Epictetus' quote meanings: What do I want to be

The other day while reading Jordan B. Peterson's book "Why we think what we think", was about knowing where you stand in order to plan a future worth achieving. This quote from Epictetus describes exactly this approach. Only 2000 years earlier.

The other day we looked at the quote "If a sailor doesn't know which shore to head for, then no wind is the right one." by Seneca. This quote was about how you can't make progress without a goal. In this Epictetus quote, I will discuss how to formulate a goal and work towards it.

"First tell yourself what you want to be, and then do what you need to do."


What or who you want to be is a difficult question, after all there are endless character traits to choose from. The sheer selection of desirable traits such as diligence, courage, wisdom, honesty, patience, or athleticism, to name a few, ensures that we can hardly decide. Like in a restaurant where there are too many dishes on the menu, there are too many character traits for us to try them all.

So to help us decide what or how we want to be, it helps to first see where we are right now.

  • What is already going well for us?
  • Where could we put a little more work?
  • What would we like to change about ourselves?

By accurately assessing where we are in our lives, we can much more easily define a goal to work towards.

However, it is not enough to set a goal, you must also take the reins in your hands and actively work to achieve this goal. There are some tips and tricks that will help you not to lose sight of your goal:

  1. If you have clearly defined the goal then write it down.
  2. Break the goal into smaller stages.
  3. Each time you do something to work towards this goal, note your progress.

This method is applicable not only for physical goals but also for mental ones. For example, if I want to do 20 push-ups, I can write down the goal and then start with one push-up at the beginning and note my progress. I can also practice honesty using this method. If I set a goal to become more honest, I can start by telling only 2 lies - big or small - in a day. If I note the progress, I can eventually reduce from 4 to 3 lies and so on.

To summarize everything again briefly:

Analyze where you are right now, based on that you can figure out how, who or what you would like to be. And based on what you are and what you want to be, you can determine your actions.

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