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Self-Mastery: Knowing You Can But Deciding You Won't

As a result of age and experience, I am now of the firm opinion that a all success is possible if - IF - self-mastery can be achieved first. Self-mastery is the answer for pretty much everything; let me explain what I mean.


Whatever you want to accomplish, the existence of self-mastery will be the single largest determining factor of your eventual success. Great exam results cannot be achieved without the self-mastery to listen intently, study hard, revise methodically and perform at your best. Weight loss cannot be achieved without the self-discipline to maintain a healthy eating and fitness regime. Becoming a medal winning Olympian cannot be achieved without the self-mastery and dedication to train your mind and body relentlessly, whatever the prevailing weather and circumstances. All of these self-mastery qualities override the temptation to skip a lesson, miss a training session or eat a sleeve of cookies. Self-mastery is operating in the knowledge that you can (skip, miss or eat), but deciding you won't.

Living your life in an enhanced state of self-mastery though goes a lot deeper than merely resisting cookies. Think about any masters of their field you care to mention, and then trace their success all the way back to the beginning of their endeavour; self-mastery will be at the root of it all.


As a teenager glimpsing my first snippet of a televised boxing match, I asked why the boxers held back and didn't just lay into each other, why were they so controlled? My dad chuckled and taught me that boxing wasn't about anger and aggression, it was about power, skill and strategy. The first boxer to lose their temper would lose the match, because their precision would then be impaired, and a win is determined by either a knock out blow, or on points for accuracy. This left a lasting impression on me: never let your emotions overpower your intelligence and overall strategy.

The definition of self-mastery is well portrayed by boxers like this, or more specifically by the iconic Bruce Lee; always calm, laser focused and totally in control at all times. In either case, thrashing about wildly, without discipline or reason may be an interesting spectacle to behold, but it's more likely to be detrimental than helpful to your cause. Think about how a surgeon operates with the thinnest and sharpest of scalpels for accuracy, rather than a hedge trimmer; there's a good reason for this. Optimum results are achieved with focus, dedication and most importantly, precision.

People without self-mastery operate in much the same way as a hedge trimmer; lots of noise, lots of mess and an imprecise result. People without self-mastery tend to be rash and impulsive, prone to lashing out, being argumentative and combative. These people are unpredictable, which makes them untrustworthy to those around them. Without trust relationships are difficult at best, or doomed at worst. These people know they can and, without enough command over their impulse control, they do. They rarely think about the consequences of their choices (sufficiently), so must then resort to damage control to negate their lack of self-mastery. A lack of self-mastery only creates extraneous, self-inflicted trouble and strife, so why would you?

By learning the self-mastery required to control with surgical precision, you will be able to master anything else as a result. Self-mastery is difficult though, which is why too few people have achieved it in this world. If self-mastery was easy, we would have way more Olympians, captains of industry, poet laureates, or Nobel Peace Prize winners to applaud. But it's always easier not to put in the hard work, isn't it. The question must then be, what do you want more, success or the easy life, because you can't have both.


We can agree that working on achieving self-mastery is difficult, because you have to resist the temptation to do the things you know you can do, like choosing to binge drink at the weekend, attend every argument you're invited to or skip a valuable training session. But let me now ask you this: how much easier, and less stressful is it, to constantly be clearing up your own self-inflicted chaos and mess? How much time, energy, heartbreak and money would you save yourself, simply by learning a little self-mastery?

Do you think you've achieved self-mastery? Can you control yourself in all circumstances, be it resisting cake or an invitation to an argument? Do you move forwards mindfully and steadily towards your goals, or do you thrash about making a lot of mess and noise, having to deal with the consequences later? Do you think things through enough, do you "game out" scenarios you're faced with through to the end, or are you a what-the-hell merchant? How is that working out for you? Do you know what you want and how to get it? Are you the master of your emotions, or are you the victim of your weak impulse control? If you believe you have achieved self-mastery that's great, keep learning and keep practicing. If you don't believe you've achieved self-mastery, here are a couple of first steps you can take.


