Aspire: Practice self-control

It was one of a few nearly catastrophic moments in his otherwise steadily ascendant career.

Sometime around the year 374 B.C., Isocrates, one of the most well-known teachers and rhetoricians in Athens, wrote a letter to a young man named Demonicus. Isocrates had been a friend of the boy's recently deceased father and wanted to pass on to him some advice on how to follow his father's example.

The advice ranged from practical to moral—all communicated in what Isocrates described as "noble maxims." They were, as he put it, "precepts for the years to come."

Like many of us, Demonicus was ambitious, which is why Isocrates wrote him, because the path of ambition can be dangerous. Isocrates began by informing the young man that "no adornment so becomes you as modesty, justice, and self-control; for these are the virtues by which, as all men are agreed, the character of the young is held in restraint." "Practice self-control," he said, warning Demonicus not to fall under the sway of "temper, pleasure, and pain." And "abhor flatterers as you would deceivers; for both, if trusted, injure those who trust them."

He wanted him to "Be affable in your relations with those who approach you, and never haughty; for the pride of the arrogant even slaves can hardly endure" and "Be slow in deliberation, but be prompt to carry out your resolves" and that the "best thing which we have in ourselves is good judgment." Constantly train your intellect, he told him, "for the greatest thing in the smallest compass is a sound mind in a human body."

Some of this advice might sound familiar. Because it made its way over the next two thousand years to William Shakespeare, who often warned about ego run amok. In fact, in Hamlet, using this very letter as his model, Shakespeare puts Isocrates' words in the mouth of his character Polonius in a speech to his son, Laertes. The speech, if you happen to have heard it, wraps up with this little verse.

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!

As it happened, Shakespeare's words also made their way to a young United States military officer named William Tecumseh Sherman, who would go on to become perhaps this country's greatest general and strategic thinker. He may never have heard of Isocrates, but he loved the play and often quoted this very speech.

Like Demonicus', Sherman's father died when he was very young. Like Demonicus, he was taken under the wing of a wise, older man, in this case Thomas Ewing, a soon-to-be U.S. senator and friend of Sherman's father, who adopted the young boy and raised him as his own.

What's interesting about Sherman is that despite his connected father, almost no one would have predicted much more than regional accomplishments—least of all that he would one day need to take the unprecedented step of refusing the presidency of the United States. Unlike a Napoleon, who bursts upon the scene from nowhere and disappears in failure just as quickly, Sherman's ascent was a slow and gradual one.

He spent his early years at West Point, and then in the army. For his first few years in service, Sherman traversed nearly the entire United States on horseback, slowly learning with each posting. As the rumblings of Civil War broke out, Sherman made his way east to volunteer his services and he was shortly put to use at the Battle of Bull Run, a rather disastrous Union defeat. Benefiting from a dire shortage of leadership, Sherman was promoted to brigadier general and was summoned to meet with President Lincoln and his top military adviser. On several occasions, Sherman freely strategized and planned with the president, but at the end of his trip, he made one strange request; he'd accept his new promotion only with the assurance that he'd not have to assume superior command. Would Lincoln give him his word on that? With every other general asking for as much rank and power as possible, Lincoln happily agreed.

At this point in time, Sherman felt more comfortable as a number two. He felt he had an honest appreciation for his own abilities and that this role best suited him. Imagine that—an ambitious person turning down a chance to advance in responsibilities because he actually wanted to be ready for them. Is that really so crazy?

Not that Sherman was always the perfect model of restraint and order. Early in the war, tasked with defending the state of Kentucky with insufficient troops, his mania and tendency to doubt himself combined in a wicked way. Ranting and raving about being undersupplied, unable to get out of his own head, paranoid about enemy movements, he broke form and spoke injudiciously to several newspaper reporters. In the ensuing controversy, he was temporarily recalled from his command. It took weeks of rest for him to recover. It was one of a few nearly catastrophic moments in his otherwise steadily ascendant career.

It was after this brief stumble—having learned from it—that Sherman truly made his mark. For instance, during the siege at Fort Donelson, Sherman technically held a senior rank to General Ulysses S. Grant. While the rest of Lincoln's generals fought amongst themselves for personal power and recognition, Sherman waived his rank, choosing to cheerfully support and reinforce Grant instead of issuing orders. This is your show, Sherman told him in a note accompanying a shipment of supplies; call upon me for any assistance I can provide. Together, they won one of the Union's first victories in the war.Excerpt From: Ryan Holiday. "Ego Is the Enemy."

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