Think: Calm Determination

An important skill for the 21st century

I’ve just finished reading a short book called The Book of Five Rings, penned sometime in the early 1600’s by an expert Japanese swordsman named Miyamoto Musashi. On its face, the book is a tight treatise on mastering military strategy. A few layers deeper, it’s a book about mastering oneself.

Though I’d be lying if I said the book was paradigm-shifting or life-changing or anything like that, there is one particular phrase that really stood out to me: “Both in fighting and everyday life,” writes Musashi, “you should be determined though calm.”

Calm determination. That’s what I wrote down in the margin, and what I felt an immediate draw toward — like something I could use more of in my life.

Though the book is over 350 years old, I think calm determination is just as important now as it must have been back then. Today, we’ve got 24/7 hyperbolic news, and as a result, 24/7 hyperbolic people. We’re also surrounded by attention killers: the internet, Netflix, and every single push-notification on a smartphone. And lest we forget about the cult of “productivity,” which prioritizes winning short-term battles (daily tasks) over long-term wars (meaningful projects that bear fruit down the road).

Put all this together, and we’re operating amidst a lot of noise. Calm determination, I think, is about being able to pick up any worthwhile signal in all of this noise, and then cut through the rest of it. It’s about staying on the path when it feels like everything is trying to pull you off.

Calm determination. That’s what I wrote down in the margin, and what I felt an immediate draw toward — like something I could use more of in my life.

What does calm determination look like in the 21st century?

I’m not sure there’s any single answer, but here are a few principles I’m personally working on cultivating that might benefit you too:

  • Don’t make snap judgments: create space to respond to stimulus thoughtfully instead of just reacting.
  • Carve out time, and physical space, to do distraction-free work that matters.
  • Think delayed gratification; resist the temptation to always go for quick wins.
  • Don’t ignore emotions, but don’t cling to them either. Emotions are valuable if they guide you, and dangerous if they control you.
  • Try to be more present; remind yourself that the present moment is all there is. If you give present moments your all you’ll create the best possible past and pave the road for the best possible future.
  • Regularly reflect on your core values and ask yourself, did you live in alignment with them? If not, how might you course-correct the next day?

If nothing else, calm determination makes for a wonderful mantra or cue for when the going gets tough. Because when the going gets tough, few things are more beneficial than remaining calm and determined.

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Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a columnist at Outside Magazine and New York Magazine.