THE NEED OF POISE IN LIFE
Lack of poise has always been an obstacle to those who are imbued with
the desire to succeed.
In every age the awkwardness born of timidity has served to keep back
those who suffered from it, but this defect has never been so great a
drawback as in the life of to-day.
The celebrated phrase of the ancient Roman writer who said, "Fortune
smiles on the brave," could very well serve as our motto
this slight alteration: "Fortune smiles on those who are possest of
At this point let us attempt an exact definition of poise.
It is a quality which enables us to judge of our own value, and which,
in revealing to us the knowledge of the things of which we are really
capable, gives us at the same time the desire to accomplish them.
It is not a quality wholly simple. On the contrary, it is a composite of
many others all of which take part in the molding of that totality which
bears the name of poise.
It may be well to pass in review the principal qualities of which it is
composed, that one may characterize as follows:
Knowledge of one's own value.
Correctness of judgment.
Sincerity toward oneself.
The power of resisting the appeals of self-love.
Contempt of adverse criticism.
Pride that is free from vanity.
A definite and clearly conceived ambition.
Will, as is well known, is the pivot of all our resolutions, whether the
question for the moment be how to form them or how to keep them when
A man without will-power is a straw, blown about by every wind and
carried, whether he will or no, into situations in which he has no valid
reason for finding himself.
Without the will-power which enables us to take a firm hold of ourselves
and to get a grip upon our impressions, they will remain vague and
nebulous without presenting to us characters of sufficient definiteness
to enable us to direct them readily into the proper channels.
It is will-power which gives us the force to maintain a resolution which
will lead us to the hoped-for goal of success.
It is will-power also which enables us to correct the faults which stand
in the way of the acquiring of poise.
We are not now speaking of those idle fancies which are no more than
manifestations of nervousness. We have in mind rather that controlled
and enduring purpose which arms the heart against the assaults of the
emotions by giving it the strength to overcome them.
There are many cases even in which will-power has led to their entire
This happens more particularly in the case of those artificial emotions
that the man of resolution ignores completely, but which cause agony to
the timid who do not know how to escape them, and exaggerate them to
This abnormal development of their personalities is the peculiarity of
the timid, which their fitful efforts of will only heighten, alienating
from them the sympathy which might be of assistance to them.
They take refuge in a species of mischievous and fruitless activity,
leaving the field open to the development of all sorts of imaginary ills
that argument does not serve to combat.
Their ego, whose importance is in no way counterbalanced by their
appreciation of the friends they keep at a distance, fills their entire
existence to such an extent that they have no doubt whatever that, when
they are in public, every eye is, of necessity, fixt upon them.
Their negative will leaves them at the mercy of every sort of emotion,
which, in arousing in them the necessity of a reaction they feel
themselves powerless to realize, reduces them to a state of inferiority
that, when it becomes known, is the source of grave embarrassment to
The power of will which sustains those who wish to acquire the habit of
poise is, then, the capacity to accomplish acts solely because one has
the ardent desire to achieve them.
We are now speaking, understand, neither of extreme heroism or of
Another point presents itself here. Willpower, in order to preserve its
energy, must be sustained and fixt. At this price alone can we achieve
poise. We must, therefore, thoroughly saturate ourselves with this
principle: Reasoning-power is an essential element in the upbuilding of
It is reasoning-power which teaches us to distinguish between those
things that we must be careful to avoid and those which are part and
parcel of the domain of exaggeration and fantasy.
It is also by means of reasoning that we arrive at the proper
appreciation of the just mean that we must observe. It is by its aid
that we are enabled to disentangle those impulses that will prove
profitable from a chaos of useless risks.
It is always by virtue of deductions depending upon reason that we are
able to adopt a resolution or to maintain an attitude that we believe to
be correct, while preserving our self-possession under circumstances in
which persons of a timorous disposition would certainly lose their
Those who know how to reason never expose themselves to the possibility
of being unhorsed by fate for lack of good reasons for strengthening
themselves in their chosen course.
They adhere, in the very heat of discussion and in spite of the
onslaughts of destiny, to the line of conduct that sage reflection has
taught them to adopt and are more than careful never to abandon it
except for the most valid reasons.
They never stray into the byways in which the timid and the shrinking
constantly wander without sufficient thought of the goal toward which
they are journeying.
