Updated on 03.21.16


Trent Hamm

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 was in either second or third grade when I first heard this poem. It was being read aloud at a library that I was visiting that day, with a tall thin man with a deep voice intoning the words.

The poem stuck on my heart for a very long time. As I grew, I came to realize that the poem was a recognition that the path to adulthood – or to any goal or to any dream – wasn’t a straight road. It was a bumpy one, full of side journeys and missteps and unexpected events. Just wanting a goal isn’t enough, and it’s never going to be a straight path to that destination.

The part I find most interesting about this poem is that it does not focus on the external “ifs,” but instead on the internal “ifs.”

The ‘External Ifs’

An external “if” is something where the power to determine if that thing happens or not is in the hands of someone or something else. You have essentially no control over “external ifs.” They’re just a part of life. You have no control over things like an early transmission failure in your car or upper management failing at the company you work at or cancer caused by some completely unknown reason. You can’t control those kinds of things, mo matter how much you try. I include the past in the class of “external ifs,” because you can never change the past.

The only thing you can control is how you respond to them. You can get angry or depressed, which won’t help a bit. Or you can decide to make the best out of the difficult situation you’ve been handed.

I could sit around all day thinking about things like “what if I wasn’t blind in my right eye?” or “what if I wasn’t deaf in my left ear?” or “what if I had a functional thyroid gland?” or “what if I had gone to IMSA?” or “what if I had applied to different colleges?” or “what if I had majored in different subjects?” Those things are “ifs” that I have no control over. They’re external ifs, and it’s basically a waste of time to think about them.

The ‘Internal Ifs’

On the other hand, an internal “if” is something where the power to determine whether that thing happens or not is primarily in your hands. You have full control (or close to it) over “internal ifs.” You get to decide what you’re going to do today, for example. You get to decide how you spend money and how you spend time and how you spend your energy.

You get to decide if you’re going to work hard today… or if you’re just going to read websites all day and count the minutes until something else happens.

You get to decide if you’re going to buy unnecessary stuff at the store… or if you’ll stick to your grocery list and buy low-cost versions of things.

You get to decide if you’re going to live in a large house that has more than enough room… or if you’ll live in a smaller home that has just the right amount of space.

You get to decide if you’re going to live in an expensive part of the country… or if you’ll love in an area with a lower cost of living.

Those are internal “ifs.” Those are choices where you have the control. They’re choices about the present and the future of your life.

The Battle Between External and Internal

Something I’ve observed many times in my own life is that I trick myself into thinking that I can solve external ifs. It’s something that a lot of people do, at least from what I can tell.

If I buy this item, other people might like me more. I’ll be the person with the cool new gadget or the cool new game.

If I make it appear like I’m working but not actually do too much, I’ll keep my boss happy and keep my job.

If I buy my wife some flowers, she’ll be happy with me and won’t mind if I spend a day with the boys.

You get the idea. However, the reality is that you simply can’t fix external challenges with a single internal choice. You can change the nature of your situation over time, but that moves things back to a completely different internal “if.”

For example, if I put in a genuine effort to be a socially friendly person and work on winning friends, I won’t need this item or anything else to make other people like me more.

If I actually work hard at my job and consistently produce a lot of good work, my job security will go up for the right reasons without having to “play” my boss.

If I work on having a strong daily relationship with my wife, I won’t need to bribe her to “let” me spend an afternoon with my friends.

But that’s just one battle.

The Battle Between Different Internals

Another constant battle that’s happening is the one between internal “ifs.” Even among the things we can completely control, different options can benefit us in different ways.

If I eat another slice of pizza, I can enjoy that delicious taste and texture a little more. On the other hand, if I push away my plate right now, I’ll keep a lot of unnecessary calories and salt out of my system.

If I buy this book, I’ll have the freedom to read it wherever and whenever I want. On the other hand, I could wait and check it out from the library, saving me $15 or so.

Almost always, the battle between “ifs” takes the form of the short term against the long term, or of convenience over cost-effectiveness.

If I eat that slice of pizza, I’m choosing a short term burst of pleasure over my long term health.

If I buy that book, I’m choosing the pleasure of walking out of a bookstore with that book and the greater convenience of reading over the cost savings of getting that same book at the library.

Inundated with ‘Ifs’

The reality is that we are absolutely inundated with “ifs” in our life. Every single moment of our lives is loaded with “ifs.” Right now, even, I’m faced with ifs. If I stay focused on this article, I’ll get it done sooner and can move on to other things without stress. On the other hand, if I get distracted into something else, it’ll probably be more personally entertaining for the moment. If I walk to the kitchen and grab one of the cookies our family made yesterday, it’ll probably be yummy… but do I really need that sugar?

Ifs. All the time. Without end.

The thing is, it’s easy to just float along and make all of those decisions right on the spur of the moment. I’m walking by the cookie container so I’ll just instantaneously make the decision to grab one. I’ll switch to my browser window real quick and read an interesting website for a bit.

The problem with that is there’s really no long-term thought at all in such spur-of-the-moment decisions. When I snag that cookie, I’m not really thinking of the broader impact. I’m thinking about fifteen seconds of pleasure in my mouth. When I visit a website instead of writing, I’m not really thinking of anything beyond being entertained for the next few minutes.

But how does one break through of all of this?

How does one let go of short term temptations? How does one let go of the things out of our control? How does one keep from getting fatigued by all of the “ifs”?

My Simple ‘If’ Strategy

Over the years, I’ve come up with a very simple “if” strategy with which I deal with all of these things.

