Excellence is a word that holds deep meaning. It transcends achievement, awards, or recognition. Excellence reflects the consistent commitment to perform at the highest possible level. It signifies the pursuit of mastery in any endeavor. Greek philosopher Aristotle sincerely believed that excellence stems from habit. We engrain them to become part of our character by repeating actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Excellence, therefore, is a habit.

In his famous work Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explored the nature of habits and their role in cultivating virtue. He provided a framework for how intentional habits can enable excellence in life across endeavors. Below, we’ll explore Aristotle’s insights on habit, character, and the continuous journey toward excellence.

Excellence is Not an Act but a Habit

Aristotle differentiated habits from discrete actions or behaviors. In his view, actual habits reflect traits entrenched over time through repetition. He wrote, “Excellence, then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, determined by reason and how the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, which depends on excess and on defect.”

Here, Aristotle argues excellence emerges from habitual behaviors cultivated over time to strike the right balanced response relative to a situation. This differs dramatically from achievements, which can result from singular acts. Absolute excellence stems from engrained habits applied consistently during life’s adventures and challenges.

Aristotle Excellence is a Habit

At the core of Aristotle’s philosophy lies the belief that humans become what they repeatedly do. Each small choice to align actions with virtue and wisdom or vice and foolishness shapes who we become. In Aristotle’s words, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

The implications of this view run deep. If excellence is a habit, then achieving enduring excellence requires engraining small repetitive habits. Like physical health resulting from exercise and proper nutrition, excellence derives from habitual thoughts, decisions, and behaviors aligned with virtue applied consistently over time.

Aristotle viewed the absence of habit as detrimental, arguing, “You will never do anything remarkable if you only work on the days when you feel good.” Absolute excellence emerges not from extraordinary bursts of achievement but from dedicated commitment during good times and bad. Applied consistently, small acts accrue exponentially to enable outstanding results over time.

Excellence is a Habit

If excellence flows from habit, the question becomes: which habits engender excellence? Aristotle explored this question extensively. He argued several essential habits enable excellence across domains, including:

  • Practicing self-control and moderation to balance visceral impulses with wisdom
  • Committing to continual learning and improvement
  • Prioritizing conduct best aligned with moral virtue
  • Choosing to apply the entire faculty of reason in thought and action
  • Persevering through challenges and setbacks

Like learning to play a sport or instrument excellently through repeat practice, Aristotle suggested virtues like courage, justice, and generosity must be learned habitually. Gradually, actions stemming from passion or selfish desire can be replaced by those aligned with human excellence until character fitness transforms overall conduct. Excellence, therefore, is a habit arising from continuous small decisions.

Conclusion: The Ongoing Journey of Excellence

Modern research affirms Aristotle’s view. Studies show activities repeated frequently literally change neural pathways, engraining habits over time. Each small choice contributes to vice or virtue. Though the pinnacle comes into sight periodically, the true home of excellence resides along the upward trail.

Aristotle provides a philosophical and pragmatic foundation for the role of habit in the quest for human excellence. Choices repeated over time engrain conduct. Intentional habits aligned with virtue and reason pave the slow road to excellence. The journey requires perseverance, self-control, learning, and character. Like the master musician running daily scales or the star athlete training hardest on uninspired days, habits plant seeds yielding remarkable long-term results if continuously cultivated.

Aristotle calls us to walk the long, gradual road in a world quickly to recognize singular grand achievements. Excellence is not an occasional arrival but a habitual way of being nursed patiently through time’s passage. Along that humble, persistent path lies our highest human potential.


What did Aristotle mean when he said “excellence is a habit”?

Aristotle believed that excellence stems from habits and behaviors cultivated over time through intentional repetition. By consistently thinking, deciding, and acting in ways aligned with virtue, we engrain new neural pathways that shape who we are. Gradually, excellence in character and conduct becomes part of our nature.

Why did Aristotle emphasize habits so much?

Aristotle saw habits as far more influential than individual achievements or behaviors. While bursts of achievement may garner external recognition, habits change who we are at a basic level by remodeling the brain over time. By repeating small actions rooted in wisdom and ethics, excellence becomes wired into our character.

What habits lead to excellence, according to Aristotle?

Some essential habits Aristotle links to human excellence include practicing moderation and self-control, persevering despite discomfort, actively applying reason, continuously learning and improving, prioritizing moral virtue in conduct and relationships, and leaning into challenges rather than avoiding difficulty.

What did Aristotle mean by saying, “You are what you repeatedly do”?

This famous quote underlines Aristotle’s emphasis that consistent habits over time, rather than periodic achievements or intentions, determine the trajectory of our lives. Tiny choices repeated day after day sculpt our character and capabilities. Thus, excellence resides not in grand acts but small habitual choices aligned with virtue.

How long does it take to engrain a habit?

Research shows our brains can wire new neural pathways through repetition in as little as a few weeks of daily consistency. However, Aristotle would argue excellence requires lifelong habitual practice. Virtue and wisdom must be exercised and renewed constantly in life’s ever-changing landscape. The excellent person commits to daily refinement through small, courageous choices.

Does habit lead to mindless action?

No. Aristotle believed habits rooted in reason, ethics, courage, generosity, and more lead to expanded consciousness and conviction. Excellence requires engaging the entire faculty of our senses, spirit, and reason to foster conscious choice and wisdom in action. Virtuous habits create focus and self-awareness, not mindlessness.

Can someone achieve excellence through singular accomplishments?

In Aristotle’s view, singular achievements can reflect excellence but do not create it. The consistent application of wise, ethical, balanced habits over time cultivates the depth of character and capability that enables remarkable accomplishments to emerge. Thus, absolute excellence resides in customary practice, not periodic performance peaks.

Is excellence always associated with fame or external recognition?

Excellence shows in a character rooted in virtue, wisdom, justice, self-control, and reason – not recognition. While excellent performance sometimes garners praise, many masters live quietly. Pursuing standards of excellence for their own sake engrains habits, leading to remarkable results whether recognized publicly or not.

Does excellence ever plateau or peak?

For Aristotle, excellence has no pinnacle because practical wisdom can continually deepen through application. However, visible signs of remarkable capabilities may emerge periodically. But virtue must be renewed through ongoing difficulties, so the excellent person sees life as an adventure in developing potential, not achieving an external benchmark. Their habits sustain growth.