I have never really understood people who advise those in deep trouble just to be optimistic, to become positive about their future, even if they are facing critical threats. How can individuals who are going through difficult times just turn their mood around from one day to the next? How on earth is it possible for someone who is getting hammered by life to become hopeful about the future, avid to take advantage of the next opportunity?
These profound psychological changes are extremely difficult. If someone wants to achieve a radical improvement of his state of mind and motivation, he is going to need a much more sophisticated philosophy.
I am not denying that, by applying certain methods and techniques, you can turn yourself into a more optimistic and effective individual, but such turnarounds demand precision work, and need to be done properly. It is not something that a person can accomplish by means of empty encouragement and wishful thinking.
The wrong way and the right way
In addition, we should not forget that people who are under lots of pressure tend to have diminished energies. For human beings, it is very stressful to fight against major threats and obstacles, and such struggles often cause people to lose their health, sanity, and life's savings. Indeed, it is not easy to turn a critical situation around, but it is possible to do it.
The best way to deal with circumstances that demand lots of psychological strength and personal initiative is to imitate those who have succeeded in similar cases, by extracting lessons from their stories, and applying those lessons to your life.
You could try as well to come up with those lessons yourself, but this approach is likely to demand substantial time. For most people, it is more practical to copy methods and tactics that have been successful in the past. If you adopt techniques that have been proven by experience, chances are that you'll be able to improve your situation in a short period of time.
Strangely enough, the rules for overcoming difficult situations have not been compiled by philosophers. In the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Leibniz, you are going to find little practical advice about how to surmount major obstacles.
Relevant and proven principles
Their writings can give you interesting insights into ethics and logic, but they are not going to show you how to improve your life here and now. If you are facing a critical situation, you need to have access to a body of principles that are relevant, practical, and proven.
The Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, Ovid for short, (43 BC - 17 AD) left to posterity a collection of principles about how to overcome difficult obstacles. Ovid devoted most of his life to transforming practical wisdom into literary beauty, and his powerful work turned him into one of the most beloved poets of Western civilisation.
What makes Ovid's writings so interesting is that they extract universal principles from endearing anecdotes and personal observations. Like all writers of talent, Ovid was a master of drawing general conclusions without losing sight of individual circumstances.
Most of Ovid's works revolve about the art of love, or what we in our century call “dating.” The concepts of love and dating were pretty much equivalent in ancient Rome, since the modern definition of romance was not created until the 19th century. For Ovid, the central question of love was how to find the right person of the opposite sex, and for this reason, he addresses his advice to individuals who are trying to surmount the obstacles on their way to romantic happiness.
However, one should not minimize the importance of Ovid's work by restricting its application to the field of dating. Ovid was a keen observer of human nature, morality, and social interactions. During the years he lived in Rome, he met hundreds of men and women from the middle class and the aristocracy, and was able to draw universal conclusions from their individual experiences.
Ovid's writings on the subject of dating provide extraordinary insights on the process of personal development and the pursuit of success. If you want to become more effective in surmounting difficulties, I strongly recommend you to pay attention to Ovid's advice.
Turmoil adds credibility
The fact that Ovid's life was not without turmoil only adds credibility to his recommendations. He was the scion of a middle-class family, and his father very much wanted him to become a lawyer. In his youth, Ovid received an extensive education in grammar, rhetoric, and law, an education that was meant to prepare him for a career in the law.
When he was in his early twenties, he defended dozens of cases before Roman courts, but his real passion was to become a writer. His public speaking before judges and juries was not sufficient to fulfil his intellectual ambitions. He wanted to compose beautiful texts that would remain extant for centuries, telling readers how to improve their lives.
Later on, when Ovid was in his early forties, he wrote the book that would make him immortal, the “Ars Amatoria,” a collection of stories and techniques about how to find love. Historical sources do not agree on the year when Ovid wrote this book. Some historians date the book's inception on the third year BC, while others argue that it was composed on the second year AD. In any case, by the time Ovid finished writing the text, he must have been in his early or mid-forties.
In this book, Ovid presents stories and anecdotes of men looking for girlfriends or lovers, explaining how those men managed to overcome difficult obstacles and attain success. Some stories in the book are funny, others adventurous, and others show how to overcome rejection, always underlining that one should never accept a defeat as final. The main message of Ovid's writings is that individuals can overcome incredible obstacles if they set their mind to it.
