In everything you do consider what comes first and what follows, and so approach it. . . . Do you wish to win at Olympia? So do I, by the Gods, for it is a fine thing. But consider the first steps to it, and the consequences, and so lay your hand to the work.
He is talking about the efforts needed to accomplish a goal — Olympic athlete, in his example. Know that there are real obstacles beneath surface appearances that you must overcome. Don’t commit unless you are willing to go the full distance. Otherwise you are just a child, play-acting a role.
But there is something else at work here. Consider The way Taleb talks about second-order (and higher) effects. These considerations are in play here, too.
Each effort you take to achieve a goal has an effect. A rudimentary effort (run 5km to start your training) creates an effect (this specific training causes muscle tightness of a certain type and location). Each such effect requires a countering effort (a different exercise or stretching routine perhaps).
This is not to say that your initial effort (run) is inconsistent with your long-term objective (Olympic-level athletic performance). It probably is essential.
But know that your initial action will generate an effect requiring a counterbalancing secondary action to counterbalance the effect created by your initial action.
It’s not just a matter of willpower—to bull your way to your goal by brute force. It’s a matter of awareness and adaptation, coupled with a steady eye on the goal.
To put it in sailing terms, consider the possibility that all great achievements come from a course that requires sailing into the wind. Keep your hand on the tiller and know when to tack.
And as you are sailing and hit swells that throw you subtly off course, make those little adjustments to the rudder to keep the wind in your sails. There is a satisfying rhythm to that—the irresistible wave pushes your boat to the side and then, with gentle pressure on the tiller, you correct the course back to your objective. No need for excessive strength. Just a gentle return to course.