A Poem to Live By

by Haider on February 20, 2010 · 14 comments

in Personal Growth

Words can have an enormous influence on the way we think, how we feel, what we value and a string of other effects that we can harness to lead a great life. Not all words or statements or poems are created equally. Some can have destructive effects and others constructive ones. All to varying degrees.

But there’s one poem that, for me, stands head and shoulders above all other poems. It’s very simple to read, has a melodic rhythm and is jam-packed full of meanings that help me move my life forward. I am sure it can have the same influence on you.

The poem is none other than “If” by Rudyard Kipling.

In this post I’d like to explore some of the meanings found in this poem and how relevant they are to our lives and our growth. But before I discuss parts of the poem, have a read of the entire poem, with all its wondrous glory:

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!

~ Rudyard Kipling

I must begin by pointing out that I’m not a literature student and I may not always interpret poems in the way the writer intended them to be interpreted. You may very well have a different interpretation to mine. If so, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section!

Being Responsible

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

One of the most important qualities in life is being responsible.

Being responsible requires a high dosage of awareness and a conscious commitment to do the right thing, given the circumstances you are facing. The default response to challenges, however, is often to find someone to blame. Those who are blamed try to redirect the blame to someone else. And the vicious cycle of finger-pointing continues, without anyone willing to do the right thing.

No matter how involved people get in the circus of blame or how much they try to get you involved, keeping your focus on what needs to be done should be your ultimate priority. Don’t get distracted by the blamers.

Trusting Yourself

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

People are only aware of what you have done in the past, and judge you accordingly. The only person aware of your potential is you. When people doubt you, you can trust yourself, because you know something about you that they don’t.

You shouldn’t adopt their doubt because the doubters are many, or their evidence is sound. It’s sound because it’s true, but it’s only half the picture. The half that they are aware of. But you’re aware of the other half. The one they don’t have access to.

Rather than resent the doubters for doubting you, accept that it’s a fact that human beings are not omniscient. It’s perfectly acceptable for people to judge according to what they know. Don’t limit yourself to what others know and allow for their limits, but work according to the limits you are aware of and the potential you possess.

Patience Is A Virtue

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Waiting isn’t a crime, or a waste of time (that rhymes, so it must be true!). It’s a fact of life that some things take time and don’t happen spontaneously or on a whim. Accepting the laws of nature makes patience as natural as breathing. It doesn’t take effort on your part as you struggle to accept that you need to wait.

Take a deep breath and don’t get frustrated because the universe doesn’t run according to your schedule.

Live By Your Principles

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

People lie. People hate. But these aren’t reasons why you should lie or hate. Let other people live according to their principles (or lack thereof), and you can live by your own principles. Just because people cheat doesn’t mean you should, also. People aren’t the standard of what you should and shouldn’t do.

Show A Part of Yourself

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

You don’t want to boast about your principles, or show people how wrong or stupid they are. You want to live by your principles, and set an example for others to follow, should they choose to follow it. People shouldn’t sense that you are way better than them. That makes them feel insecure about themselves.

You don’t want to set a high benchmark for others that throws you way out of their league. You want to demonstrate an accessible example. This doesn’t mean that you pretend to be someone you’re not. It means that you don’t show all your qualities at one time, and to the degree that you possess them. Show aspects of yourself and to limited degrees. Based on the people you encounter and interact with.

If you’re a magnificent painter and an amateur painter comes to you for advice, don’t paint the Mona Lisa blindfolded, with one hand behind your back. Demonstrate how you would draw a sketch. Something accessible for the person you are interacting with.

Pursuing Your Dreams

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

Personal growth enthusiasts (and I assume you are one) have dreams. Dreams of achieving great things and growing as a person. A dream is something you have not yet attained. It is a desire and an expectation of something to realize in the future.

Having dreams is great. It gives you direction and determination. But it shouldn’t lead to an obsession that consumes your entire life and makes you lose sight of what you already have.

“Life passes most people by while they’re making grand plans for it.”
George, in the movie Blow

The Purpose of Thinking

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

You don’t think for the sake of thinking. You think to get a better understanding of a situation (or a phenomena), in order to make better decisions and take more fruitful actions. Thinking for the sake of thinking (as well as reading for the sake of reading) is a mental disease, where people disconnect themselves from reality in order to pursue ideas for their own sake.