They know where they are going, and if, now and again, they ask for
information about the road that remains to be traveled, it is with no
intention of changing their course, but simply so as not to miss the
short cuts and to lose nothing of the pleasures of the scenes through
which they may pass.
Reasoning-power is the trade-mark of superior minds. Mediocre natures
take no interest in it and, as we have seen, the timid are incapable of
it, except in so far as it follows the beaten path.
True poise never is guided by anything but reason. Certain risks can
never be undertaken save after ripe deliberation.
Confusion is never the fate of those who are resolved on a definite line
Such people are careful to plumb the questions with which they have to
grapple and to weigh the inconveniences and the advantages of the acts
they have the desire to accomplish.
When their decision is once made, however, nothing will prevent the
completion of the work they have begun. Such people are ripe for
The knowledge of one's real worth is a quality doubly precious when
contrasted with the fact that the majority of people are more than
indulgent to their own failings. Of many of them it may be said, in the
words of the Arab proverb, couched in the language of imagery: "This man
has no money, but in his pocket everything turns to gold."
This saying, divested of the language of hyperbole, means simply that
the man in question is so obsessed with the greatness of his own
personal value that he exaggerates the importance of everything that
This condition is a much more common one than one might at first
believe. Many an occurrence which, when it happens to some one else,
seems to us quite devoid of interest, becomes, when it directly affects
us, a matter to compel the attention of others, to the extent that we
find ourselves chilled and disappointed when we discover that we are the
victims of that indifference which we were prepared to exhibit toward
other people under similar circumstances.
The consciousness of our own worth must not be confounded with that
adoration of self which transforms poise into egotism.
It is a good thing to know one's own powers sufficiently well to
undertake only such tasks as are certainly within the scope of one's
To believe oneself more capable than one really is, is a fault that is
far too common. It is, nevertheless, less harmful in the long run than
the failing which is its exact antithesis. Lack of confidence in one's
own powers is the source of every kind of feebleness and of all
It is for this reason that poise never can exist without another
quality, that correctness of judgment which, in giving us the breadth of
mind to know exactly how much we are capable of, permits us to undertake
our tasks without boasting and without hesitation.
Soundness of judgment is the faculty of being able to appreciate the
merits of our neighbors without cherishing any illusions as to our own,
and of being able to do this so exactly that we can with assurance carry
out to its end any undertaking, knowing that the result must be, barring
accidents, precisely what we have foreseen.
This being the case, what possible reason can we have for depreciating
ourselves or for lacking poise?
Timid people suffer without recognizing their own defects in the matter
They torture themselves by building their judgments upon indications and
not upon facts.
If the perception of a man of resolution causes him to understand at
once the emptiness of criticisms based on envy or spleen, the timid man,
always ready to seize upon anything that can be possibly construed into
an appearance of ridicule directed against himself, will give up a
project that he hears criticized without stopping to weigh the value of
the arguments advanced.
Far from arguing the question out, or attempting a rebuttal, he never
even dreams of it. The very thought of a contest, however courteously it
may be conducted, frightening him to such an extent that he loses all
The unfortunate shrinking which characterizes him makes him an easy prey
for people of exaggerated enthusiasms as well as to quick
A token of apparent sympathy touches him so profoundly that he does not
wait to estimate its value and to decide whether it be sincere or not.
He passes in a moment from careless gaiety to the blackest despair if he
imagines that he has observed even the appearance of an unsympathetic
He does not need to be sure, to be miserable. It is enough for him if
the circumstances that he thought favorable become seemingly hostile and
How utterly different is the attitude of the man who is endowed with
His firmness of soul saves him from unconsidered enthusiasms and he
jealously preserves his control in the presence of excessive
protestations as well as when confronting indications of aimless
How can such a man as this possibly fail to form a correct judgment and
to benefit by all the qualities that depend upon it?
Absolute sincerity toward oneself is one of the forms of sound judgment.
Without indulging in excessive modesty, it is a good thing to endeavor
to become intimately acquainted with one's aptitudes and one's failings,
and to admit the latter with the utmost frankness in order to set about
the work of correcting them.
It is also necessary to know exactly what sort of territory it is in
which one is taking one's risks.
The world of affairs, whatever these last may happen to be, may be
likened to a vast preserve containing traps for wild beasts.
