences. They were values.

Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey

I have written in the past about the value of a name and on the virtue of Justice, which includes lying. But the use of the word can’t, this one hit the mark. Words have value. So, what is the value of this one?

Alec likes to use the word can’t frequently. If it is too difficult, too hard to understand, or requires too much effort, the default statement is, “I can’t.” I have never spanked him for saying this, unlike McConaughey’s punishment, but it has crossed my mind. He is too young to be setting artificial boundaries on his abilities.

Can’t means not possible. The value is concrete. When we overutilize this word, we put too much concrete around us. We put up barriers to what is within our abilities. Can’t is the governor on a Ferrari that reduces the car’s maximum speed from over 200 to 150 miles per hour, it is the speed limit that sets its maximum legal speed to 70, and it is the poor maintenance on the tires that further reduces it down to a safe speed of 30. Can’t is the boundaries that takes a supercar designed for speed and reduces it down to a substandard vehicle barely safe for the road.

Why put limitations on yourself by saying you can’t do it? This word has power, but it is not the kind you want to wield. Instead of saying can’t think of what it would take to make it happen. Maybe it is not possible today. But with the training, effort, and a different perspective, it could be possible tomorrow. As Les Brown said, “Life has no limitations except the ones you make.”

Your Enemies

For some high-adventure reading chocked full of action with a healthy mixture of historical facts and figures, I would recommend Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe Series. The series follows the fictional life of Richard Sharpe, a career soldier in the early 19th century.

One of Sharpe’s assignments was leading the 95th Rifle Regiment in the British Army. This unit was an advanced skirmisher company. Instead of having to stand in formation trading volleys of gunfire with the enemy, they would employ a type of guerilla warfare and harass them. Much like wolves unable to attack a herd of buffalo, they would look for weaknesses to exploit. They were an annoyance to the enemy and could slow down their progress.

Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe by Dennis Budd on DeviantArt

Who are your enemies?

We may not be fighting in a war, but we do have enemies in our lives. And like the 95th Rifles, our enemies like to employ skirmishers. Your enemies could be:

  • Viruses. Whether they are on your computer or in your body, they have one goal. Viruses look for points of weakness to exploit. Once they find the weakness, they can do their work of destruction.
  • Like the viruses attacking our bodies, we have addictions that wreak similar havoc. Sugar, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and all the other ones that give you a temporary high in exchange for long-term, slow-growing problems like diabetes, liver/lung cancer, and all the other self-induced diseases.
  • And then there are other people. For some reason, they have their problems with you. They would like nothing better than to see you stumble in some sort of way. They want to find and exploit your weaknesses. To gain an edge, they will highlight your mistakes, sabotage your work, and spread rumors to sully your reputation.

The benefit of enemies

What can we learn from those who attack our weakest areas? Looking into the mirror, I often only see what I want to see. Somehow, I am less inclined to see the flaws. But if I look at a photograph, the story is different. My eyes noticed the flaws that were overlooked in the mirror. My posture, the way my gut hangs out, and the fit of my clothes can no longer be ignored by the bias of the mirror. Without the mirror, I would continue in my self-deception.

We tend to over-estimate our good points and look beyond our weaknesses. When we do this, we fail to fix the things that need fixing. Our enemies do not look at us through the mirror of self-deception but instead through the photograph. There are no filters to gloss over all the flaws and weaknesses. Once they know where to point their attack, they can hit us where it hurts. And while it does hurt, it also gives us an opportunity to grow. Now that we know what our weaknesses are, we can work in those areas and strengthen them. We should be grateful the enemy pointed this out. Without their help, we would continue in our delusion.

“Pay attention to your enemies,” said the Greek philosopher Antisthenes, “for they are the first to discover your mistakes.” To ignore them would be perilous. But to use them to your advantage would arm yourself against future attacks. Be grateful for the opportunity to grow. You can even take the high road and thank your enemies for pointing out these weaknesses. Who knows? You may even remove the reason why they are your enemies in the first place.

