Master or Mastered

DAVINCI

“You will never have a greater or lesser dominion than that over yourself…the height of a man’s success is gauged by his self-mastery; the depth of his failure by his self-abandonment. …And this law is the expression of eternal justice. He who cannot establish dominion over himself will have no dominion over others.” ― Leonardo da Vinci

One inescapable characteristic about this little voyage we call life is that each and every one of us arrives at the life we chose to live. More directly, we get the life we ultimately opt to live. Any fabricated reality beyond this is chock-full of excuses and meaningless justification. Undeniably, there are obstacles to be overcome, trials to surmount, being dealt a lousy hand, but irrespective of where your history originated, it does not disqualify you from any future or desired outcome of your electing.

Sound overly naïve or parochial? Study history. Explore the childhood of some of your most admired people. Explore the struggles masters like Oprah Winfrey, Abraham Lincoln, Jeff Bezos, or Richard Branson had to overcome. (I challenge you to study many of these “world changers” – I suspect you will soon conclude, hardship and trials actually makes the master).

In a fascinating 2016 European Journal of Developmental Psychology article, Dr. Ann Masten defines this ability “to thrive despite” as resilience. Dr. Masten defines it as the ability to thrive regardless of circumstances as, “doing well in, despite or risk or adversity.” Let’s pile on! In another interesting 2017 academic journal out of Germany, researchers, Beutel, Tibubos, Klein, Schmutzer, Reiner, and Kocalevent provide evidence that not everyone who endures stressful or painful trials early in life are necessarily predetermined to be held back as a result. In their article, Childhood Adversities and Distress – The Role of Resilience in a Representative Sample, they cite a 1996 study conducted in Hawaii with 700 subjects participating, a third who had grown up under less than ideal conditions (e.g., poverty, divorce, mental problems) and remained resilient and in fact, flourished despite it. If the advice your grandparents provided didn’t quite sink in, social science has made a pretty compelling case that history is no better an excuse than laziness or apathy.

Despite your rough or smooth launch, you will inevitably discover that you may have to work harder than others, study harder, practice more, or deal with rejection more often, but it is you who will ultimately determine the content and eventual outcomes of your life. While this may seem like an oversimplification of life’s twists and turns, it just is not. It is that rudimentary. Your outcomes are rooted in a simple formula of action, reaction. Your excuses and justifications are what make it extraordinarily complex, not the basic law of inputs and outputs. Until we completely understand and appreciate this fact, we will have completely missed the fundamental calculus of living and flourishing.

APPLICATION: You, me, all of us, will “be made” by the temporary and permanent decisions we make along our individual and collective journeys. These decisions will shape what owns us. Ironically, whether intentioned or unintentional, we will all make a choice that constitutes a decision around mastery. The difference between you and everyone else will exist in in the outcome. People that choose not to master some domain in their lives, will assuredly find themselves subservient to those who do.

The Way of The Master

“It took me a lifetime.”  – Pablo Picasso

0*QTlxaR8w3Yc7-MU8Mastery is the mantra of Olympians and the standard benchmark for the world’s 1%. It is the gateway to the spoils of differentiation and the carrot that drives individuals to do what no other sane individual would be willing to do. Mastery’s pursuit is what drives anyone that has made a mark in history possible; it cannot be purchased, and it certainly cannot be bypassed. It is as indispensable as oxygen and as sure as gravity.

The terms “elite status,” “world-class,” or the “top one percent” is a descriptor and direct byproduct of the way of the master. These terms describing mastery have become synonymous with exceptional individuals who surpass their peers, colleagues, and competition in the endeavors in which they intend to master. Provide a master enough committed time in any given field, and these highly regarded outcomes are virtually assured.

However, the master is not born. The master rarely inherits opportunities; they create them. The master is a living, breathing human aberration and it is why the rarity associated with their achievements are so revered. They are an anomaly. They opt for the uphill climb, their “normal” peers choose the slippery, downhill path of least resistance. Masters appreciate the arduous and welcome the hard. They opt for the strenuous and are willing to trade their late nights and early mornings for their craft. The master’s choices include a life less ordinary in not only the grind but in the outcomes, they achieve. The master is the atypical individual who is compelled by “something” and willing to pay the price, but eventually awake to the life that only resided in the blueprint of their minds.

