You Are Not What You Do

June 3, 2014

butterfly girl

You’ve probably read this quote before: “You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Wise words from the sage Aristotle. Except for two problems.

One, Aristotle never said them.

And two, they’re not true. Thank heavens! Because if they were, you and I might be in big trouble.

What Aristotle actually said was this:

“These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions … As it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

The entire “You are what you do” quote that everyone knows comes not from Aristotle but from the great historian Will Durant, in his summarizing of the Aristotle passage.

I get what both quotes (the original and the add-on) are driving at:

1) Actions you take over and over tend to become things you do automatically, without thinking … and

2) Like rivulets of water from steady rains wearing grooves in rock, your habitual actions over time will carve riverbeds of behavior into the landscape of your days.

So true, and there is something powerfully positive about that. For example:

If you start going out of your way to thank people, even for little things, and notice things you are grateful for, and you do this every day, you’ll start carving streambeds of gratitude in your psyche, and in time become a habitually grateful person. (The same goes, like a photonegative, for the habit of complaining and criticizing: you get malign riverbeds of unhappy silt and sand.)

Or more simply: what you do every day rubs off.

So, thank you, Will Durant, and thank you Aristotle, and thank you to all the well-intentioned writers who quote you, even if mistakenly.

The problem is with the innocent phrase: “You are what you repeatedly do.” It reminds me a lot of that famous statement of modern Western philosophy, “Cogito ergo sum.” I think, therefore I am.

Yes, Rene Descartes really did say that. And, according to Eckart Tolle, he got it exactly wrong.

It is when we’re thinking that we get lost in corridors of abstraction and disconnect with our present reality. That we stop being.

I think, therefore I am not — but when I stop thinking, I am.

We too often turn that Cartesian logic into our modern achievement-obsessed signature theme song: “I do, therefore I am.” It’s so easy to confuse our accomplishments with our selves, as if productivity were the sole measure and evidence of our worth.

The truth is, you are not what you do. And that’s a good thing, too, because if you were, then your identity, your essential being, would be inescapably defined by your past actions. (Yikes. Imagine a legal system based on that proposition.)

If you were what you do, then your youness would be imprisoned, like a prehistoric insect trapped in amber, in a huge agglomeration of everything you’ve done.

But it just ain’t so. You have a past, but you are not your past. You are not what you’ve done, and you are not what you’re doing right now, or going to do tomorrow. And you are not what you think. You are who you are. That’s it. All the rest is what that you happens to be dressing up in at the moment. As children, we played dress-up in our parents’ clothes, or ballerina outfits, or pirate duds, or Batman costumes to explore different ways of being in the world. As grown-ups we put on tasks and occupations. But they’re not us.

For years I was locked into that amber bug-slammer. I so strongly identified with my productivity, it was like the only way to justify my existence was to do something. If I wanted my life to be one of genuine significance, then it naturally followed that I needed to do something really significant.

My theme song became “What have you done for me lately?” only in my version it was, “What have I done to prove myself lately?”

Each day I didn’t “get something done” became a trial of anxious frustration.

Somewhere along the way, I seem to have learned, or remembered, how to let it be okay at times when I am not really doing anything, simply existing, me-ing. (I have a feeling my wife had something to do with this.)

Don’t get me wrong. I love being productive. I love doing — writing a book, composing a blog post, paying off a debt, fixing a toilet seat, it’s all doing, and it all gives me an endorphin-laden thrill.

But let’s not get caught up in the buzz of accomplishment and lose the quiet truth behind all the doing, which is that it is simply what you are doing, not who you are.

What you do is important. It can reveal you, refine you, deepen you, and help to perfect you. But it doesn’t define you.

You are not what you do. You are who you are.

You always have been.

You always will be.


  1. Mark Given

    Amen brother and right on the money! Appreciate your insight….Mark

    • jdmann

      Most definitely a compliment coming from you, Mark ~ I always enjoy your newsletters!

    • CEllison

      The study of profiling, interview and interrogation techniques and psychology would disagree, but teach us by being aware of what we have become from past and present action we can change what we are by doing things differently.

  2. Dixie

    And then there is our tendency to self-identify according to what we do for a living. my I Am is so much more.

  3. Bob Burg

    Indeed, we are not what we do; we are who we are. I love that. Another brilliant post. And, I always enjoy when you expose a common misquote or a statement used out of context. At the same time, perhaps we are 7% what we say, 38% what we do, and 55% who we are. Naw!! {Oh, I should add, “inside joke alert”}

    • jdmann

      Yes, I’ll definitely have to do a piece just on those famous quotes and statistics (like the 55% body-language one, ouch). It’s so tempting to simplify, distort, and, um, invent the things famous people said!

  4. jdmann

    For those who’ve asked: the Aristotle passage is in Nicomachean Ethics. Will Durant’s discussion of it is in his epic The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1926).

    Durant was one of my mother’s favorite authors, and I grew up hearing Will & Ariel Durant quotations around the dinner table. Mom, if you’re reading this now, I want to make this very clear: I am not dissing Will Durant!

    • Boney Tee

      You’re always doing something whether you want to admit it or not. No one just is. Lack of accountability is what makes a person weak. If you were in the middle of a jungle and believed you had the choice to do nothing, you would be eaten by a predator. Wake up to the real world.

      • John David Mann

        Agree to a point: of course, one is always doing. Even declining to act is itself a choice and an action. (Your example is an especially vivid one! Another would be that refusing to vote is itself a political expression, like it or not.) The point I’m after here is that there is an essential identity behind the actions, an is-ness that defines who we are more fully and intrinsically than the specifics of our actions. There is a YOU behind what you DO.

  5. Ted Lee Sadler

    Excellent! Wisdom teaches me the difference between worth and use.

    In some ways I am ‘useless’ (neuro-surgery, etc) and in some ways I am ‘usemore’ and hopefully in some ways I am ‘usefull’. All measurements of skills and abilities.

    Worth is a measurement of value. When I ‘love’ someone or something then I determine it’s value to me. The good news is that all people are loved by God – He demonstrated His loved as measured on a Divine scale by His sacrifce on our behalf.

    Thank you Mr Mann!

  6. Nesirosan Tega

    Finally I get a different perspective on this issue. I will share this with a friend to save a life. We are not human do-ing but human be-ing. We do because we are being and not the other way round. Thank you sir.

    • John David Mann

      You are so welcome, Nesirosan!

  7. Barry

    Your position is a staw man argument. The topic of the original quote is in reference to habits (which you got right in your intro*), yet you spend the majority of the article tying the quote to productivity and accomplishments.

    Assuredly, there are people who misinterpret or misuse the quote to form their identity around accomplishments, and your thoughts could be helpful to them. However, your article would hold more merit if it warned against the misinterpretation of the quote, not the quote itself.

    *”in time become a habitually grateful person.” Become: Begin to be.

  8. AL

    So well written John, very powerful insight

    • John David Mann

      Thanks, Al!


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