IF a task you once begun never leave until it’s done be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.

This is an Anonymous quote that my father-in-law retired Army Command Sergeant Major William E. Smithers taught his three daughters while they were still young girls.  All three of the husbands know this saying as well, and it continues to serve as an important test of our moral character and the inner fortitude undergirding whatever task lay before us especially in faithfully fulfilling the important responsibility of providing for each of our families needs. That brief quote like so many other ‘golden nuggets’ about wisdom holds the power to transform a person’s past approach to living in the world if one will only commit it to memory and heart.

Today, it seems like a very long time ago when I began a personal search for exemplary principles, time-tested teachings, and universal values for increasing the self-awareness, self-control, motivation to act intentionally, and overall decision-making of adolescents.  Never an expert in these areas myself, I resolved to find and consult with highly admired and widely trusted people and to diligently look at an assortment of information on the subjects of resilience, self-efficacy, and spiritual transformation.

One of the most inspiring pieces of written material that I have ever come across is that of “Invictus”, a short Victorian poem by the English poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903).

The poem was written in 1875 and first published in 18883 in Henley’s Book of Verses, where it was the fourth in a series of poems entitled Life and Death (Echoes).4 It originally bore no title.4 Early printings contained only the dedication To R. T. H. B.—a reference to Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce (1846–1899), a successful Scottish flour merchant and baker who was also a literary patron.5 The familiar title “Invictus” (Latin for “unconquered”6) was added by Arthur Quiller-Couch when he included the poem in The Oxford Book Of English Verse (1900).78

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.


KINGS ROW, Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan, Robert Cummings, 1942

KINGS ROW, Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan, Robert Cummings, 1942

In the 1945 film Kings Row, Parris Mitchell, a psychiatrist played by Robert Cummings, recites part of “Invictus” to his friend Drake McHugh, played by former President Ronald Reagan, before revealing to Drake that his legs were unnecessarily amputated by a cruel doctor.

While incarcerated on Robben Island prison, Nelson Mandela recited this poem to other prisoners and was empowered by its message of ‘self-mastery’.

In the 2009 movie Invictus, produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, the poem is referred to several times. It becomes the central inspirational gift from Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, to Springbok rugby team captain François Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, in advance of the post-apartheid Rugby World Cup hosted in 1995 by South Africa and won by the underdog Springboks.

In Napoleon Hill’s book, Think And Grow Rich, this poem is quoted and discussed. Hill added that, we are master and captain, “. . . because we have the power to control our thoughts”. We are warned that this “power”, alluded to in Henley’s poem, “. . . makes no attempt to discriminate between destructive thoughts and constructive thoughts”. Napoleon Hill explains that the conscious choice is laid upon the individual and suggests that the poet left others to, “. . . interpret the philosophical meaning of his lines”. 1

The development of the inner powers of the will and its prudent use is of utmost importance.  St. Augustine, with one of his concise and apt expressions, said, “Homines sunt voluntates” (men are will).  Indeed, it is the will that constitutes the real innermost center of man; it is that which makes him truly himself.  Without it, the ablest and most intelligent individual would be no more than an ingenious automation (Assagioli, Date N/A). 2

William James said…

For morality life is a war, and the service of the highest is a sort of cosmic patriotism which also calls for volunteers.  Even a sick man, unable to be militant outwardly, can carry on … [in] moral warfare.  He can willfully turn his attention away from his indifference to his present drawbacks and immerse himself in whatever objective interests still remain accessible.  He can follow public news, and sympathize with other people’s affairs.  He can cultivate cheerful manners, and be silent about his miseries.  He can contemplate whatever ideal aspects of existence his philosophy is able to present to him, and practice whatever duties, such as patience, resignation, trust, his ethical system requires.  Such a man lives on his loftiest, largest plane.  He is a high-hearted freeman and no pining slave. 3

What new task are you about to begin in your life? Are you ready to chart the course? Do you think that you could use a helper? Someone to accompany you part of the way on your journey? If yes, then I would love to have the honor of joining you.


  1. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invictus)
  2. Assagiolo, M.D., R. (N/A). The Training of the Will (http://www.synthesiscenter.org/articles/0117.pdf)
  3. James, W., (2004). The Varieties of Religious Experience – A Study in Human Nature. With Introduction and Notes by Wayne Proudfoot Barnes & Noble Classics. New York.