What Might Have Been

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The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. – Henry David Thoreau

My work provides a sacred privilege to step into the lives and souls of individuals ranging from college students to CEOs. I am arm and arm with these individuals through some of the most critical decisions of their lives, I have journeyed with students and clients through divorce, marriages, death, births, terminations, and promotions. I have witnessed firsthand the innumerable range of emotions and struggles that hardship brings and the elation that successes afford them. In soulful conversations with friends and clients who are a bit more seasoned than I am, I am occasionally given insight into one of the most piercing human emotions I have witnessed. It is quite surprising, but it is the all too common human experience of regret. A regret of actions not taken. The regret of actions taken, or opportunities missed. The most vexing and personally frustrating thing about regret among friends, colleagues, and clients is that I find myself wholly unable to provide any encouragement or advice that seems potent enough to counter the burden of their remorse. Possibly instead of finding quasi- productive ways to live with regret, perhaps pledging to live the rest of your days without them would be a more profitable use of time.

For a moment, imagine yourself 50 years older than you are right now. Vividly envision the sunset of your existence. Assess your contribution to those who you loved and in return, loved you. Consider the future you set for those who relied on you or looked up to you. In your mind’s eye, reflect for a moment on what it could have been, had you done what you always wanted to do or knew you needed to. Envision what it could have been had you actually lived in precise alignment with yourself, had the courage “to go after it” and lived the life you wanted. If today’s results were all you had, you very likely understand the irreversible haunting of resignation and desperation in which Thoreau wrote in the quote above. Research proves an obvious but quite startling fact; the greatest source of discontent and depression is the fact that we don’t quite live up to our own expectations. Before Henry David Thoreau had the research to back his claims, he knew, the masses do indeed live in quiet desperation. The rare ones, the masters, the one-percenters refused to live desperate lives of resignation. The differentiated will go for it, the masses will find a reason not to.

Application: An ancient Chinese parable says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is today.” What must occur for you to be absolutely contented 50 years from now? Get busy planting or call me when you learn to live well with regret.

A Fool’s Errand

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“The superior man blames himself. The inferior man blames others.” – Don Shula (the only coach in NFL history to achieve a perfect 17-0 record)

I challenge you to find an old sage, an individual who has eclipsed their peers, achieved a significant level of success and ask them this question, “Do you agree with the statement that you get the results you create?” 9 out of 10 of these sages will predictably tell you, “yes.” My certainty rests on the 60-year-old research conclusions of Julian Rotter who contended that “locus of control” is a psychological component inherent within us all. She argued that an “internal locus of control” is the perspective that you control outcomes or that outcomes are up to you and not the fault of some external force such as fate or luck beyond your control. Rotter’s construct of “Locus of Control of Reinforcement” has a directive function on beliefs and these beliefs ultimately dictate what behaviors people undertake. Said simply, individuals take responsibility for their actions, or they skirt responsibility and blame some external cause. All in all, the result of blaming external influences for your fortuitous or dismal place in life leaves you incapable of learning, growing or improving. Little wonder that research confirms that individuals higher up the organizational food chain tend to operate out of an internal locus of control vs. external. Wondering why? Because your organizational leaders are altogether incapable of leading when they refuse to own or take responsibility for their choices or the actions of their company. Moreover, psychological research has shown that individuals who operate out of a position of “owning” outcomes tend to be better off, more successful, and make more money.

“A sign of wisdom and maturity is when you come to terms with the realization that your decisions cause your rewards and consequences. You are responsible for your life, and your ultimate success depends on the choices you make.” Denis Waitley

If your initial thought when a failure or setback occurs is to blame or shirk responsibility, rest assured you have capped your “could be” and have already attained your “will be.”

The Leader As Donkey ​

ane“The biggest concern for any organization should be when their most passionate people become silent.”

