The internet is full of people telling you how to achieve certain goals: X things you must do to be Y, you must not do A if you want to be B, and so on and so forth. Well, that’s nothing new: one of the first poets in the Western canon also wrote a list of didactic tidbits on how to be successful. His name was Hesiod, from rural Greece, and in around 700 BC he composed a poem called Work and Days, which gave his brother Perses advice on how to successfully prosper off the land.
A lot of his advice is very specifically related to ancient farming techniques, for instance, he advises that the best oxen for pulling ploughs are nine-year old males, but some of his less agrarian advice can be applied more widely. This is some of the earliest recorded economic thought, so you can take this advice as tried and tested:
1 — Nothing good comes easy
Inferiority can be got in droves, easily: the road is smooth and she lives very near. But in front of Superiority the immortal gods set sweat; it is a long and steep path to her, and rough at first. But when one reaches the top, then it is easy, for all the difficulty.
Pretty self-explanatory. The gods put superiority — achieving excellence — behind a tough path. Many accomplishments have indomitably steep learning curves, but once you can conquer them, it will become easier.
As was the custom in ancient poetry, concepts, emotions, and forces are personified — here Inferiority and Superiority are personified in the feminine: one lives close and is easy to get to, the other is harder to reach.
2 — Think for yourself and take advice
Best of all is the man who perceives everything himself…Good is he, too, who follows good advice. But he who neither perceives by himself nor takes in a lesson from another…is a worthless man.
There is nothing more rewarding than figuring something out for yourself, and being original, but sometimes we need to take advice. Hesiod is very disparaging of those that do neither
3 — Earn it, don’t take it
Property is not for seizing: far better God-given. For if a man does seize wealth by force of his hands, or appropriates it by means of words — the sort of thing that often happens when profit deludes men’s minds, Shamelessness drives away Shame — the Gods easily bring him low.
For Hesiod, greed promotes a desire to simply try and take things without working for them. Some people are so deluded by material success that they care how avaricious they appear — Shamelessness drives away Shame. But this sort of grasping material accumulation never ends well — the Gods see to that!
4 — Network close to home first
Invite to dinner him who is friendly, and leave your enemy be; and invite above all him who lives near you. For if something untoward happens at your place, neighbours come ungirt, but relations have to girt themselves.
Of course, there was no LinkedIn or Medium in 8th century BC (if there were, no doubt Hesiod would have dominated both platforms), so ‘networks’ were inherently driven by geographical proximity. Yet his advice still stands. For us today, we see networks as virtual entities: many have thousands of followers but could not tell you who lives in the flat next to them. Start your network with your neighbours, because that marketing executive from the other side of the Atlantic will be thoroughly useless when you’re on holiday and your cat needs feeding.
5 — Don’t Procrastinate
Do not put things off till tomorrow and the next day. A man of ineffectual labour, a postponer, does not fill his granary: it is application that promotes your cultivation, whereas a postponer of labour is constantly wrestling with Blights.
It’s all about filling your granary, and that grain ain’t going to harvest itself. Delaying work only creates problems, which take even more work to rectify.
6 — Save up, for it may not always be so good!
Hope is no good provider for a needy man sitting in the parlour without substance to depend on. Point out to your labourers while it is still midsummer: ‘It will not always be summer. Build your huts.’
We’ve all heard the three month rule — have three months of expenses tucked away in case things go wrong. When everything seems plentiful, don’t forget that can and will change, just as sure as summer will become winter. Set something aside to protect you when that happens — build a hut to shelter in — because merely hoping it will work itself out won’t suffice.
So, there we have it — advice from the original how-to-be-succesful listicle. I’ve ploughed (no pun intended) through Works and Days many times, and for the purposes of this story left a lot of very archaic and somewhat obscene content out — but it’s a short and great read, and the wider historical context of Hesiod and his work is fascinating.
Note: Quotes are from the Oxford Wolrd’s Classics edition of M.L West’s 1988 translation of the original Ancient Greek.