A Fruitful Mind

The dark soil. The kind you can see the richness of without even touching it. And when you do touch it, you can feel its potential. Imagine the years it took to get its composition. Whatever is planted in it would surely thrive.

Then there is the other soil. It is not perfect, but it is not bad either. It can be conditioned to maximize its potential. What you put into it will determine what you get out of it. It will take some work, but you can plant in it and still get good results.

Your mind is like the soil. Most of us are not born with the super-rich mixture, but what we do have is still good. We can condition it and add nutrients to it. And the more wholesome the nutrients, the higher the quality our minds become. You will be able to plant almost anything in it. Once it is planted, keep watering it. Give it plenty of sunshine and air. If those tender shoots start to wilt, fertilize it with some emotion. You are the farmer. It is your job to bring that seedling of hope into a fruitful reality.

Photo by Nikola Jovanovic on Unsplash

Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish with repetition and emotion will one day become reality.

Earl Nightingale

Emperor’s Log #11: All the Small Things

There was a time when I managed a very profitable furniture store in Florida. Of all the stores in the region, this store had the highest dollars per transaction. The sales staff was optimized to drive this key metric. They were engaged, energetic, and proud of their sales abilities.

And then there came a day when it all changed. The top brass of the organization decided to change direction. No longer were they interested in the higher ticket sales. They gave us a new mission: get more customers to buy regardless of the amount they were spending. They told us it would be better to convert a higher percentage of our traffic into sales.

Old model: 20% of 100 customers spending $150 = $3,000

New model: 40% of 100 customers spending $20 = $800

We had no choice to comply. Our merchandise assortment began to change. The big-ticket items were replaced with smaller ones. Our sales began to plummet. At the same time, the economy was going through a difficult recession. I could no longer support the highly curated sales force in my store. Without the high average sales, hours were cut. Motivation was lost. All this happened around eleven years ago. Today, that company that had over 1,000 stores finally shut the doors on its last 500. Bankrupt.

In a highly competitive market, to change your identity is a dangerous choice. The goal is profitability, and there are several different ways to achieve it. Did this company make the right choice? I don’t believe so. There could have been several factors that finally brought this company down. Maybe:

  • The world lost its interest and moved on,
  • They got ate up by the bigger dogs in the market, or
  • The economy dictated that basic needs were more necessary than specialized wants.

Whatever it was, they were no longer competitive. The end goal should have been profitability and somewhere along the way, they got bogged down until they had no choice to shut down.

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

I would love to say that on an individual level on I am immune from such catastrophes, but am I? How many times have I lost the big picture and got mired in the bog? How many times has my attention been diverted onto something of little or no significance? No doubt, it has been way too many times. When I think I see the path so clearly ahead, I still get squirreled. When it happens again, and it will happen again, I must not give it more time than it deserves. I need to address it quickly and move on.

A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve. -Marcus Aurelius

Peace Within

You can’t buy it. Somebody can wish it upon you, but that does not mean you will have it.

If you find that peace has departed from you, figuring out how to get it back is a must. What is it within you that is preventing you from having peace? Answer that question, and then you have the starting point to finding it.

At the end of the day, it is your actions that will make the difference. Do the right thing, and you will have peace. Do the wrong thing, and  you won’t have peace until you make amends.

More than Praying

I was maybe ten or eleven, when I first read the following passage from the Bible:

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.

Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties.

Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number.

So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this.

So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice,

I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be.

Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings.”

I Kings 3:5-13

It was one of those first “aha” moments I remember. God told Solomon he could have anything he wanted. What did Solomon ask for? He did not ask for wealth, honor, or riches, but for understanding and wisdom. And God gave him wisdom, maybe more than anybody else. On top of the wisdom, He gave Solomon all the things he didn’t ask for, making him one of the wealthiest kings of history.