The man who wishes to walk in such a place without coming to harm will,
first of all, make a careful study of the ground for the purpose of
avoiding the traps and pitfalls that may engulf him or wound him as he
Just as soon as he has located these dangers his step becomes firm and
he can advance with a tranquil gait and head upraised along the paths
which he knows do not conceal any dangerous surprizes.
These are the pitfalls that most frequently threaten that daring that we
sometimes find in the timid.
Their very defects preventing them from making proper comparisons, they
are altogether too prone to ignore their faults and to magnify their
virtues and so fall an easy prey to the designer and the sharper.
Their very carelessness in estimating other people becomes the
foundation of an involuntary partiality the moment they are called upon
to judge their own actions.
It is not deliberate self-indulgence that drives them to act in this
way, but their inexperience, which gives rise in them to the desire for
perfection, and this necessarily provokes, simultaneously with the
despair caused by their failure to attain it, a fear of having this
failure remarked or commented upon.
The man who possesses poise is too familiar with the realities of life
not to be aware that the search for such an ideal is a Utopian dream.
But he is also aware that, if actual perfection does not exist, it is
the bounden duty of man to struggle always in pursuit of good and to
show appreciation of it in whatsoever form it may manifest itself.
Sincerity toward himself thus becomes for him an easy matter indeed, and
for the very reason that his poise leaves him absolutely free to form a
correct estimate of others.
Serious self-examination throws a clear light for him upon those merits
of which he has a right to be proud, while revealing to him at the same
time the faults to which he is most likely to yield.
The habit of estimating himself and his own qualities without fear or
favor gives him great facility for gaging the motives of other people.
He thus avoids the pitfalls that a biased viewpoint spreads before the
feet of the foolish, and at the same time represses that feeling of
vanity which might lead him to believe that he is altogether too clever
to fall into them.
He watches himself constantly to avoid getting into the bypaths which he
sees with sorrow that others are following, and does not fail to
estimate accurately the value of the victories he achieves over himself
as well as over the duplicity of most of the people who surround him.
And this superiority is what makes certain his poise. More difficult
perhaps than anything else to acquire is the power to resist the appeals
of one's own self-love.
We will explain this later at greater length. Lack of poise is often due
to nothing so much as an excess of vanity which throws one back upon
oneself from the fear of not being able to shine in the front rank.
Such a person does not say to himself: "I will conquer this place by
sheer merit." He contents himself with envying those who occupy it,
quite neglecting to put forth the efforts which would place him there
There is nothing worse than yielding to an exaggerated tenderness toward
ourselves, which, by magnifying our merits in our own eyes, frequently
leads us to make attempts which result in failure and expose us to
This is a most frequent cause of making an inveterate coward of one who
is subject to occasional attacks of timidity.
To know one's limitations exactly and never to allow oneself to exceed
them--this is the part of wisdom, the act of a man who, as the saying
goes, knows what he is about.
There is in every effort a necessary limit that it is not wise to
"Never force your talents," says a very pithy proverb. Never undertake
to do a thing that is beyond your powers.
Never allow yourself to be drawn into a discussion on a subject which is
beyond your intellectual depth. To do so is to take the risk of making
mistakes that will render you ridiculous.
But if you are quite convinced that you can come out victorious, never
hesitate to enter a trial of wits that may serve as an occasion for
demonstrating the fact that you are sure of your subject.
The man who cultivates poise will never let pass such opportunities as
this for exhibiting himself in a favorable light.
Conscious of the soundness of his own judgment, and filled with a real
sincerity toward himself, he will not allow himself to be carried away
by a possible chance of success. Rather will he gather himself together,
collect his forces, and wait until he can achieve a real effect upon the
minds of those whom he wishes to impress.
Similarly the result of unsuccess in such a venture is obvious. It has
the effect of developing a distrust of oneself and of destroying the
superb assurance of those people of whom it is often said: "Oh, he! He
is sailing with the wind at his back!"
People generally fail to add in these cases that such persons have left
nothing undone to accomplish this result and are more than careful not
to weigh anchor when the wind is not favorable.
It is true enough that there can be no actual shelter from a storm, but
the mariner who is prepared is able to ride it out without appreciable
damage, while those who are not prepared generally founder on account of
their poor seamanship.
Disregard of calumny is always the index of a noble spirit.