Knowledge is NOT power. You need to apply knowledge to serve you in life. Thinking is a means, not an end.

The Highs and Lows of Life

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

“Triumph” and “Disaster” are labels we attach to certain events. They involve an intellectual evaluation on our part, given our values and goals. Publishing a book can be a triumph for someone whose goal was to simply publish a book, but a disaster for someone who wanted it to reach the New York Times Best Seller list.

You shouldn’t simply see a triumph as a triumph, or a disaster as a disaster. We should learn from them equally, to the measure we succeed in each one, and the measure that we feel in each one. There are always lessons to learn from both, as well as the circumstances that have not earned either label. We shouldn’t allow the labels to distract us from the lessons we can learn.

Exploiting Your Good Works

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

There will always be people who exploit the good work others do. If you teach people to create a heaven on earth, you can almost guarantee that there will be people selling tickets for entry (with tickets at a higher price for VIP treatment). The best lies are those based on the highest degree of truth. The greatest crimes are often committed in the name of noble ideals.

But that doesn’t mean that you should never speak the truth, or never promote your ideals. What you do is your responsibility. What others do is theirs.

Purpose & Persistence

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:

If you’ve dedicated your life to a cause, there’s no use in giving up on it, no matter how many setbacks you face along the way. As long as you can exert an effort in support of your cause, then you should exert it.

I absolutely love the expression: “worn-out tools.” The tools can be held up as evidence for the commitment and dedication already put in towards the cause. And rather than blame the condition of the tools for not continuing along the same path, they are recognized as symbols of your persistence.

Taking Risks

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;

Life is risky. You succeed one day, and fail the next. But the fact that risk exists isn’t a good reason to avoid it. You cannot avoid going a step forward because of the likelihood you will take a step back. Accepting the fact of risk in life helps us avoid experiencing frustration or regret about taking risky measures. And it stops us from daring to stop daring.

Strength & Willpower

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!’

Your body is capable of much more than you give it credit for. But a huge portion of your strength is untapped. The key to unlocking your strength is the will to unleash it. We often hold ourselves back because we lack the will to push ourselves forward. Our physical body can do more, but our psychological outlook refuses to support it. If we truly want to push our limits, we must be willing to push our limits.

Social Circles

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,

In life we interact with different people, with different values, living in different conditions. The ability to relate and connect with as many social circles widens our social relationships, and helps us expand our influence and reach. The more people you can bond with, the greater the good you can spread. If you disconnect or close yourself off from other people, you won’t be able to achieve as much as you would like.

You don’t want to be negatively influenced by any social circle you interact with. Instead, you want to be the positive influence, and the bridge between different groupings.

Dependence, Independence & Interdependence

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

You don’t want to depend on others or have others depend on you. You want to be able to contribute to other people’s well-being, while caring for your own well-being. Interaction amongst independent individuals (i.e. interdependence) allows for the greatest outcomes in life and society.

Don’t place yourself at the mercy of others, or have others place themselves at your mercy.

Value Time

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Time is what you make of it. We all experience the same seconds, minutes and hours, but it’s what we do with our time that counts. The challenge is to make the most of our time, without pleading for more time. How best can you make the most use of your time? Live according to that.

Although it’s not mentioned in the poem, but I find it necessary to point something out: Most people interested in productivity and time management are actually struggling with productivity and time management. They don’t need to be told to value time. They already do, but don’t know how best to deal with the problem of not making the most use of their time. I would like to offer a mini piece of advice:

Time management requires the development of key skills, which you might not possess already. That’s fine, because they are skills you can learn. But they take some time to develop and get used to. If you’ve struggled to focus while working, you know that it’s not as easy as some writers make it out to be. But you shouldn’t be kicking yourself for not attaining perfect focus from day one. You are having unrealistic expectations of how skills are formed. They take time to develop and a great deal of patience and commitment. Give yourself a stretch of time to develop the skills you find necessary to be productive, without straining yourself against the laws of nature.

Man on Earth

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

We’re not “just human” or “only human.” Being human is a compliment. We’re not born human. We aspire to become human beings, expressing all the good we are able to express. Being human requires effort. Being human is determined by the strengths we possess and not the weaknesses we can overcome. It’s in actualizing our potential, not in ignoring it. In living consciously and exercising our free-will, not in dimming our consciousness and expecting others to make decisions for us.