A strong sense of direction
“A man can only be measured by his ambitions,” wrote Ovid, stressing the importance of setting long-term goals, and having a strong sense of direction. Equally, he formulated the principle that “fortune favours the bold” or that “chance often helps the daring.” Ovid's sharp observations about success have become universal principles of personal development.
His contemporaries described him as an abstemious, slender, genial, lovable, and physically untrained man, who possessed an exceedingly large nose that earned him the surname “naso,” which means “oversized nose.”
Ovid started to write poetry when he was in his mid-twenties, and quickly earned a reputation of being able to condense universal truths in short, beautiful sentences. In the “Ars Amatoria,” he presents himself as an instructor that offers the readers the possibility to improve themselves. While the book's introduction states the goal of cheering and pleasing the reader, the truth is that the chapters' contents are unusually profound.
Despite an apparent superficiality, Ovid succeeds in turning little romantic stories into universal principles of personal effectiveness. For instance, his advice about how to deal with reversals is highly relevant for individuals who are going through difficult times. Besides, Ovid was fond of comparing love and war because he thought that the principles of winning in both types of activity are pretty much the same.
Ovid's training in the law also gave him a decisive advantage in writing philosophical poetry, since it enabled him to build his arguments in a logical and convincing manner that makes his ideas seem irrefutable.
Like the good lawyer and public speaker he was, Ovid loved to present his message from different perspectives, and provide arguments from different sources, so that the readers cannot fail to understand his recommendations, and feel motivated to put them into practice.
The driving principle behind Ovid's advice is that nothing is stronger a habit. “A wise man,” he wrote, “makes the effort to identify the moral values he wants to endorse, and little by little, acquire those values by practising them every day until they become second nature. Eventually, those values will become part of his personality, and he will reach a state of moral perfection.
The fundamental technique of personal development
The first technique of personal development recommended by Ovid is that a man should always be looking for success, always pushing ahead to improve his station in life. He should always be trying to increase his chances of getting what he wants, even if success seems unattainable in the present circumstances.
“Always try to maximise your opportunities,” wrote Ovid. “Keep your hook in the water all the time, since you never know when you are going to catch some fish.” This piece of advice, which is meant for a man looking for a girlfriend, also applies to anybody trying to achieve other important goals.
Whether your concerns are financial, medical, emotional, or professional in nature, it doesn't really matter. Even in the darkest hour, when everything seems lost, you should always be pushing ahead, trying to improve your situation.
Ovid's insight about the importance of continuous action is extraordinarily perceptive. Of all pieces of advice contained in his writings, this is possibly the easiest to implement, and the one that most people tend to overlook.
If you are sick, you should never stop trying to recover your health. If your business has gone bankrupt, and you've lost your life's savings, you should never relinquish the goal of rebuilding your fortune.
Always keep pushing ahead, since you never know which opportunity you are going to find around the corner. Always keep trying to overcome the obstacles that are blocking your progress, since you never know when those obstacles are about to give way due to a change in circumstances.
No reason for discouragement
“Tempus exat rerum,” formulated Ovid in Latin, giving birth to a proverb that has been passed from generation to generation. This proverb can be translated in English as “time vanquishes everything” or “time overcomes every obstacle.”
Of course, every man is eventually destined to die. Death is going to set a final point to his ambitions, but this inevitability should not be a reason for discouragement, but an incentive to make the best of every hour.
The fact that time will eventually win the battle should reinforce your motivation to keep pushing in the right direction, so you can take advantage of every opportunity that arises along the way. Conversely, if you stop trying to win, you are likely to see your alertness weaken, your ambitions wane, and your energies dissipate.
To the question of when you should admit defeat, Ovid's answer is clear and straightforward: never. A man's attempts to improve his life, fortune, and professional recognition should never cease. His actions in pursuit of his goals should never stop, and he should always be trying to seize the opportunities as they arise.
“Endurance and persistence tend to deliver good results,” wrote Ovid, a philosophical statement that applies not only to romantic pursuits, but also to anyone trying to achieve difficult goals.
A factor of critical importance
Wise men know that, if they want to progress in life, they need to stay on track day after day, month after month, and all too often, year after year. Perseverance is of critical importance for anyone who wants to attain the maximum possible happiness.
