The saying "it works if you work it" comes from Alcoholics Anonymous. The meaning behind this expression is that the information a person receives from attending meetings and reading the Big Book won't help a person overcome alcoholism on their own. If they do the work, though, an individual can make progress over time as they turn the words into repeated practices.
Though you might not think of AA and Stoicism as having much in common, the truth is that there is a deeply Stoic meaning behind this quote. Stoicism is a practical philosophy, after all, and the point is that you need to actually apply the ideas to your daily life. "It works if you work it" is an idea that you can use to help remind yourself that you have to put in the work to make continual progress. Let's take a deep dive into the Stoic nature of "it works if you work it" and how you can use it to improve your life.
Deciding that you want to make a big change in your life simply isn’t enough to make that change come to fruition. No matter what people who tout the benefits of positive thinking say, in order to make a change, you have to actually do the work.
That’s where the phrase “it works if you work it” comes in. Originally from Alcoholics Anonymous (which we’ll touch on a bit more later), this is a simple and straightforward way to remind yourself that you have to turn your ideas into practice.
If you do the work, you can make progress. Even if you’re having a bad day, even if you’re frustrated with how long it feels like it’s taking to make improvements, you have to stick with it. If you keep going– if you do the work– you will reap the benefits.
“Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.”
In the context of AA, the point of the phrase is that the program isn’t a magical remedy for alcoholism in itself. You can read all of the material over and over again and keep on drinking yourself silly. If you are willing to turn words and ideas into practices, though, you can begin to make real progress.
Though the phrase is most commonly associated with AA, this is something that is highly applicable to any positive changes you want to make in your life. It’s also very true of Stoicism, which was always intended to be a practical philosophy. This means that it is a philosophy that is meant to be applied to your day-to-day life, not just a bunch of fun, abstract ideas you talk about at parties to make yourself sound smart.
If you’ve ever attended an AA meeting and heard the saying, “it works if you work it,” you might have noticed that there’s usually a final phrase to the statement: “and you’re worth it.”
That’s right. Doing the work to make yourself better and become the best iteration of yourself isn’t something that you can do, but it’s something that you’re worthy of. Drop that nihilism and self-loathing at the door and get to work– you’d be amazed at how much progress you can make over time.
As stated earlier, “it works if you work it” comes from the international peer-led fellowship known as Alcoholics Anonymous. While you might not think that a group dedicated to helping people get sober has anything to do with you, the underlying idea behind this phrase is something that can be universally understood and appreciated.
"How long can you afford to put off who you really want to be? Your nobler self cannot wait any longer.”
AA is really a fascinating organization– you’ll find proponents and detractors just about everywhere you look. Regardless of your opinion, it’s hard to argue with the fact that AA has had a tremendous impact on the world, with an estimated two million members worldwide. Some studies have found that increased participation in the program resulted in higher abstinence rates while also likely reducing health costs. This organization dates back nearly a hundred years to 1935, when Bob Smith and Bill Wilson worked to support each other and other alcoholics in regular meetings. The book Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism was published four years later in 1939.
Now known as the “Big Book,” this is where you’ll find the now infamous 12-step recovery program that has been adopted and revised to help people with countless problems. These are twelve suggested self-improvement steps that a person can take with the goal of recovering from alcoholism and achieving a spiritual awakening.
Regardless of your opinion of AA, it’s hard not to notice some common ground between the philosophy and practice of AA and Stoicism.
One commonality between the two is the concept behind "The Serenity Prayer," which is recited at most AA meetings. Here's how it goes:
"God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference."
If you're familiar with some of the main ideas of Stoicism, you'll likely notice the notion of accepting things out of your control and using your power to change things that are in your control in this prayer. On top of that, the focus on wisdom and courage– two of the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism, also likely caught your eye.
Acceptance of reality as it exists is also a concept that is shared between Stoicism and AA. The Big Book tells a story that begins by saying, "Acceptance is the answer to all of my problems today" and goes on to say:
"When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation- some fact of life- unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be."
This sounds quite a bit like our old friend Epictetus, who says:
"We are not disturbed by what happens to us, but by our thoughts about what happens to us."
As well as:
"Don't seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and all will be well with you."
The advisory guidelines of AA also appear to maintain a similar mindset toward Stoicism about being virtuous for the sake of virtue and not for personal gain, as they urge members not to use Alcoholics Anonymous in order to gain property, wealth, or prestige, and to focus instead on the purpose of recovering from alcoholism.
Additionally, some of the twelve steps (“made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” and “continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it,” for example) sound oddly Stoic, indeed.
"You are your choices."
– Seneca the Younger
Some AA meetings end with the saying, “it works if you work it, and you’re worth it,” to help remind the members that they have to turn the words into practice to actually make progress. In terms of Alcoholics Anonymous, this means actually going through the twelve steps, attending the meetings, reading the book, working with one’s sponsor, and more.
For Stoicism, this means actually taking the teachings of the ancient philosophers and utilizing them in your daily life. It means watching yourself like a hawk– your thoughts, your words, your actions– and constantly working to improve yourself. It’s one thing to engage with Stoic literature and media, but you’re missing out on the bulk of the philosophy if you aren’t taking the ideas and turning them into habits.