Create yourself some alone time and temporarily neutralise all distractions. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths and swipe right any thoughts that may enter your mind; promise those thoughts you'll address them later. Once you feel settled, content and still start to imagine how you want your life to be. You may know how you don't want your life to be, but by focusing on that, you're only going to attract more of the same. What I want you to do from now on is to focus on what you do want, and then drive yourself in the direction of those goals at all times.

If you're tempted to miss a training session, ask yourself: "Is this decision to skip a training session moving me closer to achieving my ultimate goal (of i.e.: running a 5k, the London Marathon or winning gold at the Olympics)?" If the answer is no, then don't skip the training session. Ditto eating a cookie versus your weight loss goals, or skiving off of school versus great exam results, or attending every argument you're invited to versus inner peace. This is the definition of self-mastery: knowing you can, but deciding you won't. No it's not easy, but neither is clearing up your mess from rash and impulsive actions!

Focus on what your goals are in the first place, and then move forward calmly and confidently in the direction of those goals every minute of every day. No excuses. Do you suppose Bruce Lee achieved such mastery by training every other week, or when he felt like it? Nope.

Self-mastery is the challenge of transforming yourself from your own worst enemy into your greatest ally

Henry David Thoreau teaches us: "You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one". Nothing of true value ever comes easily. The challenges and adversity we endure, shapes us into who we need to be, to successfully navigate the goals we eventually achieve. Unless you train incrementally to weight lift 300kg safely, you will most certainly be crushed and broken by your unreadiness.


Let me take you back to the boxers who demonstrate strong self-mastery, by not allowing their emotions control them. As my dad taught me, the first one to lose their temper, loses. The secret here in your day-to-day life is to actively look for things to be grateful for, and acknowledging the wonder around you already. By putting some gratitude in your attitude, you train your mind to seek the kind, wonderful, funny, loving beauty that surrounds you already, rather than the bleak, the dark and the doom. Whatever you look for hard enough you will find, so choose mindfully what you're going to look for from now on.

Here are some ideas about what you could be grateful for. Do you have a spouse and/or children who love you? Are you understood and cherished? Did you sleep in a warm, clean and safe bed last night? Do you enjoy good health? Do you have friends to depend on? Do you enjoy your work? Are you well respected? Is the weather glorious today? Have you witnessed, or taken part in, a supreme act of kindness recently? Do you have faith in humanity? Have you something delicious planned for dinner tonight?

These grateful-for aspects of your life can be either large, small or anywhere in between, there's no right or wrong here, just what makes you grateful when you focus on them. Here's another way of looking at this: What if you woke up tomorrow with only the people and things you expressed gratitude for today, who and what would you have? Focuses the mind like nothing else on earth, eh?

Please also cut out the negative self-talk chatter, that may loop around in your mind all day, because this self-sabotage will limit your potential horribly. Let me ask you: when you make a mistake and then berate yourself as stupid, would you ever whack yourself in the face - at full force - with a copper-bottomed frying pan? Of course not, because it would hurt like hell and do untold damage to your features. Well, that's essentially what you're doing to your own psyche when you trash talk yourself in this way. The danger here however, is that your subconscious mind hears and obeys everything you tell it, so you're more likely to repeat history in the name of self-fulling prophecies. Stop it, catch yourself on and try some Cognitive Restructuring.

Cognitive Restructuring: Think of a situation that's causing you to feel some negative emotions. Now write down the emotions you feel during this situation, listing all of the "automatic thoughts" that come with these emotions. Next, list the evidence that supports your negative self-talk and automatic thoughts. Then list the evidence that refutes your negative self-talk and automatic thoughts. Once you've completed this, list some fair, balanced and objective thoughts about the situation you first thought about.

You can't allow yourself to be carried off and held hostage by your emotions. You do realise you have the right, the power and the authority to control your emotions don't you? They only control you because you allow it. Never believe for a second that you are anything less than the sole boss of you. You decide what to think, what to feel and when. If you don't like your thoughts, change them. It will be difficult to begin with, because like anything, practice makes perfect, but it is achievable. Building control of your emotions eventually builds emotional intelligence.