Ovid demonstrated this trait of character all his life, from beginning to end. When the emperor Augustus determined in 8 AD to banish Ovid from Rome, the poet's life lost a great part of its sweetness. The imperial banishment forced Ovid to abandon his friends, property, and family, and relocate to the eastern border of the Roman territories, which at that time, meant the Black Sea.
Ovid pleaded with the emperor to reverse his banishment, but it was all to no avail. The imperial edict remained in force, and Ovid was forced to say farewell to his family and friends, who all felt pity for him, and wished him well in his new place of residence.
Constance, the town where Ovid had been banished, was so far away from Rome that it took Ovid six months to arrive. The small area where Ovid had been confined by the emperor's orders was located on the western shore of the Black Sea, a territory that nowadays belongs to Romania.
Like in the days of ancient Rome, Constance continues to suffer from a harsh climate, with freezing temperatures during the winter, and humid heat during the summer, the type of conditions that can rapidly undermine the health of anyone who has not been accustomed to them since infancy.
Historians point out that the reasons for Ovid's banishment are not clearly documented, but that his book “Ars Amatoria” must have played a major role in the emperor's decision to order Ovid into exile. At that moment, Ovid's writings were enjoying a high popularity, and the emperor must have tried to curtail that popularity by banishing the poet from Rome. Ovid had no choice but to accept the banishment, and relocate according to the emperor's orders.
Ovid's acceptance of his exile did not prevent him from continuing to write important works. When he reached the Black Sea, he immediately realised the difficulties of leading a normal life in such a place, where residents were frequently attacked by neighbouring tribes, in addition to having to deal with a chronic lack of supplies. Yet, Ovid did not grow discouraged. Once and again, he reminded himself of his own piece of advice, and stayed on track even in the worst circumstances.
Better than abruptness and harshness
A second recommendation included in the “Ars Amatoria” is that a soft approach should always be given preference over abruptness and harshness. As a general rule, more can be achieved in life by taking small daily steps towards a goal, than by making one swift overreaching attempt. “Very frequently,” observed Ovid, “success in romance develops as a consequence of a long-standing friendship.”
Indeed, large numbers of enduring romantic relationships arise from long-term acquaintances or friendships that, from one moment to the next, take a romantic tone. The virtues of courtesy, patience, and diplomacy constitute three essential assets for anyone who wants to achieve ambitious goals.
In your private and business life, you will be well advised to refrain from using force, or the threat of force, even in critical circumstances. Even if you have to deal with aggressive people, the best policy is usually to avert physical and verbal fights. In this sense, Ovid was fond of recommending the study of literature and history, as methods to render individuals more resilient, creative, and effective.
The principle that danger increases a man's skilfulness and eloquence has been predicated since Ovid first formulated it two thousand years ago, and it seems incontestable that this principle can particularly benefit individuals who are facing difficult challenges.
When you are surrounded by trouble, there is always the temptation to react angrily, and engage in verbal and physical fights. Such abrupt reactions lead to high tension, disaster, and devastation. In contrast, a wise man will always strive to avert violence, since he is aware of its terrible consequences. As a general principle, success is more readily achieved with friendliness and good manners than by making violent threats.
Choosing the right speed
“Wisdom,” wrote Ovid, “consists of doing things at the right speed, not too fast lest they precipitate, and not too slowly lest the opportunities ebb away.” Learn this important lesson and try to carry out your projects without rashness nor delays. A good measure of prudence can preserve your peace of mind, and prevent recklessness from ruining your chances.
The soft approach recommended by Ovid often leads to spectacular success. It is a technique that, when applied consistently, it practically guarantees positive results. If you can consistently practise it, you will be more likely to attain your goals. As Ovid put it so well: “nothing is softer than water or harder than a rock, and yet, water ends up eroding the hardest rocks.”
Never cease trying to advance your cause. Instead of giving up, you should keep trying once and again, even if you are facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles. “With patience and persistence, men can tame tigers and lions,” observed Ovid in the “Ars Amatoria.”
When looking for love or pursuing some equally important goal, you should be willing to make a thousand attempts if necessary. Similarly, if you are trying to overcome a severe sickness, you should be willing to try a thousand remedies until you get the results you need.
Asking for what you want once and again is crucial for seizing the best opportunities. If you fail to ask repeatedly for what you want, your message might not get through to the right person at the right moment, and you won't be able to get a positive reply.