The ancient Stoic philosophers didn't just write about philosophy and talk about philosophy– they practiced it.
"Don't explain your philosophy. Embody it."
Epictetus was frequently talking about the importance of forming habits and making continual progress on one's path to the good life.
There are a number of Stoic concepts that we can find hidden in the simple quote, 'it works if you work it.' Let's dive in and take a closer look at a few of them.
Reading Stoic texts, listening to Stoic audiobooks and podcasts, and engaging with Stoic quotes are all absolutely wonderful things to do. However, you can't just leave it at that. You have to actually put your principles into practice.
"Consolidate your principles by putting them into practice."
The same is true with any change you want to make. You can say that you're going to start your business this year or that you're finally going to go on that backpacking trip.
"You see, in life, lots of people know what to do, but few people actually do what they know. Knowing is not enough! You must take action."
– Tony Robbins
Nothing will ever change if you don't take action. Words alone won't get you where you want to go.
You don't have to take it from me, though. Here are just a few thoughts from some of the greatest minds of history echoing the same idea:
"An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory."
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
"What we think or what we know or what we believe is in the end of little consequence. The only thing of consequence is what we do."
– John Ruskin
"Action is the foundational key to all success."
– Pablo Picasso
"Ideas become powerful only if they appear in the flesh; an idea which does not lead to action by the individual and by groups remains at best a paragraph or a footnote in a book."
– Erich Fromm
"Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one's thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world."
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
"It works if you work it" also reminds us of the importance of building good habits. All of the Stoics talk about the importance of habit in living a virtuous life, but Epictetus is particularly talkative on the matter.
“To make anything a habit, do it; to not make it a habit, do not do it; to unmake a habit, do something else in place of it.”
He makes it sound so easy, doesn't he?
“Every habit and faculty is preserved and increased by correspondent actions, as the habit of walking, by walking; of running, by running.”
Not only does he tell us to start working toward being our best selves in a practical and no-nonsense way, but he also reminds us that the way we react to things is merely a habit too.
“Nothing is in reality either pleasant or unpleasant by nature but all things become so through habit.”
For some reason, we can be inclined to think that we should be able to think of ourselves to the point of excellence.
"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."
– Will Durant
The truth is, though, that we have to work at it over and over again. We have to work at it while it's hard for it to become easier.
"The habit of persistence is the habit of victory."
– Herbert Kaufman
We have to hold our center even when it feels like things are falling apart. We have to make a commitment to actions we know will lead to change and carry them out even when we have our doubts.
"You are free to choose, but the choices you make today will determine what you have, be, and do in the tomorrow of your life."
– Zig Ziglar
The things we do today have the power to impact the rest of our lives. Our lives are made up of little choices that we make, whether we realize it or not.
If you want to make a change in your life and you want it to work, you have to work it.
When you first get interested in Stoicism, it can feel like an impossible mountain to climb to actually apply the ideas to your life. The truth is that we all lead busy lives, and making major changes in how we think, act, spend our time, and see the world doesn't necessarily seem like something we have time for.
It's all too easy to tell yourself that you're going to start making changes tomorrow. You're tired today, or you've got a lot going on at work or any other litany of excuses.
The reality is, though, that you don't need to aim for perfection right from the start. You aren't going to reach perfection today. Luckily, the focus of Stoicism isn't perfection– it's progress.
“The greater part of progress is the desire to progress.”
– Seneca the Younger
You just have to start. You have to begin chipping away at it day after day. You have to think about who you want to be, figure out what you need to do, and then start doing those things.
“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
It sounds so simple, but it starts feeling really complicated as soon as you start trying to apply it to your actual, messy life. Remember– it works if you work it. If you keep at it day in and day out, you will start to see progress.
"Patience and fortitude conquer all things."
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
You can think about it like starting a garden. If you're starting with a big old patch of grass, you have to assess your site and make a plan.
"The trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit."
You've got to pull up the sod and aerate the soil. You need to test the soil and make amendments. You have to choose which plants you want to grow. You have to determine when the proper time is to plant your seeds so that there's enough time in the season for them to fruit but not start so early that they die in a late frost.
Finally, you've made it to the point when you can plant your seed. So, what now? Does a beautiful, fresh, ripe tomato appear in a matter of minutes?
"Everything comes gradually and at its appointed hour."
Of course not. You have to make sure it has enough water– but not too much. You have to make sure it has enough sunlight– but not too much. You have to watch out for pests that want to gnaw on its leaves and remove weeds that want to steal its nutrients.
"Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself."
– Saint Francis de Sales
Over the course of time, your seed sprouts and turns into a seedling, which turns into a vibrant plant. Finally, you start to notice blossoms. And then, one glorious day, what is it that you see?
The actual, literal fruits of your labor.
“Nothing important comes into being overnight; even grapes and figs need time to ripen. If you say that you want a fig now, I will tell you to be patient. First, you must allow the tree to flower, then put forth fruit; then you have to wait until the fruit is ripe."