I try, as often as possible, to choose the “if” that gives the best long-term benefit.

Let’s look at some of the “ifs” described above to see what I mean.

Rather than dawdling when I should be working, I try to stick to tasks and get lost “in the zone” of work, meaning I’m so absorbed in what I’m doing that I lose track of time.

Rather than eating that extra slice of pizza, I put it aside.

Rather than buying that book, I see if it’s available from the library and check it out from there.

The problem with this strategy, obviously, is that it’s not particularly fun or enjoyable in the short term. If you’re always choosing the long term, your short term is going to be fairly barren of pleasure because your life is primarily full of the consequences of things outside of your control and the consequences of your earlier choices.

However, once you get through that initial “valley” that isn’t particularly enjoyable, the long term benefits start paying off.

You have a secure job. You have money in the bank. You have strong relationships. You have a well maintained and energy efficient home. You have greater personal health and personal energy.

In short, your day-to-day life becomes better.

The problem is getting through that valley.

The ‘Valley’ of ‘Misery’

The reason people instinctively make short term choices all the time is because the pleasure from that short term choice is obvious and immediate. It feels good in the moment to eat another slice of tasty pizza or to spend an hour reading entertaining websites. It might not feel so good to turn down that pizza or to spend that hour working your tail off.

Sure, those longer “ifs” might end up with a better life for you, but that doesn’t make today better.

How do you make things better in the now without sacrificing the long term?

The trick, I’ve found, is to choose the short-term choices that have the least long-term drawbacks.

For example, instead of feasting on pizza, find foods that are healthier that you also really like and eat those to your heart’s content instead. One of my favorite meals is pasta with sauteed mushrooms and onions. It’s really a very healthy meal, so I don’t feel bad about eating extras. The same is true (for me) when I cook scrambled eggs with onions and garlic in them (do you see a pattern with the onions?). I splurge on foods that I love, but I try to choose carefully from among the foods that I love.

When I’m working, rather than interrupting that work with quick browses of a fun website, I remind myself that if I hammer on that work hard for a while, it will be completely done and I can actually focus on more fulfilling things without any guilt. I can work on an article and interrupt it with distractions, which means I won’t get done until 4, or I can focus down on it, get done at 2, and have two hours of solid time to do whatever it is that I want to do!

Similarly, I’ll often choose to do something I love rather than buying something to supplement it.

For instance, instead of lusting over books by browsing Amazon and book-related websites and magazines, I just read what I have on the shelves at my house or what I see at the library. I really don’t read much “book news” at all. Instead, I prefer to just curl up with one of the books I already have and spend the time I would otherwise spend tempting myself with books on actually reading them instead.

Both of these choices tend to give me something pleasurable in the short term while still keeping the long term in mind.

Reflecting on My ‘Ifs’ – and Getting Better

The thing is, I’m nowhere near perfect at following up on the “right” ifs. I might consciously know that skipping that cookie or extra slice of pizza is the better choice, but sometimes I’ll still make the bad choice.

This brings me back to the choices of the past. Really early on in this article, I suggested that reflecting on the “ifs” of the past and daydreaming about what could have been if you had chosen better was a bad idea. It is, but that doesn’t mean that a bit of reflection on the choices of the past is a bad thing.

It’s actually a good thing.

Quite often, I’ll think back on the choices I’ve made recently that I know are poor ones, and I’ll try to figure out why I made that choice. Why did I impulsively choose to grab that extra slice of pizza? Why did I walk out of that bookstore with two books in my arms?

I’ll think about things like this while I’m in the shower, or while I’m shaving the hairs from my chin, or while I’m driving one of my children to a practice. Reflecting on such things brings about two results. First, sometimes I gain insights as to why I made such a poor choice. Second, I reinforce that making such short term choices all the time is not a good thing for the long term in my life. It does not make my life better. It does not make me a better person, either.

And slowly, ever so slowly, I begin to naturally choose long term “ifs”… and I set myself up to take on better short term “ifs.”

And slowly, ever so slowly, my life becomes better and better.

The Slow Additive Effect

The thing with those long term choices is that you don’t see any benefit at first. You don’t see it for a month or two, and if those long term choices are isolated, you might not see it at all.

But if you keep stepping up for those long term “ifs,” if you keep pushing away the extra slice of pizza, if you keep yourself focused when you’re working and do your best to produce good results, if you get a little exercise, if you choose not to spend money on something you can get for free with a little patience, slowly, ever so slowly, your day-to-day life gets better.

Your belly gets a little smaller. You have a little more energy in the mornings and in the early afternoons. You have more money in your checking account and, eventually, in your savings account. Your boss begins to trust you more at work. You begin to have stronger relationships with your spouse, your coworkers, your friends – and maybe you even build a few new relationships.

It’s slow – ever so slow. But turning away from those short term “ifs” and turning toward those long term “ifs” adds up if you keep doing it.

Things will get better, no matter what kind of hand life has dealt you.

Final Thoughts

Even today, some thirty years after I first heard the words of Kipling’s poem, the truth of it comes through loud and clear.

Your life is what you make of it. You can’t change the situation that you have, but you can make the best of it. You can improve it slowly over time.

The catch is that it all relies on the everyday choice. It relies not on some big life-changing initiatives, but on the simple decision to not fill your plate to the brim and to not buy that extra thing at the store that you don’t need. You’ll forget about those things in fifteen minutes anyway.

What if you started approaching the multitude of choices in your life with that perspective? What if you started making daily choices that are centered around building a better life for the long term rather than what gives you a little burst of pleasure right now?

What if?

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