Dying Before Going Into Battle

This is the title of the fourth chapter of the 1996 book ‘The Last Word on Power’ by Tracy Goss. In this chapter, Goss draws our attention to the Japanese Samurai warriors who, in reminding themselves of the inevitability of loss, used the phrase “Die before going into battle.” This practice allowed a warrior to enter an episode of combat without fear of death. He had brought himself through an experience of the acceptance of death ahead of time. His death was a plausible outcome. In this way the warrior was able to fully give himself to his mission without concern for survival. Such freedom made all the difference between defeat and victory.

A few weeks ago I advised a good friend to apply that exact same technique. His "battle" was an interview where the stakes were very high for the rest of his career. Instead of providing him with tips and tricks on the level of action ("doing") I advised him to change his position on the level of "being". As Goss argues, freeing yourself from the illusion that you can control life so that it turns out the way it ‘should’ means that you accept defeat as a plausible outcome. Along the lines of Goss’ advice I gave to my friend the assignment to free himself from the illusion that he could control the outcome of the interview so it would turn out the way he wanted.

At first he was a bit puzzled by the advice because he expected me to give him tasks, assignments, stuff to read, issues to analyze and research, MBTI style surveys to fill out and lots of homework. Not. What I asked him to do is to shut all his plans, one-liners and prepared scenarios for the interview down, to go to a quiet place and to really imagine himself getting it all wrong and picking up life after failing the interview. Then I asked him to accept that scenario as a plausible outcome.

As you can guess I would not be writing about this event if it weren’t successful for my friend. A few days later I got a phone call in which he explained: "Before I got in for the interview I was convinced that the game was over and I accepted that outcome. As a result I was so relaxed that I forgot about scenario A or strategy B that I would apply during the interview – because it did not matter anymore – and I could engage fully in the interview without any distraction." This sudden ‘liberty’ and ‘letting go of the urge to be in control’ is something I have written about before (The Rattle Snake exercise): the more you prepare for a conversation, the more you will get stuck because your preparation takes over from the real source of a fruitful conversation: yourself.

To my opinion this is a practice we should apply more often in our lives – be it private or professional. As Goss explains: "You cannot control the outcome of your life. In the end, the outcome will be the same. One day you will die. Someone with a shovel will throw dirt over your face. You will be, at that time, as satisfied or unsatisfied as you will be. In the meantime, life won’t follow the pattern of the controls you are trying to put in place. Your life will not turn out as you hope it will. There is no hope of life ‘turning out as it should.’ Life turns out as it does."