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In this, you can trust – Lessons from the Barbarian

In the opening scene of the 1982 movie, Conan’s father teaches the little barbarian about the uncertainty of the world. He raises the sword saying, “No one in this world you can trust. Not men, not women, not beasts. But this you can trust.” While Conan’s old man certainly had trust issues, there is a deep philosophical meaning in this scene.

I was always a big fan of Arnold movies growing up and am even more so as an adult. My father was also a police officer and had a different future planned for me. Just like my childhood hero, I started from scratch in another country and had an accent that people found amusing.

What attracted me to Arnold was his ability to defy the odds by directing his will to where he wanted to excel. And excel he did, as a competitive bodybuilder, actor, and politician. The movie director could not have found a better fit to represent this part of Conan’s character.

The symbolism of the sword does not imply a distrust of anything in the world apart from a sharpened piece of steel. It represents our innate talents, and our ability to continue mastering them into the later stages of life.

I derive inspiration from people in their 80s and 90s, running, traveling the world, writing books, and doing all kinds of things that put people in their twenties to shame. The secret to honing this ability is in your mindset. Here are four ways you can forge the sword of talent and keep it sharp at any stage of your life’s journey.

Become a lifelong learner

There was a time in my life when I felt deep unhappiness. I had finished the studies required for my job. Career progression was as predictable as the storyline of the ‘70s pong game. The idea that I would no longer grow made me apathetic. Workdays turned into a 9 – 5 routine with distractions to escape the boring reality through binging on TV, food, and alcohol.

Looking back at that period, I can see that my thoughts were utterly wrong. The opportunities to learn from new challenges waiting to be conquered are endless if you are keen to recognize them. I managed to snap out of my warped version of reality and started researching a new career path.

The mind is an incredible tool that helps to navigate us through the world and solve puzzles. When unused, it is akin to a racehorse locked in a cage without being able to run. Planning strategically for your next career or life move creates space for your stallion to gallop free and get stronger.

Moving through this learning space will expand your horizons. The famous saying, “Go as far as you can see, so you can see further,” attributed to Zig Ziglar, is a perfect illustration of this principle.

To keep your knowledge balanced, be a T learner. Choose one discipline to master (that’s the long vertical bar of the T), while learning broader related knowledge (the horizontal bar).

Arnold’s character was an excellent sword fighter, learning from the best, but he also studied poetry and philosophy. This will integrate the knowledge and help to apply it in other areas. It can also prevent burn out and boredom with repetitive information.

In a quest for life-long learning, our aging bodies could be an obstacle. With the learner mindset, even competitive athletes can find another, less demanding way to practice and deepen their knowledge. As an example, Olympic runners can become coaches, helping aspiring students to follow their footsteps while gaining understanding from another perspective.

Invest in systems, not goals

My unhappiness was triggered by finishing a university degree. The joy that followed the award ceremony and wearing an alumni gown was short-lived. The realization that I had no goals to pursue left me feeling purposeless.

In western society, because of our preoccupation with goals, obtaining something often means an end state. This does not work well for mastery because it is built on small, incremental, methodically repeated steps. Obtaining the tool in the form of knowledge, qualifications, or a skill is only the beginning. The sword needs to be used skillfully and looked after, otherwise it will get rusty, blunt, and fall apart.

This logic is represented in our language. For instance, the word ‘love’ is both a verb and a noun. Finding the love of your life leads to a happy ending, right? Contrary to this view, true love involves the act of loving. Meeting someone special is the beginning of the journey and not the end with a kissing couple and rolling credits. The best relationships come out of practicing the mastery of loving.

In the same way, being a father requires parenting and does not stop once you place a photo of your child on the wall. My parents have still not retired from their roles, despite being in their 60s. That dedication to mastery is something that I always admire.

Excellence requires an application of the skill on a regular basis. Use goals as the key performance indicators or milestones in your system. This will leave you with a feeling of purpose as you hit your targets. 

Conan’s approach to systems was to follow the KISS principle (in my version it’s Keep It Super Simple). He started by pushing a weighted wheel daily to build strength. Once his strength was built and his competitors long gone, he moved to fighting, going from weaker opponents to more skillful ones.

Your goals can be further broken down into smaller, manageable elements. Using writing as an example, a goal to write a book may sound daunting. Instead, create a system with the goal of writing 400 words daily. Find a regular time in your calendar when you can do this without interruption. In a year, you will have developed the habit of writing with a 360-page book manuscript as proof.

Adopt new beliefs – step by step

When first dropped in the pit, the novice Barbarian was not sure what to do, winning his first fight almost accidentally. Each fight after that made him believe in his abilities and gave him more confidence.

My beliefs shaped my reality. Happily, I did not have to fight a half-dressed, sharp-toothed savage to change them. Ten years ago, I wrote myself off as a runner because of an old knee injury. On top of that, I found running boring and never tried to run for more than five kilometers.

Later in life, I learned to appreciate running as an exercise in building willpower. I made a habit out of overriding the little voice in my head, urging me to stop, though the voice had a number of compelling reasons – I was out of breath, tired, etc. By increasing my running distance in small increments, I strengthened my knees and started preparing for my first half marathon.

During this process, my attitude toward running changed from, “It’s painful and boring,” to “Running makes me a stronger person.” 

Roger Bannister was an athlete who shattered a common belief that it is not humanly possible to run a mile in under four minutes. Within months of his world record, people were repeating his victory in even shorter times. What is not commonly discussed in this example is that Bannister’s record was also a result of his systematic preparation and a general improvement of training routines in the running world.

Compete with yourself and help others grow

I enjoy healthy competition, but what I find even more inspiring is people with a common goal, supporting each other along the journey. In the late ‘50s, every member of a newly formed NASA crew wanted to be known as the first astronaut, but they worked together as a team. This led to the success of the Apollo missions, among other achievements.

We all bring different talents to the table, complementing our strengths and compensating for the underdeveloped parts of our character. A downside of excellence in one area is that your other skills are not on the same level, and even T shaped knowledge is affected by this fact. That is why every Barbarian needs wizards, thieves, and other characters, seemingly different from each other. The power of one becomes the strength of many.

Applying these four principles to sharpening your sword does not have to break a world record. It is excelling in an area of interest by constantly pushing boundaries and competing with yourself. The best part about this is that the process is endless and creates a life purpose.

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