99. Conquest over one’s self, in the hour of victory, is a double triumph.
Publius Syrus has a string of sayings in this section about actions counting double. For instance, “He dies twice who perishes by his own hand,” and, “To die by another’s command is to endure two deaths.” Both poignant in their own right, but here we’ll look at what it means to conquest over one’s self and why it can count double.
Let’s take as an example that you’re trying to improve your skill in a certain area. Maybe your free throw shooting ability. Maybe your ability to sing a very high note for a sustained amount of time. Or maybe your ability to read social situations and better understand the subtext of an interaction.
Often times, your lack of sufficient skill in this area can prevent you from achieving an important public victory — e.g., making the varsity basketball team, performing a certain song, or getting a promotion.
In any case, on our journey to improve our skill over time, there will be periods of rapid improvement, and periods of relatively slow improvement. These plateaus in particular can feel flat — we can go for a long period of time without seeing any day-to-day improvement. And then one day, woah, something clicks, and we are suddenly a lot better.
Starting out developing a new skill, one typically sees very fast improvements, as new neural connections are formed and the knowledge, behaviors, and techniques that constitute a skill start to crystalize. But after a month or two, progress slows down. We must keep pushing ourselves, because from our perspective (and perhaps an outsider’s as well), we are not improving much if at all, and that can be discouraging.
For a time this goes on, and eventually you may hit an especially rough patch:
- Nothing seems to be working
- What used to seem easy after your last rapid improvement now seems hard
- You feel as if your skills have actually regressed
And as you ramp up the level of the challenges you are trying to overcome, you can start to smash up against some very powerful anxiety. This is because the challenge outpaces your skill level. If the opposite was occurring (i.e., your skills outpace the challenge), you would experience boredom. This is part of the phenomenon known as the “flow channel,” and is explained in depth in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s excellent book on optimal experiences, Flow.
It is at these points of anxiety where we’re furthest away from our old self, in terms of our skill set being sufficient to match the challenge before us. These are the times when it is so easy to quit — It’s just too hard. The anxiety is too great. Our mind tells us that we won’t ever be able to do it, what’s the point.
These thoughts are all normal.
The key is to just keep going, and trust the process you’ve laid out for yourself to improve your skills. Take your mind away from doubts of the future and immerse yourself in the present moment. The process will carry you forward — as long as it was a well-thought-out plan in the first place — and you’ll eventually break through the plateau and experience a significant leveling up.
And many times, in this moment of private victory over self — over the all-consuming urge to give up — we also experience our greatest public victories as well. It is in this way that we experience the double triumph of which Publius speaks.
Until next time,
If your Netflix and Instagram addictions have left you feeling unfulfilled, maybe you’re in need of a good old-fashioned conquest over self. If it worked for a Roman slave who lived 2,000 years ago, it can work for you too.