At that young age, I thought I found the key to conquering the world. From I Kings and Solomon’s writings in Proverbs, I had the secret formula for wisdom. All I had to do was ask for it. I got down on my knees and with all the might I could muster closed my eyes and prayed, “Oh Lord, I beg you, give me the wisdom of Solomon.” Okay, so I know it was no small request. But if you are going to go big, you might as well go all the way.

For ten years I continued that prayer. And for years, God laughed at me and said, “Foolish child, am I some desert genii here to obey your wishes?” I could imagine his laughter. It wasn’t scorn so much as it was amusement at my silliness. What did I expect to happen? Would I one day wake up to become the sage of this generation?

In time, those prayers were put to the side. I was getting older and other priorities grabbed my attention. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was reminded of those youthful prayers. After all, it was back in those days that the seeds were planted. And like well-preserved seeds, they began to come to life after a little nourishment.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Are my prayers being answered by God? No doubt, this could be a debatable topic that both sides could argue. Maybe Solomon woke up one day with an extraordinary amount of wisdom, but that doesn’t usually happen to ordinary guys like me. Wisdom is available to the masses, but it doesn’t come without a price. You must work for it. It is earned, not given.

There is a step to wisdom. Over the years I read it over and over, but it took time for it to sink in. Consider these words from Proverbs:

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. (2:6)

The wise store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin. (10:14)

Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge. (23:12)

Buy the truth and do not sell it —wisdom, instruction and insight as well. (23:23)

Over and over, Solomon repeats these words.

Knowledge and understanding. Plant the seeds of knowledge within your mind. Nourish it with understanding. Reap the fruits of wisdom. Prayer alone won’t do the trick. Wishing with all your might is not good enough. As James Allen said, our wishes and prayers are only answered when they harmonize with our thoughts and actions.

Regretting Things Undone

In The Biggest Bluff, Maria Konnikova wrote one short paragraph that shook me to the core. She mentions a poker player named “X” and says this about him:

That was the only time I ever saw him. The chaos of life is greater than the chaos of games. And now X is dead, and all his future books remain unwritten.

When it comes to books that is my biggest fear. Will I get this stuff out of my head before I die?  I want quality and an enduring legacy to leave behind for my family, but none of that is possible if I don’t get the words written down.

What is it in your life that you need to get done? What is it that you would regret if like “X” you died before finishing? It reminds me Paulo Coelho’s words from The Alchemist, “There was nothing holding him back but himself.” Don’t let it happen to you.

Constancy of Purpose

Success. We hear it all the time. We relate it to winning, which means a lack of success can be equated to losing. Everybody wants to be successful. Nobody wants to be a loser. What does it mean to win? A question like this we can agree on. What does it mean to be successful? That is a little trickier, and there is a good chance our definitions are going to be different.

There are many out there that will happily give you their secret to success. All you have to do is Google what you are interested in, find the experts, sign up to get on their email list, and then hurry up and pay for their limited-time offer into their next online course. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy. If you want the shortcut to success, their way is the path that will get you there.

Photo by qi xna on Unsplash

But consider another alternative. Consider:

  • Stephen Curry shooting a basketball,
  • Mike Tyson throwing a punch,
  • Usain Bolt going out for a run, or
  • Lewis Hamilton taking another lap in the car.

Imagine the hours of repetition. Not just one day, but nearly everyday for years and years. There was a constancy of purpose to the skill they were trying to acquire. They didn’t rely solely on genetics or talent. They relied on work and on practice. When we watch them and are amazed by the ease with which they perform at the highest level, we only see the finished product. We don’t see what they did to get there. Their success on the grand stage underneath the bright lights was built when the world wasn’t watching.

There is a secret potion to success, but you won’t find it in a get-rich-quick type of scam. The potion is made of three parts: blood, sweat, and tears. These ingredients must be continually resupplied to the potion and cured over time. It is there if you want it. Best wishes!