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

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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?