Excellence is a habit

A quote you thought you knew, Little Blue Books, and 7 other things worth your time.

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An editor I worked with has asked me to find people like this to write about. So, who better to start with than the readers of Understandably? Reply to this email if interested.


Aristotle with an asterisk

Girard, Kansas is a small town, about 124 miles south of Kansas City. I’ve never been there, but here’s how Nicole Bradley described it in Kansas City magazine almost a year ago:

“[J]ust a few churches, a Sonic Drive-In and a family-owned appliance store.

But believe it or not, this heartland mining town with a population under 3,000 was once a hotbed of American socialism and home to one of the largest publishing houses in the country.”

In fact, Girard’s former glory also spawned a surprising story of misattribution —something that gives me the chance now to explore and tell this whole story.

It unfolds like this. Girard was home to Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, who wound up there after buying a newspaper, and later published a wildly popular series of pamphlets called Little Blue Books during the middle 50 years or so of the 20th century.

The best analogy I can think of today would be the “for Dummies” series.

Only, the Little Blue Book topics topics were less “how to,” and also much edgier—things like Sex Life in Greece and Rome, (1924), Is Hitler a Maniac? (1939) and the one that prompts my mentioning all of this today, The Story of Aristotle’s Philosophy (1922).

That short book was written by a struggling adult education teacher and philosopher named Will Durant, from New York City. He wound up in that position after Haldeman-Julius happened to stop in briefly at one of his lectures—on Plato—and offered him $150 to turn his notes on the philosopher into a Little Blue Book.

Durant later recalled:

“Had he passed by 20 minutes earlier or later he probably would not have stopped. … But he did stop. … I could refuse neither his courage nor his check. Sometime later he sent me another check for a booklet on Aristotle. Before long there were 11 such booklets.”

Ultimately, Simon & Schuster took notice, and contracted to combine the 11 short books into a single volume called The Story of Philosophy, which came out in 1926. And this was was massively successful, selling 3 million copies, and completely changing the course of Durant’s life.

We’ll get to that in a second, but first I want to focus on a short passage from the book. Tell me if you spot the issue. You can zero in on the bolded part if this gets a little TL;DR.

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, rather we have these because we have acted rightly; “these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions;” we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: “the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life; … for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

Those two sentences, which were apparently written by a nearly indigent teacher who had just landed a book deal in the 1920s, are usually—nay, almost universally and apparently incorrectly—attributed to the philosopher Aristotle, who died 2,200 years before.

Now, if you write or read about leadership, or business, or anything kind of self-help-y now, you’ve come across the quote repeatedly.

Heck, in eight years of writing for Inc.com, I’ve used the line at least nine times according to search results—including an article that I wrote over the weekend that led me down this rabbit hole.

Truthfully, it’s probably top 10 among my favorite quotes of all time. I was definitely going to include it in the free book of inspirational quotes I’m working on, and that I’ll share here in another 10 days or so.

Maybe I’ll keep it, but with an asterisk.

It’s still a great quote, and even if Aristotle never said this exactly, there are a lot of other things he did write or say that make the same point, maybe with a bit less rhetorical flourish and cadence when translated into English.

Plus, Durant got rich as a result of the book. In fact, he made enough Durant made from The Story of Philosophy was enough to cover him for life, and allowed him and his wife, Ariel Durant, to travel the world and write together for decades.

They went on to produce an 11-volume history together called The Story of Civilization, which was even more successful, and won a Pulitzer prize.

I suppose that’s the neat little bow with which I’d like tie this all together.

Durant spent the rest of his life working diligently to write an acclaimed, 10,000-page, 4-million word treatise, along with a number of other works.

In other words, he came up with this pithy line about excellence and habit, and then basically lived up to it for the rest of his life.

Anyway, the quote lives on. At this point I think it has to be “Aristotle with an asterisk,” even if that’s a compromise on the truth. We get to ride the Greek philosopher’s coattails, of course, and it gives the whole thing more punch.

Plus since almost everyone thinks that he said it, I’d have to go into an 800-word digression to explain the origin every time.

Of course now, I can just link to this article.


7 other things worth your time

  • What do you know? Congress is close to passing a stimulus bill. President Trump is expected to sign it. Among other things, it includes a $600 payment per person for Americans — although it phases out at certain income levels. (If you made more than $99,000 during 2019, you don’t get anything.) Also: more jobless benefits, an additional $284 billion for first and second forgivable PPP loans, another “$20 billion for targeted grants,” which … hmmm… seems like a big number with few details, and other benefits. (CNN, WashPost $)

  • Older adults and “front-line essential workers” will get the Covid vaccine next in the U.S. Also, President-elect Biden’s choice for surgeon general says other Americans might not be able to get it until late summer or early fall 2021. (NBC News, Daily Beast)

  • Much of the United Kingdom is now under an intense lockdown — on that will last through Christmas in some areas including London — “after a mutation of the coronavirus was discovered spreading rapidly through the population of London and the southeast and east of England.” People tried to flee London before the lockdown began; to no avail, in some cases. (NPR, Bloomberg)

  • Parents at an incredibly exclusive and expensive New York City private school are reportedly “in an uproar” after faculty wrote an 8-page manifesto demanding the $54,180-a-year school donate half of its fundraising to the New York public schools, among other things, as part of an anti-racism agenda. (NY Post)

  • A United Airlines passenger died on board a plane, reportedly of complications from Covid symtoms, after supposedly denying having symptoms at check-in. (Buzzfeed News)

  • A Michigan man who was sentenced to life without parole and spent nearly 40 years in state prison on an arson charge has been released, after a key witness against him admitted she made up her testimony and the charges were dismissed. “I’ve been holding it in for all these years,” the witness said. I denied them for years, I ignored [his lawyers] for a long time, and when they came back to me again I just went on and told them the truth.” (MLive)

  • The heart wants what it wants: I swore I wouldn’t click this article, and then I read the whole thing. It’s about a former Bloomberg reporter who covered the trial of Martin Shkreli (remember the “Pharma Bro?”), and says she fell in love with him. She quit her job, left her husband, commuted back and forth from NYC to Pennsylvania where he’s imprisoned, and now wants to tell her story. Also, wants a book deal, and this article probably won’t hurt the odds. (Elle)

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