Using Arete to Make Practical Decisions

Yesterday, I wrote about how arete can be used as a model for the meaning of life. Arete is an ancient Greek word which essentially means excellence or virtue. Today I’d like to drop back down to earth, and discuss how you can use arete in your daily life.

In my view there are three main ways you can apply arete to any actions you take, and therefore any decisions you need to make:

  1. Focusing on the arete of a decision you’ve already made.
  2. Selecting from two decisions, the decision with arete.
  3. Pursuing a direction of life that embodies arete.

Each of these three methods represents a different layer of life you can find arete. Arete, being the underlying quality, is the root from which happiness, service and all the other warm and fuzzy parts of life sprout from.

Arete in Action

The first place you can look for arete is within a decision you’ve already made. If this sounds somewhat confusing, let me explain with a story:

For those of you who don’t already know, I’m a 19 year-old university student. While this website now earns enough income that I don’t need a summer job this year, that hasn’t always been the case.

It was last summer and I need to go back home to work for my tuition. Unfortunately, I didn’t plan my job search well and was left with less than perfect options for work. I had worked as a lifeguard and first-aid instructor previously, but my job left when I left for school.

As a result, I ended up working at a Movie Gallery (similar to Blockbuster) for minimum wage. If I had planned ahead further, I probably could have found a better job. Instead I put off the job hunt too long and ended up renting movies part-time. Not exactly the most glamorous profession.

When I reached this point, I realized that my decision had already been made. Either my poor planning or inability to get this website up to a sustainable income level (which I reached in July of that summer) had left me working for $8 per hour. Since I couldn’t immediately change my position, I decided to focus on the arete of working there.

I summarized all the skills I felt I could build working: sales, customer service, discipline and focus. To me, these things had arete. Doing my best job had arete. I didn’t have to love the job, but if it had arete, I could still draw quality from it. If I could go back again, I wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean that, once there, I couldn’t find arete to focus on.

Arete in action simply means that you focus on the quality of the current moment. What can you do that has excellence here? This will be similar to Eckhart Tolle fans and those who’ve studied Eastern philosophies. While I’m not asserting that you should just sit back and be happy, you should still derive whatever quality you can from any situation you’re in.

Arete in Decisions

The second place you can use arete is in making a choice between two alternatives. Unlike the first situation, you have a choice. Here you strive to find the decision with the best arete, or highest quality.

This form of seeking arete is often found in setting goals. If you’re working at a job you hate and have bills mounting up, you’re in the first situation. Even if you set a goal to quit your job, you still need to earn a living for the current moment. Therefore, you should focus on drawing as much arete as you can from the situation.

Setting a goal, is a form of arete in decisions. Here you believe that there is more quality in your goal than the alternatives. While you can’t immediately change anything, the decision itself has a quality you can draw arete from. Once again, if this sounds confusing, I’ll use a personal story to explain:

Over two years ago I set an ambitious goal for myself: earn $20,000 a year from business activities. This was an ambitious goal because, as a 17-year old kid, I hadn’t earned more than a few dollars from business activities in my entire life. And those few dollars were from a lemonade stand I ran when I was 10.

This goal took the form of a decision. I could work hard to reach that mark, but it would involve sacrifices. I was, admittedly, far too isolated in my last year of high-school and traded an active social life for getting started towards this goal. While I’ve rectified much of this problem now, any goal will involve a decision that has tradeoffs.

I’m still not at that goal today, but I’m nearly 3/4 of the way there in terms of monthly revenue. With a few projects I have planned, I believe that goal is within reach.

The point is that I set the goal because, for me, it had arete. That decision had more quality to me than trying to invest my energies in trying to play high-school politics, work more at a job or become great at sports. Although I wouldn’t have described it with “arete” at the time, this process of choosing what has the highest quality was key to setting my goal.

When choosing between two alternatives, focusing on arete gets you to ask the question, “Which of these options has the most quality?” Before you start whining that this is an entirely subjective question, I suggest you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which delves into this problem and the nature of quality (and I credit for my own thoughts on arete).

Instead of focusing purely on your own happiness or service towards others, you ask which decision has arete.

Arete in Life

The final method for finding arete goes beyond focusing on individual actions or decisions. For the math geeks, this is the recursive application of this life algorithm. This is the art of pursuing arete beyond individual goals and in taking paths that will lead you towards further quality.

Just to summarize, the two methods for arete we currently have available are in actions and in decisions. With actions you are focused entirely on the present moment. This form of arete should be focused on regardless of what other methods you use. The second method means choosing between alternatives that have arete. This means goal setting and creative exploration.

The best way I can summarize the third method is by relating how I started on this journey a few years ago. I didn’t know what I was doing then, but as I look back on it, I can see that what I have really been pursuing is arete through this method.

A little over four years ago is when I really started investing in myself. Stumbling across a few self-improvement resources really changed my thinking about the world. Instead of viewing life as a fixed direction, I began to see how investing small amounts of energy in myself today could pay out huge dividends later.

This is the point in my life I started debugging my habits, taking more risks to find opportunities and started aiming to break out of my comfort zone. The implied goal of all this was to put myself in a situation where I would be able to make better decisions for quality and experience a greater quality of action.

A few years ago, I wouldn’t have had the self-discipline, knowledge or connections to enjoy many of the opportunities I have today. Many of the projects I’ve set up on this website would have been horribly mismanaged by myself four years ago. Many of the friends and experiences I’ve had would have been impossible if I hadn’t built up the skills to go looking for them.

This third form of arete is the quality of the direction you put into your life. Just as I believe individual decisions can have arete, I feel the total direction you take your life can have an arete as well.

Finding Arete Everywhere

As I mentioned in my last post, I feel one of the flaws of a service-oriented philosophy is that it can go into an infinite loop. You need a purpose for your purpose. That purpose also needs a purpose, which is for your purpose. This doesn’t mean the philosophy is useless, just that it isn’t iron-clad.

Arete can be seen as having a similarly recursive nature. You focus on quality in this moment. You also focus on decisions that create a greater quality in the moment. You focus on a direction in life that creates decisions that create a greater quality in the moment.

When your life algorithm is arete, however, this looping doesn’t weaken the philosophy. Focusing on quality in the moment isn’t diminished by your ability to make decisions for excellence, or to choose a direction in your life that has the highest arete. You could focus entirely on the first method, and still draw meaning from it.

This discussion about philosophies as life-algorithms might be best suited for a whole new article, so I won’t go further into this point.

In the end, this entire discussion can be summarized by asking yourself one question: “Does this have arete?” If you can answer the question, you can focus on it. Whether you are examining how you fold laundry or your entire direction for life.

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