The Aristotelian Path to Excellence at Work

For many, work is simply a means to an end. I don’t blame them. If you don’t find meaning at work, it will feel like the biggest necessary burden. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle thought work was integral to a good life. He didn’t see all forms of work as equally valuable for achieving a flourishing life.

He warns against activities that solely pursue wealth, power, or fleeting pleasure. He believed people are naturally inclined towards activity, and through work, we develop our skills, contribute to a common good, and fulfill a sense of purpose.

After my graduate program in software entrepreneurship, I started working for myself because I felt it was the only way to live the life I truly wanted. I rejected an offer from a prestigious software company to pursue online projects. Digging deeper into topics I’m curious about and sharing in public has always been a great experience. I learn, share and earn in the process. It took me a while to make writing a viable income source. But it’s thrilling and exciting. I’m exploring topics I enjoy reading about and sharing what I find online.

Aristotle argued the ultimate aim of human life is not simply survival but “eudaimonia”, often translated as “happiness.” But more accurately understood as “living well” or “flourishing.” Living well, Aristotle argued, is not achieved through fleeting pleasures or the accumulation of wealth but through the ongoing pursuit of moral action (praxis) and intellectual contemplation (theōria).

Work, then, becomes a crucial element in this pursuit of eudaimonia. It allows us to use our talents, hone our skills, and contribute meaningfully to society. However, not just any work contributes to eudaimonia.

Areté, often translated as “virtue,” is a concept Aristotle thought was vital to personal excellence. Virtues are not innate qualities but habits and dispositions honed through consistent practice. In the context of work, it means qualities like diligence, honesty, and justice. “All persons ought to endeavor to follow what is right, and not what is established,” Aristotle argued. He thought our work should be aligned with virtue. It transcends mere skills for doing our jobs and extends to character traits for life.

What’s the telos of your work?

The Aristotelian framework for work stresses the value of teleology, the idea that everything has a purpose. Applied to work, Aristotle suggests we seek activities that align with our “telos” (‘purpose’, or ‘goal’). A job that simply provides a paycheck, even a substantial one, might not contribute to our flourishing if it fails to engage our talents or offer a sense of purpose. “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work,” says Aristotle. If you can’t achieve your purpose at work, invest in a set of experiences outside work that get’s you closer to your telos.

Now, here’s a potential point of contention.

Economic realities necessitate taking on work that may not perfectly align with your ideal purpose. However, the Aristotelian framework highlights a valuable nuanced perspective. While acknowledging the constraints of the modern demands of work, Aristotle wants us to pursue opportunities to inject elements of virtue and purpose into our existing work wherever possible. That means finding ways to use your talents creatively, contributing to a greater purpose beyond personal gain.

I rejected the job as a marketing manager because I felt my creative expression would suffer, something that’s incredibly important to me. It was definitely a hard call to turn it down. But I had to prioritise my long-term goal and the kind of fulfilment I’ve always wanted in my career.

That life-changing decision wasn’t just about the here and now, but about setting myself up for a future where I feel genuinely engaged and fulfilled in my work. “At the intersection where your gifts, talents, and abilities meet a human need; therein you will discover your purpose,” Aristotle said.

Aristotle also talked about the concept of finding the “golden mean. Basically, avoid the extremes. He argued virtues are not simply avoiding vices, but rather finding the middle ground between an excess and a deficiency.“The best things are placed between extremes, he wrote. Don’t assume a laidback approach to work, but also don’t be a workaholic. Aim for that sweet spot where you’re challenged but not overwhelmed. It also means finding balance between work and personal commitments.

I struggle to achieve Aristotle’s ideal state between work and life. Work sometimes extend into time away from it. My personal “telos” (goal) has always been time freedom (the ability to choose when and how I spend my time). According to research, autonomy over your life and time has a better impact on your quality of life than wealth. But as much as I plan experiences outside work that contributes to eudaimonia, I end up spending more time working than I scheduled. I’m getting there.

My telos is a work in progress.

Key takeaways

While the specifics of work may have changed dramatically since Aristotle’s time, the core human needs are the same. Despite these differences, people have always sought the same core things from work. We want our work to be meaningful and give us a sense of purpose. We need to make a living (financial gain), and ideally, our work allows us to develop our skills and grow(personal growth).

I like how Aristotle describes the steps to getting what you want in life. “First, have a definite, clear, practical ideal, a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end.”

As you strive to excel in your profession, don’t lose sight of the bigger purpose: to live well, flourish, and contribute meaningfully to the world around you. Use Aristotle’s eudaimonia, virtue principles, teleology and golden mean to demand the very best from yourself.

Do more great work.

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Categorized as Work