Never hesitate to ask
“Never hesitate to ask,” recommended Ovid, “since most people are going to be glad your did. And even if they reply negatively, their words are not going to cause you any physical harm.” Individuals who get what they want in life are often those who have been pursuing their goals for a long time until they eventually met the right circumstances.
“Besides,” remarked Ovid, “the habit of asking repeatedly for what you want is going to increase your ability to put your thoughts into words.” People who are not afraid of speaking out frequently become good public speakers because they grow used to dealing with objections in a thousand different ways. Their constant practice is going to increase their self-assurance, and their ability to think on their feet.
Highly motivated individuals don't give up their dreams even in the face of severe sickness or other grievous problems. Even when those people are surrounded by trouble, and everything seems lost, they are going to keep asking for what they want, in the hope of turning their situation around.
Even when it seems that you have exhausted your resources, you should still keep asking for what you want. Don't be embarrassed to repeat your request a thousand times, as long as you can do it without antagonizing people or driving them crazy. It often happens that, through sheer persistence, motivated individuals can take advantage of unexpected changes, and turn the balance in their favour.
Not all soils are the same
What cannot be achieved under certain circumstances might become possible if those circumstances change, provided that you keep pushing and asking for what you want. As Ovid beautifully wrote: “Not all soils are the same, and not all crops require the same conditions. Where vines tend to grow high, wheat and olives are seldom going to ripe.”
If you keep asking for what you want, politely and without losing your composure, sooner or later you might find the right conditions for your projects, the environment that will allow you to thrive. If you are tilling a ground that's only suitable for vines, you are not going to be able to grow wheat or olives, but if you keep trying, you might eventually find the type of ground that allows you to achieve your goals.
When I say that you should ask a thousand times, I am not exaggerating. If you are facing particularly adverse circumstances, you might really have to ask a thousand times for what you want before you can actually get it.
A middle-aged man looking for a girlfriend in Australia, where there is a well-known shortage of women, might indeed have to try a hundred times before he gets what he wants. And a struggling actor trying to get a leading role in a Hollywood movie might have to go through a hundred auditions before he gets what he wants. Very few people are willing to ask a hundred times for what they want, even if the mere fact of asking can dramatically increase their chances.
Undoubtedly, the willingness to ask repeatedly for what you want requires high motivation and alertness. If you follow this strategy, which I strongly recommend, you are going to have to maintain a constant state of readiness.
Preparedness must accompany persistence
Individuals who succeed are typically those who, after getting a positive answer, immediately react and seize the opportunity, even if they have previously received a hundred rejections. “Your lamp can only burn brightly,” wrote Ovid, “if you have refilled the oil and placed a new wick.” Preparedness must always accompany persistence, since one has little value without the other.
If you continuously ask for what you want, but fail to seize the opportunities that present themselves, your energies and efforts will be wasted. A man who persists in his attempts must also persist in his preparedness. Those two elements are critical for attaining success, although unfortunately, few individuals are willing to adopt this strategy for a long period of time, sometimes years, even if this is justified by the size of their ambitions.
A third crucial aspect that Ovid mentions is the speed of your reactions. If you ask many people for what you want, and receive hundreds of rejections, but then you see someone hesitate before replying, that might be the critical moment that allows you to achieve your goal.
Even after having received numerous negative answers, it is in your interest to maintain the capacity to react immediately to promising opportunities. To illustrate this point, Ovid uses the metaphor of a fisherman who, in addition to keeping his hook in the water, needs to be able to hold fast immediately to any fish that is caught in the hook.
It doesn't make sense to make massive efforts to pursue your goals, if you are not able to react immediately and enthusiastically to good opportunities. A competent fisherman must be able, not only to catch fish, but also to pull them out of the water as soon as they are caught.
Failing to execute at the critical moment
By maintaining your ability to react quickly and effectively to opportunities, you will maximize your chances of success when the tide turns in favour. If you stay alert, you will be able to seize opportunities and obtain resounding victories. In life, too many battles are lost because people fail to execute properly at the critical moment.
Of course, you will get better results if you have access to the right people, but this doesn't mean that you should refrain from taking action when the conditions are less than ideal. “Ask at every opportunity,” wrote Ovid, “and never be ashamed of your persistence.” Do not be discouraged by the fact that you have to deal with less-than-ideal conditions, and look instead for ways to intensify your efforts.