First of all you need to know that willpower isn't really all that powerful, without you mindfully backing it up. Like the battery in your smartphone, the more you use your willpower the less you have. If you spend all day resisting cookies with your tea, your willpower will be depleted by dinnertime, leaving you vulnerably trying to fight the temptations of dessert. The trick here is to give your willpower little or nothing to do. Don't leave yourself open to having to resist, don't put yourself in a position of choice of I can, but I won't.

Willpower is an essential element of self-mastery, but you need to know it's not invincible. Willpower, at its best, will push you into taking whatever action is necessary, even when you feel uncertain, afraid, skeptical or apathetic. The power of your will is what drives you towards your goals, long after the decision to start has past, or your initial mood has changed.

To optimise your willpower, you must first ensure you have both an intellectual and emotional reason to achieve your goal. For example: You want to stop being so easily distracted (by i.e.: email, social media and engaging with other time vampires), because it's effecting your productivity. Okay. Well, one intellectual reason for wanting to curb your susceptibility to distractions could be realising how reduced productivity equals a reduced income. The emotional reason could be the look in your children's eyes when you show them their tickets for Disneyland, which you've been able to afford due to increased productivity.

Willpower is at its strongest when we first make a commitment to change something, but wains in strength over time. The trick here then is to use this initial surge of willpower to put systems in place to support you when the willpower lessens. For example: to fight your susceptibility towards distractions, take the time to download internet blocking software, which only allows you online at a predetermined time of day. If you need the internet, you can get apps which block the specific sites you designate, like social media platforms etc. What systems and measures can you put into place whilst your initial willpower is strong, that'll carry you when your willpower weakens?


Information and knowledge will strengthen your focus. I personally metrics everything, because the numbers I focus on improve. Let's use the productivity example again; you want to be more productive to earn more money. The first thing you need to ascertain is how many hours you're working, or are prepared to work, then how much you want to earn. You simply reverse engineer it from here. You have your personal hours and income number in mind, but I'm going to use some UK national averages to demonstrate.

You want to take home £100k a year (or £160k gross), and work 2000 hours, or more specifically, 120,000 minutes a year. Divide £100k by 120,000 minutes and your income = £0.83 per minute, £4.15 per five minutes, £8.30 per ten minutes, £16.60 per 20 minutes and just under £25 per half hour. When you have armed yourself with this knowledge and these metrics, that 20 minute coast on YouTube cost you £16.60, but you did it twice today, so that cost you £33.20. YouTube for forty minutes every day of a working week, and that'll cost you £166 per week x 52 weeks in a year = £8632. This is how you can afford Disneyland!

If you're aiming for a more modest income, let's go with the UK 2016-2017 national average income of £27k. Divide £27k by 120,000 minutes = £0.23 per minute, £1.15 per five minutes, £2.30 per ten minutes, £4.60 per 20 minutes and just under £7 per half hour. Now let's multiply your 20 minute coast on YouTube by £0.23 = £4.60, twice a day = £9.20, every day of a working week = £46 x 52 weeks in a year = £2392. Perhaps not Disneyland, but a holiday nonetheless.

Now add to this the time you spending chatting about nothing in particular with someone who also had better things to be doing, or failing to delegate busy work to someone on a lower pay grade. This time all adds up, and the trick is to focus on what you're doing, for how long, and the pounds and pence cost to you. Cash poor people can't tell you where their money went, and time poor people can't tell you where their time went. Focus on the numbers you want to improve, and be accountable for every minute and penny spent. Those now crying: "Life's too short!" will be forever limited by their own willful ignorance. Vague goals produce vague results. It's your choice on how you wish to proceed, now you have this information, I'm just here to impart what I've learnt.

Like everything else discussed here, changes are going to be difficult to manifest at first. You are going to have to be seriously committed to making change happen. The best advice I can offer you here is to increase your effort incrementally. We all learn to swim gradually. If we plunge in without aids and support we will fail. Do your best work today, then do your best work tomorrow but in every way possible improve upon yesterday's best results. Gradually you will build and build and become stronger and stronger, closer and closer to achieving your goal. We fall down when we try to run before we can walk, so take baby steps at first and forgive all of your mistakes, you're new to this. Once you've mastered one aspect, move on to another, then another in a quest for continuous improvement.

This is how to achieve mastery.


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