From Chapter 6, “Imperturbability: Staying Calm” in Ingredients of Outliers
The second nineteenth century figure I referred to earlier was Rudyard Kipling, whose poems have long been staples in English literature classes. They include “Mandalay” and “Gunga Din,” both based on military life in British-colonial India, where Kipling grew up. The latter poem, which ends with these famous words: “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din,” was twice the subject of Hollywood films.
Released in 1939, the first one featured such well-known film stars of the day as Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. In typical Hollywood fashion, a second version was released in 1961, with numerous changes. Featuring Frank Sinatra and his famous (or infamous) Rat Pack, it was renamed Sergeants 3 and was reset in the Old West with the role of the native water-carrier Gunga Din played by none other than Sammy Davis, Jr.
But I digress. It was another Kipling poem, written at close to the same time as Aequanimitas, that expressed much the same underlying message, but in simpler terms. Unlike Osler’s twelve- letter title, Kipling’s poem was simply titled if. Rather than repeat the entire thirty-two-line poem here, the following are some excerpts:
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 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 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 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!
The words of Osler and Kipling don’t deny the possibility of a falling sky, nor do they recommend a “pie in the sky/by and by” kind of mentality. Their words are about attitude, about maintaining a calm and even-tempered outlook, regardless of circumstances.
We may not encounter the word “equanimity” very often, but consider these definitions:
- A habit of mind that is only rarely disturbed
- Evenness of mind under stress
- A calmness of mind under all circumstances
A Tremendous Example
One man who perhaps best exemplified this kind of attitude was the late Charlie “Tremendous” Jones, who from 1965 until his death in 2008, traveled the world as a professional speaker and humorist. During his career, he received virtually every honor in the speaking profession, and was ranked by his peers as one of the top fifty speakers of the twentieth century.
Despite a series of health issues, including the prostate cancer that would eventually claim his life, Jones continued to spread his wise and humor-filled message in a manner unlike anyone else. Despite his own always positive and upbeat approach to life, he would proclaim to his audiences: “Show me a positive thinker, and I’ll show you an idiot.” As the laughter would subside, he’d explain that the key didn’t lie in being a positive thinker, but a positive realist! “Sure you have problems,” he’d say. “You’re not dead— and they’re going to get WORSE!”
It wasn’t a lack of empathy or compassion on his part that triggered such statements. He’d then proceed to tell his audiences that he’d discovered the greatest secret in the world. After a lengthy buildup, he’d pause dramatically for a minute or two, ask the audience if they were ready and would announce: “Here it comes, the greatest secret in the world,” and then bellow: “NOTHING WORKS!”
Jones wanted people to recognize that things will go wrong, that there will be problems all through life, but if we learn to accept that fact, maybe we’ll begin to take ourselves less seriously. “You have two choices,” he’d explain. “When facing the problems you’ll encounter, you can choose to be ‘miserable miserable’ or ‘happy miserable.’”
Charlie “Tremendous” Jones’ advice was the same as that offered by Sir William Osler and Rudyard Kipling a century earlier, as well as that of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor of two millennia ago, whose words introduced this chapter. Yet I find it fascinating that we still occasionally have to be reminded of the wisdom of this advice. Imperturbability (or aequanimitas), whether acquired or developed, is an incredibly beneficial trait which will make the transit through this life much more enjoyable.
Or in simpler terms, as Judge Elihu Smails said in the film Caddyshack: “It’s easy to grin when your ship comes in, and you’ve got the stock market beat. But the man worthwhile is the man who can smile, when his shorts are too tight in the seat.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
• Losing your cool never furthers your cause. Yelling, swearing, screaming, etc. always pushes you and others farther away from your desired outcome.
• When everything else is out of control, at the very least, you can control your own reactions.
• Stress reveals character.