The man who wastes time over such indignities and who allows himself to
be affected by them is not of the stature that insures victory in the
Minds of large caliber disdain these manifestations of futile jealousy.
People of obscurity are never vilified. Only those whose merits have
placed them in the limelight are the targets for the attacks of envy and
for the slanders of falsehood.
A precept that has often been enunciated, and can not be too often
repeated, which should, indeed, be inscribed in letters of gold over the
doors of every institution where men meet together, runs as follows:
"Envy and malice are nothing more than homage rendered to superiority."
Only those who occupy an enviable position can become objects of
Such calumny is always the work of the unworthy, who think to advertise
their own merits by denying those of better men.
Men of resolution under such circumstances simply shrug their shoulders
and pass by.
The rest, those who are enslaved by timidity, become confused.
Their ego, which they cultivated in a fashion at once obscure and
absolute, becomes so profoundly affected that they lack all courage to
openly defend it.
Moreover, that instinctive need of sympathy, which is so marked a
characteristic of the timid, is deeply wounded, while their chronic fear
of disapprobation is strengthened by the criticisms spread abroad.
The illogicality of these sentiments is obvious. The man who is timid
shuns society, yet nevertheless the judgments of this same society are
for him a question of absorbing interest. Timidity is, in effect, a
disease of many forms, every one of which is founded upon illogicality.
It is always a mental weakness. It is sometimes vanity, but never pride,
that reasonable pride that a philosophy now abandoned once numbered as
one of the principal vices, and which, if rightly estimated, can be
considered as the motive power of every noble action.
Pride is a force. It is therefore a virtue which must of necessity be
one of the components of poise, so long as it contains within it no
seeds of vanity. Under such circumstances it is a primal condition of
success in the achievement of poise. Pride must, however, be free from
vanity, otherwise it ceases to be a force and becomes a cause of
As a matter of fact, those who are conceited are always the dupes of
their own desire to bulk largely in the minds of others, and at the mere
thought that they will not shine as they have hoped to do the majority
of them are put entirely out of countenance and are quite at a loss for
means of expression.
The inevitable result of this tendency is to drive them into association
with mediocrity. In such a society alone will the vain find themselves
at their ease. But the very moment that they find themselves in the
presence of those who are their superiors, the fear of not being able to
occupy the front rank throws them into such a state of mental disarray
that they entirely lose their assurance and that appearance of poise by
whose aid they are often able to deceive others.
Finally, one of the most solid elements of poise is, without doubt, a
well-defined ambition, that is to say, one that is divested of the
drawbacks of frivolity and directly winged toward the goal of one's
The man who possesses ambition of this kind is certainly destined to
acquire, if he has not already acquired it, that poise which is
absolutely necessary to him in order to make his way in the world.
He will neither be pretentious nor timorous, exaggerated nor fearful. He
will go forward without hesitation toward the goal which he knows to be
before him, and will make, without any apologies, those detours which
seem to him necessary to the success of his undertaking, without paying
any attention to the fruitless distractions that make victims of the
He will not have to put up with the affront of being refused, for he
will ask aid only of those persons who, for various reasons, he is
practically sure will be of assistance to him. The knowledge of his own
deserts, while keeping him in the position he has attained, will prevent
him from being satisfied in commonplace surroundings, and his will-power
will always maintain him at the level he has reached, permitting him no
latitude save that of exceeding it.
Such is true poise, not that whose spirit one violates by merely
associating it with the incapable, the pretentious, or the extravagant,
but that which is at once the motive power and the inspiration of all
the actions of those who, in their determination to force their way
through the great modern struggle for existence, perseveringly follow a
line of conduct that they have worked out for themselves in advance.
Ignoring such enterprises as they know to be unworthy of their powers,
those who are possest of real poise (and not of that foolish temerity
colloquially known as _bluff_) will devote themselves solely to such
tasks as a well-ordered judgment and an accurate knowledge of their own
potentialities indicate to them to be fitting.
Does this mean that they will succeed in every case?
Unfortunately, no! But such of them as have met with temporary failure,
if they are able to assure themselves that their lack of success has
been due neither to a failure of will-power nor a fear of ridicule, will
return to the charge, once more prepared to make headway against
circumstances which they have the poise to foresee, and which they will
at least render incapable of harming them, even if they lack the
necessary force to dominate them completely to their own advantage.