Finding Your “If” Factor

Answering the most important questions of life.

Navigating life is a matter of navigating questions and they are rarely clear ones. The questions are usually only half formed, requiring us to guess at both the answer and the question itself at the same time. Despite this perpetual ambiguity, when we reduce the complexity of the problem at hand, it usually devolves into a single word question: If.

Life is a matter of If’s, if this happens or that; if we do or do not; if they do or do not; if, if, if.

In that simple, two letter word we find contained the essence of uncertainty. It is the hinge upon which every plan or strategy hangs. Causation itself is a matter of If. We can only rest in the certainty of questions and uncertainty, nothing more and nothing less.

Each of us will respond to the uncertainty of If in different ways. For some, it becomes a challenge which forces us to improve and grow, for others it can be a question so debilitating it drives them to the refuge of addiction. How you react is a matter of your If Factor, the range at which you can approach the If successfully or not.

This uncertainty, and this struggle to face If successfully, was masterfully illustrated by Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem of the same name. Within it, the author contrasts the questions life presents, challenging how you react in those pressures with the If life will unquestionably present.

At the end of the article, you’ll find the entirety of If by Rudyard Kipling, but for our purposes here we’ve selected a few of the lines which best represent the largest of If’s questions we’ll find ourselves forced to face. Although primarily masculine in nature, the poem offers the reader of any gender an opportunity to feel both challenged and inspired.

If You Can Keep Your Head

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;

How do you deal with mental stress? Now more than ever, life is fought in the mind with your will as the weapon. It is easy to fall to pieces when everything else seems to be falling apart, when the herd around you panics and everyone is looking for someone to bring order to the chaos.

It is one thing to try remaining clear headed when called upon to answer and give aid, another when people look at you as the cause of their discomfort and distress. This unfortunately is often the price of both leadership and strategy. Anytime you take action of meaning you open yourself up to the risk of both failure and derision. Sometimes your strategy remains sound, even if those who are asked to endure what you’ve decided are not.

In those moments, doubt rears it’s venomous vestige. It asks you if you really do care, if you really did do all that you could, and if you really just aren’t enough to meet the challenge of the day. This internal dialogue is never aided by the addition of other voices, grumbling from other people who believe they could have done better than you, loudly declaring how they could have done it better.

Your responsibility in those moments is difficult. In strength you need to hold your resolve, maintain your reputation and your reasoning for the decision you made. At the same token, in humility, you need to consider if you were wrong and others were right. No one is right one hundred percent of the time, at times you will make mistakes. Only by keeping a humble heart which can accept when you have been wrong can you make the opportunity to be proven right next time.

If You Can See Reality

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;

Without great dreams or high minded ideas, we struggle to progress through life. Some of us may Forest Gump our way through the opportunities life offers, for most it does require some measure of calculation or at least imagination to both see and grasp what we want. The danger of this thinking is in making the dream all that there is or allow the idea to be the only thing which matters.

Both dreams and ideas are merely representative. A dream is the ambition given illusionary form, an idea is the outline of what may be rendered in reality. Without the will to take action, neither achieve any purpose or existence outside of your mind or sketchbook. It is easy to say you have a great idea for a book, that theory can never be tested if you don’t try to write it.

Spending a life in pursuit of dreams and ideas is as satisfying as imagining food you will cannot eat. Reality is where the meat and potatoes are, if you want to fill yourself it means trying to make those great ideas and incredible dreams something which can be felt, seen and touched.

The easy road is always to leave behind any actual creation, to value action only as academic and pursue only the ideas and the dreams. They can be heady, they can offer you the surge of accomplishment which comes from finding the connection between A and B, if only in theory. Theories need to be tested to be proven right or wrong, and the consequence of some actions are to find what we thought incredible as only mediocre.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

Whether in victory or defeat, we must remember these words. Remember, that to win or fail is only a moment, only an illusion of the present which bares little effect on the longer race of life. More often than not, the conflict which we find all consuming and life changing, rarely is. The inertia of existence does not change with a single blow of the sword, but rather like forming a statue from marble, it takes shape through continual, steady action.

Triumph and Disaster are imposters, both claim eternity and immortality as within their grasp and degree. They are liars of the first order. Neither, in sorrow or elation, have more to offer you than a moment. As incredible as victory and as gut wrenching as failure, they both pass away. They may instruct while present, but to give them more than their worth is to fail to see reality for what it is.

