Rediscovering Rudyard Kipling's famous coming-of-age poem, "If."

By Rob Liddell

As Saint Leo University's director of Career Planning, Rob Liddell provides students with practical guidance about preparing for a career and steps to follow to achieve success.

In the following guest blog post, Rob offers some advice more reflective and inspirational in nature about preparing for life. His thoughts about self-confidence, criticism, forgiveness, fear, and dreams spring from Rudyard Kipling's well-known poem about maintaining integrity, "If".

I must admit that I have never read Rudyard Kipling's reputed The Jungle Book introduced in 1894. Like many others, I was introduced to Mowgli the abandoned man-cub and the moral lessons shared by his anthropomorphic friends through the animated Walt Disney film of the same name.

A Kipling piece that I have taken some time reading and thinking about recently was the coming-of-age poem, "If," I rediscovered the poem and its message shortly after receiving an e-mail from a student thanking me for challenging him through a grueling application process.

I believe the whole poem has quite a lot to offer, but in particular, I would like to share the first and third stanzas with you and what I find there.   

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,

 Within the first four lines of the poem, Kipling highlights three important truths:

  • The power of self-confidence to initiate, to continue, and to complete any undertaking

  • The necessity to detach oneself from criticism

  • The central role that forgiveness plays in a life marked with regular contact with others.  

Self-confidence can be an over-inflated construct and it is often poorly characterized by arrogance. To present as self-confident, an individual must be able to place reasonable assurance in their personal judgment, ability, and power.

Psychologists have quarreled over the operation of explicit and implicit self-confidence as they seek to help others properly evaluate their perceptions of efficacy.  My work deals with both stripes (explicit and implicit); however, the explicit variety is slightly easier to observe. 

This leads to the second and third applications drawn from Kipling's work. 

Fears related to seeming incompetent or disappointing the expectations of others have driven some to work diligently to master their craft. For others, these fears have reduced their owners to mere observers of life – those who cannot muster the courage to strike out boldly to experience the highs and lows of life and relationship.

The only safe place for a ship is in the harbor; yet ships weren't built to reside there.  

Thirdly, Kipling understands the fluid dynamics within human experience and aptly identifies an essential ingredient for survival: forgiveness. 

Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch social worker, encourages me here when she states that "forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart." In the coldest winter of my heart, I can choose to extend forgiveness to those I once warmly welcomed.

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 imposters just the same

 In this stanza, Kipling issues a call to action through his noble use of language.

Dreams and thoughts have their place but not as ends in themselves.

The narrator compels the reader to respond with an orchestrated effort after first envisioning a desirable outcome and drafting an initial implementation plan.

The following couplet stands out most dramatically for me.  "Meet[ing] with Triumph and [with] Disaster and treat[ing] (them) just the same" speaks to the power of perspective. 

John Ortberg has said that "one of the great gifts failure can give us is the recognition that we are loved and valued by God precisely when we are in the cave of failure. 

As long as my sense of being valuable and significant is tied to my success, it will be a fragile thing. But when I come to know," he continues, "in the marrow of my bones that I am just as valued and loved by God when I have fallen flat on my face, then I am gripped by a love stronger than success or failure." 

Experience has taught me that triumph (success) and disaster (failure) will skew an honest perception of reality every time unless a proper perspective is employed.

This perspective helps you understand that you are not quite as good, nor are you quite as bad, as you think you are in a given moment.

As I shared in the first paragraph, I came across Kipling's "If" after wanting to encourage a student I had the opportunity to meet.

At our first meeting, we began to talk about his desire to continue his education at a well-respected law school after graduating in December of 2012. He seemed rather sure about his direction and knew which steps were next; he simply had reasons for not taking those steps.

As we parted company, I shared with him the wisdom of the American statesman, Benjamin Franklin, who proffered that "a man good at making excuses is good at little else."

Shortly thereafter, the student stopped in to pay a visit to my office requesting assistance on an application essay. We read, we revised, we re-read, we reused phrases, we reframed…we worked collaboratively to develop an essay he felt best represented his intention and motivation for seeking law school admittance and we parted company again. 

This time I looked for something befitting our task at hand and borrowed from Aristotle when he said that "at his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst." 

When I received notice that he was offered admission to six of the seven schools to which he had applied (including his first choice institution), I knew that Kipling needed to warn him about this current Triumph and caution him about the deceitfulness of pending Disasters. 

If he'll heed the counsel of the poem and "fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run," he will have every opportunity to embody the values-oriented leadership he has invested the last several years in acquiring.

"In the current economic atmosphere, the importance of effective career planning cannot go understated," says Rob Liddell, Saint Leo's director of Career Planning. Rob emphasizes the advantages of career exploration, experiential career learning such as internships, industry and occupational research, and networking. Rob joined Saint Leo from the University of South Florida where he is pursuing a doctorate in higher education administration. He works with students at University Campus, online, and at university centers. Reach him at 352-588-8346 or

Image Credit: gremio on Flickr/Creative Commons