I have coached well over 960 leaders. One hundred percent of them rate themselves as excellent or strong (Many of them actually are). Not one of them has ever told me that they are not that good. In fact, I have never met anyone within an organization tell me they are the reason their employee’s morale is low or productivity is waning. I’m no Gallup, but that is quite an interesting sample.

Time and time again, I hear seasoned leaders pronounce that their employees are lazy, disengaged, or don’t go above and beyond their job descriptions. There is some truth to this statement, Gallup ‘s latest U.S. Employee Engagement Index confirms that roughly 70 percent of America’s workforce has checked out and are disengaged from their work. Moreover, it should also be noted that there is some truth in the fact that a large number of leaders are jackasses and couldn’t garner a following if their next breath depended on it. Gallup is a solid outfit; I do not question their findings one bit. But what they can’t tell us is necessarily why.

If John Maxwell is right in his view that everything rises and falls on leadership, then I am going to take some creative liberty and argue that the very leaders who bemoan their lazy, no good employees, take a long hard look in the mirror. Chances are, the culprit is staring right back at them hee-hawing all the way to the bank while 51% of their employees are actively looking for employment elsewhere (another tidbit from Gallup’s less than encouraging survey on America’s workforce).

I have yet to see an outstanding leader looking for top talent or hear them complain about their employee population. The reason? Again, it is because they are outstanding. Leadership transforms people, and then the people transform the organization. No reasonably minded executive will argue this organizational phenomenon, it is an inevitability. The question that remains is whether that leader will engineer a transformation that will positively or adversely transmogrify their following.

If silence has become the organizational axiom for a majority of your “A Players” who miraculously found themselves drowning in a sea of laziness, incompetence, and apathy, you might need to reassess who is wearing the saddle and the source of that endless clanging of pans you hear in your head.

Winning the Insignificant

The difference between significance and insignificance is simply the ability to master the insignificant on your journey to significance. In short, significance is the sum total of all the seemingly insignificant steps on your journey. The calculus of living does not allow shortcuts, there is no other way.

In the movie, “Any Given Sunday” a movie that focuses on the crucible that is professional football. Al Pacino’s character, the Miami team’s head coach, gives a pregame pep talk that is not only wisdom but personifies a truth few understand, but one all champions make a dogma.

You know when you get old in life things get taken from you. That’s, that’s part of life. But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff.

You find out that life is just a game of inches. So is football. Because in either game life or football the margin for error is so small. I mean one half step too late or to early you don’t quite make it.

One half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They are in ever break of the game every minute, every second.

On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us to pieces for that inch. We CLAW with our finger nails for that inch. Cause we know when we add up all those inches that’s going to make the difference between WINNING and LOSING between LIVING and DYING.

I’ll tell you this in any fight it is the guy who is willing to die who is going to win that inch. And I know if I am going to have any life anymore it is because, I am still willing to fight, and die for that inch because that is what LIVING is. The six inches in front of your face.

The six inches in front of your face is the only life we have to live. It is the determining factor in the outcomes of your endeavors. In business in football, in marriage. In the corporation, it is the little things that will kill you and eat you up. Our lives are an aggregation of our inches. Don’t squander them by looking for the touchdown….. win the inch every time and the touchdown is inevitable.”

Self-Delusion & Toilet Bowls

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Nobody can be kinder than the narcissist while you react to life in his own terms.
Elizabeth Bowen

Not long ago, I was on a call with a client I deeply respect and an individual that has, through our years of work together, become a friend. He is a Regional Vice President and an individual I would easily describe as a benchmark of leadership and management. He has created superior results consistently over several decades in a cut-throat industry personified by more of an ethos of “eat or be eaten” than a philosophy of shared successes. He is one of those rare leaders that you could pick up and drop in almost any industry and would most likely find equal renowned and success given enough time.

