A Greek General on How to end up Doing the Real Thing

How should we train for the things we want to do end up doing?

Philopoemen went on to be a famous commander (and trainer) of the army of the Achaean League. (He is also the last Greek, chronologically, that Plutarch biographized.)  Philopoemen was also a contrarian:

“From his very boyhood he was fond of a soldier’s life, and readily learned the lessons which were useful for this, such as those in heavy-armed fighting and good horsemanship.  He was also thought to be a good wrestler, but when some of his friends and directors urged him to take up athletics, he asked them if athletics would not be injurious to his military training.  They told him (and it was the truth) that the habit of body and mode of life for athlete and soldier were totally different, and particularly that their diet and training were not the same, since the one required much sleep, continuous surfeit of food, and fixed periods of activity and repose, in order to preserve or improve their condition, which the slightest influence or the least departure from routine is apt to change for the worse; whereas the soldier ought to be conversant with all sorts of irregularity and all sorts of inequality, and above all should accustom himself to endure lack of food easily, and as easily lack of sleep.  On hearing this, Philopoemen not only shunned athletics himself and derided them, but also in later times as a commander banished from the army all forms of them, with every possible mark of reproach and dishonour, on the ground that they rendered useless for the inevitable struggle of battle men who would otherwise be most serviceable.” (Plutarch, Life of Philopoemen)

People thought that athletics were good practice for war.  Anthropologically, they had a point: isn’t football mock warfare?  But Philopoemen believed that if you want to learn to do something serious, you should do the actual thing – or something as close as possible.

What would Philopoemen have said to someone who spent years in business school without ever actually working at a company?

The lesson is similar for virtue. 

If you want to develop courage, go face real fears, go fight.  Temperance?  Go make a lot of money and see how you actually spend it.  Wisdom?  Take on responsibilities in which good or bad decisions carry real consequences.  Justice? Become worthy of being a trusted arbiter; have the hard conversation.

The most important qualities in life can’t be trained in a simulator.

Stay Ancient,