On the telos

April 14, 2007 — 3 Comments

“Does the soul not govern the conduct of life? And the soul is to be measured in terms of its excellence and defects? If the soul lacks excellence, it cannot perform well?

Then a person with a bad soul will govern his life badly. The person with a good soul will govern his life well.”


The more I read the more I become convinced that life’s only meaning from that which ascribe to it. That purpose exists only when your project and live it daily. That the only good life is one filled with excellent action. And I find this to be especially significant in Greek and Roman literature–and then again recently with Coelho’s concept of a personal legend or Pressfield’s book, The War of Art.

But I’ve been drawn to the Greek concept of eudaimonia–the idea of happiness is a product of living productively. That’s meant in the literal sense, productive–results.

“Then we may generalize to say that all things have a function which is measured in terms of the excellence of defectiveness of it performance.”


I see Plato and Aristotle and Aurelius and Coelho intersecting at the point of each life have a single cause. Each person was created to do one thing and one thing well. A life is maximized–its telos reached–when it dedicates itself entirely to that action.

I’m not quite sure what mine is yet; it might be years until I know. But I am sure, however, that I’m at least on the right path. Although I might not have reached true actualization, I am well on my way to warming up. Everyday I get up and I scratch a little at the walls that society sets up to prevent you from getting there. That my purpose is to be involved in the creation and furtherance of public discourse, so each book I read and word I write is the functioning of my soul. Happiness comes from action, and that action must be excellent.

“Later, we simply let life proceed, in its our direction, toward its own fate. But, unfortunately, very few follow the path laid out for them–the path to their Personal Legends and to happiness.”

Paulo Coelho

I’m tired of the obfuscation. We can’t be “anything,” we can be one thing. Your child doesn’t have the world at his fingertips; it’s already in his hands, in his body. They just need be self-aware enough to realize it. Meaning doesn’t come from religion, it comes from work. When we fail to tell people this, they lose life in the forest for all the trees–clutching with the vastness of it all, when what they need is tiny enough to hold. Some of us know this and are happy–and productive. Others know this and refuse to admit it, drowning the simplicity with alcohol or drugs. Plato speaks of this too:

“He will not turn over the body’s habits and training to brutish and irrational pleasures, no will he turn his gaze in that direction. Neither will he make health his life’s chief aim. He will count health, strength, and beauty important only insofar as they serve to make him more temperate.”


Once you find that one thing, or rather, unearth it within yourself, the fog that surrounds your choices disappears. Your course of action is direct and never in doubt. They say good strategy require a pithy, concrete aphorism to serve as a benchmark, so when you’re employees face a decision, they always know where to side. I think this is what you gain when you discover your personal legend. From that point forward, all choices revolve on the axis “does this help me reach it?” And indeed, if you function telologically, you only pursue when the answer is yes. Marcus Aurelius asked himself this question each morning as he arose–as do I, siding always with more work, with one more step in the right direction.

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work–as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for–the things which I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’

Marcus Aurelius

But I would assert, as the greats have asserted, the excellence is life’s main fungibility. Excellence here becomes excellence there, and combined they equal the ultimate excellence: happiness. It seems to be logical, if happiness is that which we all aspire too, it must be the most excellent–and only through excellent action are we excellent.

“In the same way in which, if people are behaving literately and musically, they are already expert at reading and writing and in music.”


And though I’d love to continue quoting, over and over, I feel at some point it would become absurd. I find the same words in each book I read, from Malcolm X, Viktor Frankl and John Boyd, even evolutionary psychology. Man was created to serve a single purpose, to complete one task. Now even if the allure of that job is just some neurons misfiring–an evolutionary side effect of a primal, sustenance based need that doesn’t make the gratification any less powerful. There MUST be some reason that philosophy’s Greats hammer back to the same point: Find your cause and execute it with excellence. Do what you’re to do and do it well. Iterate excellence and it will pervade your existence.

This is how intellectual accomplishment ‘produces’ happiness; for since it is part of excellence as a whole, it is the possession of it, and its exercise, that make a person happy. Again, the ‘product’ is brought to completion by virtue of a person having wisdom and excellence of character; for excellence makes the goal correct while wisdom makes what leads to it correct.


So like Aristotle said, results combine to equal the result. Read and read often. Act in moderation. Resist the pleasures and pains that distract you. Wake each morning prepared for exertion. Do not sleep or leave the gym until you have. Drench the ground in your sweat, fill the pages with words. The Resistance will dog you the entire way, pay it no attention. When you diverge from the path, look inwards and correct–dedicate a second to chastisement and move on. But most importantly, realize that not knowing your purpose is no excuse for stasis. Even if the destination has yet to reveal itself, you still must be ready for the call. Prepare, be active, and be open. Only then will you find happiness and contentment. I have had only a small taste, but I at least know it’s worth every bit of effort.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

3 responses to On the telos

  1. Is there only one path for people? Could one not be as equally successful in one path as another? Instead of being focused on one area couldn’t it be argued that ones life is peaked when he has mastered several areas. Being all you can be. A renaissance man of sorts. And what do you think of all the lesser respected positions this society is built on. Is ones ultimate telos to become the best custodian possible, or to support a greater persons telos?

  2. There’s not one path for people, there one path for each person. Wouldn’t being a Renaissance man be path? Of course the Greeks weren’t saying that one man is destined to be a computer scientist and another a chemical engineer because those things weren’t invented. What the meant was that we each have a calling–for some of us it’s very specific (writing) or others it’s general (teaching). But I firmly believe that each life has a purpose and a telos.

    And yes, being a custodian is a telos. Or a garbage man or whatever. The point is to find your thing and do that thing well. Like Aurelius said, people who love what they do wear themselves down doing it–from the shoekeeper to the politician.

    Thanks for the comment, I should have made that more clear. The telos has never been about glamor.

  3. There seems to be a recurring theme on this site as well as Tucker’s and Donika’s blog that “standard corporate life can’t make you happy”.

    I agree that for many, a corporate setting isn’t ideal, but I know many cube dwellers that seem to be perfectly happy.

    Do you really feel that one day you will find this one perfect way to live life that will make you happy, or is it possible that happiness is more of an internally generated feeling that can be created regardless of where you work?

    Some suggest that regardless of what we do, we will typically return to a “baseline happiness”. Are you convinced that this isn’t the case?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>