“A man who wants to be successful, should choose the proper tools to accomplish his goals,” recommended Ovid. “Make sure that you use a blade to plough your land, oars to row your boat, and a sword to fight in war.” Being adequately prepared requires thoughtfulness, foresight, and the determination to leave as little as possible to chance.
Which are the best places and times to ask for what you want? You will gain knowledge of those through the experience you'll acquire in your repeated attempts. In the first part of the “Ars Amatoria,” Ovid explains that, if you want to become an effective hunter, you are going to have to devote many days to study the habits of your preys. It is only through observation that you will discover the best methods to achieve your goals.
If you progressively increase your knowledge of the territory, you will eventually reach a point where you know whom to ask with high probabilities of a positive reply. By asking a thousand times, you will be creating a thousand possibilities to learn what doesn't work, and how you can improve yourself.
When a heavy storm breaks out
Finally, Ovid provides us an usual piece of advice to increase our personal effectiveness. If you want to attain your goals with a minimum of opposition, you should adopt the habit of keeping your plans to yourself. The fewer details you provide to other people, the fewer the chances that they will try to obstruct or sabotage your goals.
“When a heavy storm breaks out,” observed Ovid, “a ship with broad sails is more likely to be wrecked than one with narrow sails.” What Ovid is trying to tell us is that, if you let malevolent people know about your plans, you will only be creating extra obstacles for yourself.
A man looking for a girlfriend can dramatically increase his chances by asking out a hundred women individually than by asking them out in a group. The unwritten law of nature is that people will often prefer to imitate someone else's behaviour rather than thinking for themselves. For this reason, the man in our example is more likely to succeed by asking a hundred women separately than by asking them all together in a group.
The quietness of your intent should not prevent you from being persistent, but only as long as you can stay away from tension. Asking a thousand times for what you want is a perfectly valid strategy, provided that your context does not render it ineffective. It's not a good idea to persist in places where you are being confronted with hatred or animosity. Your strategy should be to look for promising situations, while avoiding those that are obviously unfavourable.
If you make a lot of noise, you will only alert all kinds of envious people. Keep your plans secret from the world, and if you want to reveal them, then do it only to friends and allies, to individuals who are willing to lend you a hand. There is no reason to make strangers aware of your determination to succeed, since nothing is to be gained from such publicity.
A deep understanding of human nature
Ovid shows a deep understanding of human nature when he recommends utmost discretion. He was well aware of the resentment that entrepreneurial, relentless individuals tend to generate in envious people.
Sadly, it seems to be a part of human nature to envy those who try to improve themselves. In order to solve this problem, all you have to do is to keep your endeavours secret, but without going to the extreme of becoming a paranoiac.
During the last decade of his life, Ovid reproached himself for not having learned his lessons early enough, since that would have spared him the penuries of exile. Yet, in the letters he wrote from the Black Sea, he never ceased to recommend gentleness, prudence, and persistence as a way of life. Those letters were later compiled in two collections called “Tristia” (Sorrows) and “Epistolae ex Ponto” (Letters from the Black Sea).
Always a benevolent man
Listen to Ovid's recommendation, and always keep trying to achieve your goals. Always keep asking for what you want, if necessary, a thousand times. Yet, it is advisable that you go about your business as quietly and discreetly as possible, employing gentle words instead of abrasiveness and harshness.
As you take advantage of every opportunity to learn, your persistence will increase your skilfulness, and render you more eloquent. Of course, this should not prevent you from focusing your efforts on those situations that offer the best chances of success.
Ovid remained his whole life a benevolent man, even in his darkest hour, when he was exiled in Constance. Despite the hostile and brutish environment he encountered in the Black Sea, he still made many friends and gained the admiration of his neighbours.
To his credit, he never ceased writing poetry, of which he sent copies to his friends in Rome, and with time, he also became a celebrity in Constance. Despite the harsh conditions of his exile, his gentleness and thoughtfulness pleased the local governor so much that he granted Ovid a complete exemption from taxes. All in all, a non-negligible achievement for a man who had been banished to live at the very end of the civilized world.
[Text: copyright John Vespasian, 2014]
[Image by Alaskan Dude under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us]
[Image by Alaskan Dude under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us]