In the 2nd century, Epictetus gave the following advice to those considering going into philosophy:
Reflect on what every project entails in both its initial and subsequent stages before taking it up. Otherwise you will likely tackle it enthusiastically at first, since you haven’t given thought to what comes next; but when things get difficult you’ll wind up quitting the project in disgrace.
You want to win at the Olympics? So do I — who doesn’t? It’s a glorious achievement; but reflect on what’s entailed both now and later on before committing to it. You have to submit to discipline, maintain a strict diet, abstain from rich foods, exercise under compulsion at set times in weather hot and color, refrain from drinking water or wine whenever you want — in short, you have to hand yourself over to your trainer as if he were your doctor. And then there are digging contests to endure, and times when you will dislocate your wrist, turn your ankle, swallow quantities of sand, be whipped — and end up losing all the same.
Consider all this, and if you still want to, then give athletics a go. If you don’t pause to think, though, you’ll end up doing what children do, playing at wrestler one minute, then gladiator, then actor, then musician. And you — you’re an athlete now, next a gladiator, an orator, a philosopher — but nothing with all your heart. You’re like a monkey who imitates whatever it happens to see, infatuated with one thing after another.
Some people, likewise, see a philosopher or hear someone like Euphrates lecture…and get it in their heads to become philosophers too. Listen, friend, research the role, then assess your capacity to fill it, just as you assess your arms, thighs and back if you hope to be a wrestler or pentathlete.
—Epictetus, Enchiridion, 29.1–51
Although nearly two thousand years old, his advice still has application when considering a career today. It’s good to know what skills and interests you have. But it’s also important to be clear on what it will take to excel in your chosen profession. Some professions may be glamorous or pay well. But what will they require of you? And will you be willing to pay that price? You may like the idea of earning a surgeon’s income, but are you also willing to embrace all the years of intense schooling and residency that becoming one will require?
When choosing a path to pursue, career or otherwise, consider what excellence in that field will one day require of you. Because if you understand the costs, and still choose to move ahead, you won’t be shocked when it comes time to pay them along the way.
Epictetus: Discourses and Selected Writings, trans. Robert Dobbin (Penguin, 2008), 233. ↩︎