IF by Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
IF by Rudyard Kipling is my favorite poem. When I read it I experience something that is far too rare in our world, nuance. To me, Kipling invites the reader to a maturity in thought that shakes off the idea that there are ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. The over-simplicity of binary thinking won’t due in Kipling’s advice to how one should handle this life. For Kipling, it seems to be about the acceptance of the inherent complexity of life.
Karate Kid – Oversimplified
When I was a kid I thought about life in terms of Cops vs Robbers, Good vs Evil, Integrity vs Corruption… and so on. As I get older is see more dichotomy in my own character. There are times when I have moved through life with a high level of congruence in one area while being totally hypocritical in another.
If you were born in the early 80’s you’ve probably seen the movie The Karate Kid (the old version). If you have Netflix, you may have seen the rehash of the old series called Cobra Kai. The main characters are now adults as opposed to teenagers in high school. They’ve have families, jobs, and still live in the same town. What’s interesting about the Cobra Kai Series is how much complexity is built into the characters that wasn’t there in the 80’s movies. Back then, it was more good versus evil, underdog versus privileged, but now there is much more nuance.
The ‘rich kid’ that was depicted as a bully actually had an abusive step father. A martial arts instructor with a twisted philosophy became his father figure. Daniel, who was depicted as the ‘valiant underdog’, is now a successful business man. Daniel actually defeats the bully in competition. Yet, as an adult, you can see how much bitterness and anger he still holds towards the ‘rich kid’ who bullied him as a teenager… Turns out life is never as simple as it appears.
If we can make the mistake of misjudging individuals with whom we have decent proximity, how much more can our stories about life fall short of accurately organizing the world. In short, we have to understand that we will be wrong. Our Stories will be wrong. In particular, if we are going to take on any sort of big risk or challenging goal, there will be failure… because life is never as simple as it seems.
Context is Everything
Ken Jennings is know as the “Greatest of All Time” on the trivia show Jeopardy. In a recent interview I heard him say something that I believe is an appropriate analog to character development. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially he said that sometimes we feel like we have a bad memory because we can’t retain certain information. However, in reality we’re just not interested in the information. A brain that is not engaged with the information does not grasp the information well. I believe that the same is true with the expression of certain character traits. Context is everything.
I eluded to this in a post called Fake Work Ethic. When we see a kid who just can’t focus or a grown up who just sits around all day, I think our immediate assumption is to say that they are lazy or undisciplined or some other disparaging word. However, could it be possible that they just haven’t found something that truly engages them? This is where I began to struggle with a focus on character development. I know that I’ve done some things in life that have required grit/resilience/perseverance but there are other things that I have totally quit on: Engineering as a Profession, Day Trading, Martial Arts (In times past), Personal Training. These are all things that I showed prowess at and chose to put down at the time. Funny enough, I didn’t show prowess as I writer growing up. As a matter of fact, I hated writing. I’ve stuck with it for the past 7 years because I’m engaged with the task.
In relation to one problem a person shows persistence. In relation to another a person quits. Which one is correct? Of course some people truly do struggle with quitting everything they start, but people also struggle with not knowing when to quit. This is the dichotomy that I believe is expressed in Kipling’s poem. Having goals gives us context for our decisions. However, one has to continually develop the self awareness to persist towards certain goals and quit on others. In my case, I’ve put infinitely more effort into being a professional writer/speaker than I did into being a Professional Engineer… with very little in the way of tangible rewards. One person may interpret that choice as foolishness and another may see it as courage. Ultimately, what matters, is how I experience the choice I’ve made. Again, dichotomy… I’m developing the ability to hear someone’s interpretation of me but I am able to hold true to my interpretation of myself.
When we’re miserable, we’re more prone to vice and pleasure seeking, to avoid pain. When our basic needs aren’t being met, we’re probably less likely to be ‘good and productive’ members of society. Being engaged with life, having a sense of meaning, and having an endeavor of genuine interest is more likely to produce in us those character traits that we all value so much: patience, kindness, endurance, grit, resilience etc. However, simply telling a person to ‘be more patient’ when they themselves don’t have an idea of what’s interesting or engaging to them, personally, just isn’t helpful in my estimation.
*** It should also be understood that individual responsibility is still the ultimate goal here. Only the individual can truly determine/discover what they are interested in and what gives them true meaning in life. This process is always our own personal work. There will be times in life where we struggle to find meaning. In those cases I WILL SAY, “Be more patient and keep struggling.” Again, context determines the tools you apply.***
What makes Good Character?
Good character begins with knowing yourself. Know the situations in which the best parts of yourself are likely to come out and understand the areas where your weaknesses are likely to be exposed. It’s not that we should avoid things where our weaknesses will be on display. It’s more about choosing situations that move us closer to our objectives. It’s nuanced and contextual. This plays out in our stories as well. If we as individuals have vices then we have to understand that our stories have risks and downside. What do I mean?
How is it that we are okay sending 18 years old’s off to college to take on massive amounts of debt betting on a future that they aren’t sure of? How is it that we live in a hyper-sexualized world where (via smartphone) one can access all they elicit pornography one wants, yet as a society we still haven’t normalized transparent conversations about sex? How is it that we are a more scientifically and technologically advanced than ever before but proliferation of lifestyle diseases remains a huge challenge for modern humans? Why do we have a healthcare system that incentivizes more visits and clinical specialties than it does preventative habits in the patient’s lifestyle? How is it that so many people have such ferocious criticism of social media companies and yet so many people still use social media everyday?
Why? The stories are far too simple: Go to college and you’ll be successful. You’ll have a good job, a great marriage that lasts forever, two kids, and a house. You’ll have inexpensive health insurance through your employer. And, you can document all the memories of your life through the amazing platforms online that foster quality social connection.
Obviously, it isn’t that simple.
We’ve been thinking through some goals the past couple weeks. I’d like you to think about one of your greatest failures/disappointments in life… What story did you have about this situation before it happened (We went over where stories come from last week)? What expectations did that story create that made the failure/disappointment so difficult to process? Were those reasonable expectations? Why or Why Not?