The poem I grew up with.

Alex Aristidou
5 min readJan 21, 2024

As a kid, I used to play competitive games of tennis in local and national tournaments. I loved playing the sport, but competing at tournaments at such a young age implied the inevitable reality of facing a defeat so early on in your life.

In those moments of youth despair, I recall my dad quoting various aspects of the poem IF by Rudyard Kipling in an effort to advise me how to grow. It is a rather short poem, every line though is important and still today, adds value to my learning.

It is a poem written in 1895 and it is essentially a father’s advice to his son on how to become a mature, responsible, and honorable man. It’s structured as a series of conditional statements, outlining various scenarios and suggesting the ideal ways to respond to them. The poem was written 125 years ago and a lot has changed. I would rephrase the backstory today as the conditions by which an individual can live a virtuous life. Although so many years have passed by and we have experienced so many changes. Those conditions live forever and age like a fine wine.

I outline here my top 5 conditions as described in the poem.

Condition 1

“If you can trust yourself when everyone doubts you, But make allowance for their doubting too”

In this part of the poem, the poet makes a point that it is important to believe in your self and in your ideas. To trust the process and your skills that you one day will make it! Nonetheless, the condition underlines that it is important to listen to the criticism your receive and to spend time thinking and considering about what you have been told. Being able to receive feedback and act rationally upon it is one of the greatest quality an individual has.

Condition 2

“If you can dream — and not make dreams your master; If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim”

I make a reference to this specific quote in many aspects of my life. It is my favorite condition. To dream is important. Without dreams and dreamers, we would be stuck in a cycle of risk-aversion where change would not be dynamic. On the other hand, a person shall not exist in the land of dreams rather to make dreams a reality an individual should not be obsessed with the dream the person sets but also focus on acting in the now! As per thoughts, according to many ancient Greek philosophers (see — Socrates & Aristoteles) a person who thinks is a person who lives a fulfilled life. Thus there is no question as to the value that critical thinking brings to an individual but always with limits and setting those limits is fundamental.

Condition 3

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same”

This is a very important condition, which took me some time to understand and clarify. A person’s attitude is tested on crucial moments and these moments seem to be the peaks of highs and lows. The condition asks the individual to remain who they truly are in those moments and thus to not be filled with over confidence in times of great success nor with low confidence in times of great defeats. Both triumphs and disasters are temporary states for all of us and are not set to last, thus the attitude one has during those times will greatly impact the next stage, post the peaks.

Condition 4

“And lose, and start again at your beginnings, And never breathe a word about your loss”

The fourth condition offers two main insights. The first is the common saying of not giving up. I recall a nice quote from Les Brown, who said “When you fall, try to land on your back because if you can look up you can get up!”. This follows a similar trajectory, implying that a defeat is unavoidable, though what matters most is that you set up your engine and start again! The second insight, however, is the one that offers the this unique perspective of “never breathing a word” about that defeat. It is common that people focus a lot of their energy on “bad” things that have happened to them and to be unproductive on talking and going over and over those defeats. The condition asks the individual to accept the outcome as it is, understand that it is part of the game, we call life, and to move on with it!

Condition 5

“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch”

To be humble, pragmatic and to have self awareness. The condition asks the reader to be true to themselves and not to be affected or lose their brain depending on who they are surrounded by. A virtuous person is one who has searched deep into thyself and so will not be affected by such situations. “It is the person that makes a position, not a position that makes the person” is a quote based on similar philosophy. Oftentimes we observe people losing their mind because they spend time with celebrities or because they have been given a position of power. This final condition asks from us to keep being us, the person we are despite on our surroundings or the positions we hold.

Ending this article, I realise how this poem has shaped my life and way of thinking. In living a fulfilled life we strive to always improve and develop but in doing so we are destined to be faced with challenges, defeats and disappointments. Only through experiencing those we can become something more, a version of ourselves better than the one we have today!

So, to that kid who just lost another match in the youth tennis tournament — I owe some words from this poem that have shaped me as I was growing to be a better version of myself and I hope it is able to touch someone else as well.

“And so hold on when there is nothing in you, Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’”

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