This is what it's like to make progress on yourself. You have to assess yourself. You have to make a plan. You have to dig around in the dirt and muck of your life. You have to nurture the ideas that you want to make a reality in your life.
You won't notice any fruits right away. It will take time.
"Patience is the companion of wisdom."
– St. Augustine
But if you keep at it, you're going to make progress. The truly incredible thing is that you can continue this process for the rest of your life. Imagine just how wise, courageous, and skilled you could be if you worked to improve yourself every day.
"Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success."
– Napoleon Hill
This is one of the Stoic notions hidden in the simple quote, "it works if you work it." If you commit to your plan to incorporate Stoicism into your life and you work at it every day, it will start to work.
"Have patience. All things are difficult before they become easy."
You'll notice that you don't get all worked up about things that are legitimately out of your control. You'll realize that you start watching your own mind more and more, and you continue to gain greater control over the things you can control.
You'll see that you are increasingly referring to Stoic ideas when you make decisions. You'll find yourself spending less time mulling over the past needlessly, worrying about the future, and concerning yourself with what other people think.
"Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience."
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
With each passing day, you'll see yourself making progress, and it will feel great. But remember, it only works if you work it.
If you wanted to, it wouldn't be difficult at all to make it through most of your life, never really making a decision about who you want to be. You might even tout this as something that makes you enlightened- you are so open-minded that you're able to see all things from multiple perspectives.
While there's nothing wrong with being able to look at a problem from several angles- in fact, that's a wonderful skill to have- you're never going to get anywhere if you sit on the fence your whole life.
You have to make a decision. You have to decide who you want to be. Then, you have to start working toward becoming that person.
“No man is able to make progress when he is wavering between opposite things.”
When someone decides to quit drinking- when they go to their first AA meeting, and they hear the phrase "it works if you work it"- they have to be 100% in on the decision. They can't be sitting on the fence.
"In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."
– Theodore Roosevelt
This sentiment by Teddy Roosevelt is also found in the apocalyptic Biblical Book of Revelation, where Jesus says that he will spit people out of His mouth because they are "lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot."
"It doesn't matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off. You cannot make progress without making decisions."
– Jim Rohn
Maybe you are on the fence about the changes you want to make in your life. Maybe you're worried that you're making the wrong choice.
But the truth is that you'll never know either way if you don't start walking down a path.
"At any moment the decision you make can change the course of your life forever."
– Tony Robbins
If you feel drawn to living a virtuous life, the time to start is now. You have to decide to walk down the path. All the while, you can remain vigilant and aware enough to pay attention to whether you feel called in a different direction down the road.
"There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision."
– William James
"It works if you work it" reminds us that it takes decisive action to make real change.
When you begin practicing Stoicism, it can be frustrating. You find yourself getting angry about things that are ultimately out of your control and only realizing it after the fact. You find yourself pining after some fancy, expensive watch with the expectation that it will win you the respect and approval of others- forgetting those material things won't bring you happiness and that what others think of you is out of your control.
“If virtue promises happiness, prosperity and peace, then progress in virtue is progress in each of these for to whatever point the perfection of anything brings us, progress is always an approach toward it.”
Don't worry. The goal isn't perfection. The goal is continuous progress.
"Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving."
– Albert Einstein
Every day we have the opportunity to do deeper work on ourselves. Even when we make mistakes, there is a lesson hidden inside that we can use to continue to improve.
"It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop."
"Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything."
– George Bernard Shaw
It won't be easy at first. It can be incredibly difficult to start paying attention to what's going on in your mind, to begin to become self-aware of the way that you have been "suffering more often in imagination than in reality," as Seneca says.
That's ok. "It works if you work it" doesn't mean that it's going to work overnight. It means you have to keep with it, even when it feels impossible.
You have to start where you are in order to get where you're going. So don't keep your eye on perfection- most of us won't ever get there. Instead, focus on making progress.
The first step in AA is admitting that you were powerless over alcohol and that your life had become unmanageable. When you think about it, acceptance is the first step to making any big change in your life.
It's tempting to think that we'll start to lose weight when we have more time, or begin reading more once the busy season's over, or finally get around to practicing Stoic meditations after we've stopped working overtime trying to pay off our credit card debt.
"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."
– Theodore Roosevelt
There won't ever be a perfect time to start making changes in your life, though. You have to start from where you are. You have to start with who you are. You have to start today.
"Don't wait. The time will never be just right."
– Napoleon Hill
"It works if you work it" is a simple quote that you can use as a reminder to continually work to improve yourself. When you catch yourself making excuses about why you don't have time to do your Stoic exercises or why it makes sense to act in a way that goes against the virtues you aspire to uphold, remind yourself of this phrase.
Some days are going to feel hard, and that's ok. Some days you might even feel like you're going backward. If you can continue to keep your eye on the prize, so to speak, and keep putting in the work, you will surely start to notice that you've been making progress all along, after all.
Are you looking for more resources and inspiration as you work to incorporate Stoicism into your life? If so, make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog.