There is a famous speech by Demosthenes that he ends by chiding his fellow statesman for their flattery. As was common in Athens, the speakers who’d gone before him had filled their orations with examples of great and proud moments in the country’s history like victories at Marathon and Salamis. This was a distraction, he said, a trick to tell the audience what they wanted to hear instead of prompting them into the action they desperately needed to take, which in this case was war. “Reflect,” he concluded, “that your ancestors set up those trophies, not that you may gaze at them in wonder but that you may also imitate the virtues of the men who set them up.”

This is an interesting way of looking at things. Particularly for whatever it is that you may consider to be high arts of human achievement—be it sports or music or religion or finance. For me, I’d think of a book that was important. After we’ve finished we tend to think about how impressive or ground breaking it was. Maybe it changes how we think about the world or we use it for a project we’re working on but then after we’re finished, we just put it on a shelf…like a trophy. But Demosthenes’ point is that this is a hollow use of their achievement—even a self-destructive one.

Ignore this impulse. And ignore the charlatans who try to sell you a kind of congratulation by association—retroactive or through proxy—instead of on the bold action that they required. Focus on the precedent set by the accomplishment and the people who put it together. Like Demosthenes figured out: make them exhortations instead of examples.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.