What’s more, being fully human should be demonstrated in the way we lead our lives on earth. When we live morally, we will experience the greatest joys possible for us. Make the right choices, and develop positive characteristics and noble virtues, and you will experience their benefits here on Earth.

As you can see, the poem covers a great deal about life and what it means to be human. I find it extremely inspirational and a great reminder of the characteristics I wish to develop.

If you think the same way, or happen to disagree with me, I would love to hear from you!

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mick Morris`
Twitter: theMickMorris
February 20, 2010 at 3:31 pm

This is a great poem, and some great lessons plucked from it……thanks for the reminder about this poem…. I will be sharing it with my children
Mick Morris`´s last blog ..What are you going to focus on TODAY ? My ComLuv Profile

2 sara February 20, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Beautiful poem, beautiful anlysis. Words to live by for sure! I’d love to point out my favorite lines, but they are ALL my favorite lines, and there isn’t one that I feel is any more important than another. Thanks for this. :)

3 Haider February 20, 2010 at 6:43 pm

@Mick: Thanks! It was a great reminder for me too. And I think it was designed to be shared with children. :D

@Sara: I agree about choosing favorite lines. It works best as a unified whole. But I get goosebumps when I read the end. A heroic view of Man. Beautiful indeed. Thank you for your feedback and you’re most welcome. :D

4 Doug Moran February 21, 2010 at 2:33 am

Wow! I really like your thoughts on ‘If-’ . I just siigned a book deal for a leadership book based on If. It is a grea poem, and your analysis is outstanding. All the best.

Doug

5 Patricia February 21, 2010 at 2:43 am

I love this poem.Great insight,it really resonates in me.Thanks for sharing
Patricia´s last blog ..El poder de las palabras My ComLuv Profile

6 Haider February 21, 2010 at 9:24 am

@Doug: Finding leadership traits from “If” is a great idea, and I love have you came up with 16 distinct qualities from the poem! All the best with the book. I look forward to reading it!

@Patricia: Thank you for passing by and I’m happy to hear it resonated with you! :D

7 Manal February 22, 2010 at 2:30 am

Wow Haider! This really resonates with me on so many levels.

One can look at the poem as a way of life. It encompasses all the qualities to live a better, more meaningful, and more human life.
Your interpretations were spot on (at least for me) :)

Thank you for the awakening!
Manal´s last blog ..Dealing with Indecision My ComLuv Profile

8 Haider February 22, 2010 at 11:45 am

Thanks, Manal! I’m thrilled that it resonates with you! :D (it’s a shame I don’t have an emoticon that has a wider grin!)

9 Mike CJ February 22, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Wow! As you know, I published this as a post as well, but you’ve gone much further by taking each element and analysing it.

I think what’s amazing about If, is that it can be applied to just about anything in life!

10 Haider February 22, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Thanks, Mike.

After seeing your post, and how the poem applies to bloggers, it got me thinking what lessons I can learn from the poem if I approached it with different contexts in mind. How would I think of the poem as it applies to blogging? Being an employee? Being an entrepreneur? Being a father?

It makes it easier to pick out lessons for each role and context.

So thank you for that dosage of inspiration! :D

11 Fate February 26, 2010 at 1:41 am

I just read the words resonate too many times :) Yes Haider could not agree more. I wanted to blog about the poem when I mentioned it over the phone to you. “If” only I was a week earlier I would still could not have written it better :)
I will refer to your post in my blog instead as I am sure readers will benefit more.
I love the poem so much, the words move me to my core. As I mentioned to you I relate to it in many levels and been in many situations were I could really appreciate the wisdom in such words.
Thanks for sharing :)

12 Haider February 26, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Thanks, Fate!

So, when are we scheduled to see the therapist for our “one mind in two bodies” condition? :P

13 Gina
Twitter: starlightlife
March 22, 2010 at 11:52 am

Beautiful start my friend!
Gina´s last blog ..Omega Oils and Healthy Skin My ComLuv Profile

14 Haider March 22, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Thanks! My excitement for the book is reaching unhealthy levels! ;)

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