It showed up in my feed, as such inspirational quotes accompanied by inspiring pictures tend to do.
It might have been Instagram. Or Twitter. Or even LinkedIn.
“We are what we repeatedly do.” – Aristotle
Likely it’s been misattributed, as so many quotes on the Internet are – mistakenly identified as having been said by Oprah Winfrey, Winston Churchill, or Abraham Lincoln.
Literary sleuths say it sounds like something the great philosopher might have said, though there’s little proof.
“We are what we repeatedly do.”
What do you do, repeatedly?
I do a lot of laundry, it seems.
A lot of goal-setting. Coffee-drinking. Dog-walking.
Also, if I’m being honest here, a decent amount of complaining.
Here I am, complaining about how much I complain. It seems fitting.
In my defense, I don’t complain for complaint’s sake.
It turns out, I complain as a form of conversation, creating a relation between two people that says, “This happened to me, has it happened to you? I get you!”
Also, a way to show my life is none too perfect, should anyone presume from my social media accounts that it is.
Also, a way to show I have a sense of humor because many of my complaints are wacky “Can you believe what happened to me?”
But despite all my reasoning why my complaining is not, in fact, complaining, Aristotle’s quote suggests to me that by engaging in complaining I am, quite simply, a complainer.
Aristotle called me a complainer.
Yes, he did.
He thinks I’m a nagger, a nitpicker, a malcontent.
According to the Father of Western Philosophy, I’m a party-pooper.
A Negative Nancy. A Debbie Downer.
“We are what we repeatedly do.”
I complain. Therefore I am a complainer.
Aristotle’s quote goes on to say:
“Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
The very practice of repeatedly doing what I do – in this case, laundry or dog-walking or complaining – makes me excellent at it.
It’s like that other often seen yet unattributed quote:
“Practice makes perfect so be careful what you practice.”
Maybe Oprah said that. Or Winston Churchill. Or Abraham Lincoln. Who can say for sure?
You want to hear a complaint?
It turns out Aristotle never said, “We are what we repeatedly do.”
Students at Shimer College in Chicago conducted a “Fake Quotes” project to unearth original sources and their research suggests that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit,” was actually written by author Will Durant in “The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers” published in 1926. Not on any current Best Summer Beach Reads list.
Durant was summarizing Aristotle’s known writings.
So, Aristotle never said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Durant did, in his interpretation of Aristotle.
Years later, when offensive lineman Matt Light announced his retirement from the New England Patriots, he attributed the quote to the great philosopher and it’s since been repeated by many athletes, coaches, and performance gurus.
It’s now listed on BrainyQuotes and other sites as Aristotle’s own.
It seems so much grander coming from Aristotle.
According to Durant, what Aristotle actually wrote, sometime in his life between 384 to 322 BC, was:
“These virtues are formed in a man by his doing the actions.”
A similar sentiment.
Complaining, therefore, is a virtue created by action.
And there’s nothing excellent about that.
Our actions create our reality. They show who we are. Over time, we become our actions.
I don’t want to be a complainer. (Can I complain here about how I don’t want to be viewed as a complainer? Is that sealing my fate?)
Identifying our flaws and shortcomings is the first step to change. I’m making a plan – and a commitment to myself – to stop complaining the moment a reason to complain presents itself.
Yes, service is slow, I stepped in gum, my pants are too tight, it’s humid as a steam room, the cat yakked on the freshly cleaned carpet and the perfect avocado I bought was a rotten mess on the inside.
Aristotle wouldn’t have an issue with those things, would he?
That would be a killjoy.
With thanks to Aristotle or Will Durant or Matt Light, I’m aiming for improvement and overall positivity. I’m going to make a greater effort to cultivate the virtues I’d like my life to represent by way of my actions. Until it becomes not an act, but a habit.
Thanks, Aristotle, and whoever else said it after, for the lesson.
Now if only the laundry would do itself, I’d have less to complain about.
Valerie Gordon is an award-winning television producer, lifelong storyteller, and the founder of career and communication strategy firm The Storytelling Strategist. Her first book, “Fire Your Narrator! A Storyteller’s Guide to Getting Out of Your Head and Into Your Life” explores the impact of our inner stories on our external results. Read her other humor articles here.