That is the question of this If, can you see reality as it is? Illusions come in many forms and varieties, some attractive and some repugnant, but all to confuse the reality of what our life is or means. In the light of victory we can see ourselves as greater or mightier than we are, our skills as matchless and intellect without question. The darkness of defeat causes us to question any worth or purpose we possess, asking how we dared to even make the attempt.

Dreams and ideas fall into the same categories of illusions, offering pleasant alternatives to actually getting something done. Isolation from the risk of failure or the joy of achievement. A life of meaning requires action, requires the risks at play and to move forward embracing the lessons either outcome presents, but withholding the power of the moment to define your future forward.

If You Can Take a Risk

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;

Risks are everywhere. You will find them when you leave the house, when you cross the street, when you say “I love you,” and when you walk away from an opportunity. Risks are the essence of uncertainty, creating costs which make life more interesting to live.

Without the bite in taking a chance, what author Nassim Taleb calls, Skin In the Game, we lose motivation or interest in a given idea or endeavor. The short of it is without incentive or consequence, the game loses meaning or purpose. Rather than challenge risk, or to decry the injustice of its existence, we would be far better off embracing it for the gift it can be.

There are times where we can take smaller risks to learn to prepare and be ready for taking larger ones in the future. When we fail, it is not always the worse thing, sometimes it is best because we learn precisely how not to win. Like Thomas Edison famously observing he had learned how not to invent the lightbulb countless times before he invented it.

Speaking of failure, do you ever share it? The temptation is to share our shortcomings in pursuit of the sympathy of others. Perhaps in their consolation we could feel better about the loss we faced. At times this is healthy, encouraged even to admit the pain of loss to friends or family. The point is to draw a line, to prevent ourselves from offering the sob story of our defeat to the nearest pair of ears. Eventually, we must accept every defeat and get back up. To dwell upon the failure of the past is just another opportunity to fall into the trap of illusions.

If You Can Endure

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!’

Do not mistake this quality as patience, while a component, it is different than the act of endurance itself. Endurance is the quality of time under duress, moving forward, on and on again as every ounce of your energy and will is poured into doing what needs to be done. This is not the same as waiting in a grocery line, endurance is far more of a physical endeavor.

Difficult circumstances do not always present themselves as problems to solve or obstacles to circumvent, they are sometimes a matter of outlasting the misery and making it to the other end with as little damage as possible. These are circumstances which are unpleasant in many ways, not only to consider, but to write about. There’s no reasoning with it. Action itself may be impossible in those circumstances, forcing you to only hold on until there’s nothing left except the will which says, “Hold on!”

When faced with this trial, the greatest mistake to make is also the most tempting one of all: To give up. The easiest way to avoid enduring anything is to abandon the pursuit. To walk away while you still have the option. Truly, there are times where we should wisely walk away, this should be done with discretion and after due diligence has been taken into consideration.

To keep going as Kipling advises here is not in foolish pursuit, but asking if you are up to the task physically and emotionally to force yourself to endure the struggle all great quests are accompanied by. To win a prize of worth is rarely easy, and the cost reminds us of the worth of our objective. More often, we give up, we tap out when things get tough because we have neither the physical or emotional resilience to struggle on.

It is an easy temptation in a life of relative ease to avoid anything which may provoke you to test your stamina. The options between ease and discomfort usually seem unquestionably weighted in our minds, we will take the elevator without even asking if there are stairs. Instead of assuming you are saving your resilience for the daunting tasks, consider that you are weakening any chance you had of being able to push yourself to do the hard things when they arise.

Great athletes do not build their endurance by waiting on the couch until they have to run a race. Instead, they train. Testing their capacity, they will exercise and push themselves to be prepared for the day they have to race and win the match. That’s how endurance is cultivated, by forcing yourself to do the difficult thing and hard thing when the stakes aren’t so high.

Conclusion

While we may not have covered every If life will present us with, these are among the most primal of questions which will accompany the ones which are difficult and hard to determine. Instead of pondering the fullness of the complicated questions, work on the basic elements. If you can answer these four questions: If you can keep your head, If you can see reality for what it is, If you can take a risk, and If you can endure, you will be capable for whatever the uncertainty of life throws your way. You will have developed your If Factor.

If by Rudyard Kipling

Originally published in Brother Square Toes, 1910

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!

Intellectual Agrarian https://terrancelayhew.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store