I’m not one for inspirational quotations, but from time to time I do hold on to a turn of phrase that I find resonant, particularly if it relates to the craft of writing. This one is particularly special to me:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy
Durant’s quotation eloquently summarizes a section of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and the sentiment has gone on to be paraphrased (and/or misattributed) dozens of other times. The same idea shows up in other famous quotations, like the proverb,“Practice makes perfect;” Woody Allen’s, “Eighty percent of success is showing up;” Gretchen Rubin’s, “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while;” Ira Glass’s, “The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work;” even in a sense Benjamin Franklin’s, “I am a strong believer in luck and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”
I love Durant’s verbalization of the idea because each simple sentence contains such a loaded concept. First, the activity or behavior someone performs often is the one that defines him or her. It is the descriptor others reach for to identify him or her. It is a behavior, career, or pastime that discerns him or her from the other people in the community. “Jen, the painter, not the marathon runner.” “Andrew, that guy who’s always so loud.” It’s the answer to that customary second or third question in an introductory conversation, “What do you do?” In terms of amateur writing, it’s a truism that can sting: if you don’t sit down and write very often, are you really a writer?
The second sentence is the one that dazzles. In essence, the activity that someone chooses to repeat becomes a habit or even a skill. Human nature’s powers of adaptability and aptitude drive us all to master the things we do over, and over, and over again. I see this concept brought to life repeatedly with my clients. Fostering a writing habit for them is hard at first, but three weeks or three months in they realize that the resistance is gone. At will, they can call on the creative part of themselves and summon the words. The quality of the writing improves with every piece.
When looking forward to a big goal, this quotation offers a comforting reminder that simply showing up, over and over again, counts for plenty.