On our bi-weekly call, I asked him what he wanted to throw on the agenda, and his response was something I had heard from other professionals at least a thousand times before. “Everything is going extremely well, but I still can’t find a consistent work-life balance.” I listened more and then asked him if I could be candid with him. His response was, “Of course.” I told him, “Walk into the bathroom, close the stall, and drop a full can of soda into the toilet. Observe the splash and then watch how long it takes for the water to return to calm. The amount of time for the splash to subside and the ripples of the water to return to normal is how long you will be missed when you retire or when you resign.” He took it in with no response. Then I piled it on heavier, “You don’t really matter, not really. You are replaceable, and any handful of leaders could step up and take your job immediately.” I then added the finale, the final coup de grace, and then plunged the dagger in deeper, “Until you realize you don’t really matter, only then will you give yourself permission to live. You can accept that message now or learn this lesson when you retire, either way, no one is as enamored with you as you are. Make your decisions accordingly.” Another long pause, and then he laughed and said, “That is the best advice you have ever given me.”

One of the quickest tactics to destroy and permanently handicap the mental game of a young leader is to provide them with responsibilities that they possess neither the experience nor maturity to fittingly handle. The mantle is heavy, and the burden can be crushing. It is precisely the reason newly commissioned officers are rarely placed on the front lines of a battle or amateurs made a new head coach in Division I athletic programs. It is not that the innate talent or intelligence is deficient or the capacity for charisma and influence is missing. It is because the inevitable failures and setbacks associated with leading people will chafe, blister, and only by way of time will they callous. Responsibility assigned too soon can permanently damage a leader, not because they will make mistakes….but because they assuredly remain under the delusion of their own grandeur and their own tales of infallibility. A pursuit of perfection and flawless execution will destroy a young leader, not because it is possible, but because when they buy into their own myth, the failures associated with it will eventually destroy them. Rare the young superhero that battles a villain or their arch nemesis and rises unscathed if they believe Gotham’s fate rests solely upon them. If the young superhero fails to encounter their arch nemesis or their Yoda, they will often rise to a place of prominence best defined as tyranny or megalomania.

Our own self-importance muddies relationships and followability, erodes our impact and limits our ability to actually see the bigger picture beyond our own self-constructed narcissism. And then, the death knell rings for the leader….there is no longer a perspective that any further growth is necessary.

When we eventually become the centerpiece of our own story or the master of our own world, the only individuals who bow, are the ones who see you as a means to an end; a resource of their own attempts to build a kingdom. And then you learn the inevitable painful lesson. Your own kingdom was breached not because you were not cautious, but because the previous worshippers were willing to sing your song and play your music until they had enough of you and your help to build their own. Choose your worshipper(s) wisely.

Chasing Rabbits

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“If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.” – Russian Proverb

Playing the galactically obvious “card” and intentionally being “that guy,” if one endeavors to chase three or four rabbits, instead of two, the results will be equally dismal. Makes total sense, does it not? A first grader fundamentally understands the futility of such an endeavor, but we continually disregard the logic in our professional and personal endeavors and then wonder why we cannot reach any reasonable aspirations beyond average. If the proverb’s intent is unclear, rabbits do not like to be caught, and they certainly will not be if one refuses to make a decision and decide on the one they will pursue. Achievement and accomplishment are rarely any different. Achievement and accomplishment get all the attention because we associate worth with a reasonable level of it, but when you really think about it, anything that diverts your attention, forces you or your organization to ultimately shrink and tempers focus and energy.

In the book, “4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals” authors Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling offer a straightforward table that is worth a thousand words (and two-million dollars). The visual correlates the “number of goals” (in addition to all the other things that have to be done in a day) with “Goals Achieved with Excellence” – In short, two to three goals provides two to three goals achieved with excellence. Four to ten goals, one or two goals achieved with excellence. And finally, eleven to twenty goals, ZERO goals achieved with excellence.

Consider this principle at play when the measuring stick is “world-class” or being in the top 1%. If you chase two rabbits, two dreams, two jobs, two hobbies, you cannot expect to be world-class in either. It is very likely why the exhortation from Orison Swett Marden was so incredibly poignant, “Every great man has become great, every successful man has succeeded, in proportion as he has confined his powers to one particular channel.”

We all know Marden’s assertion is intuitively true, but we also know the consequences of focusing on one thing inevitably requires risk. And so as it is with every Olympian, Nobel Prize Winner, CEO, record holder, Heisman winner, or entrepreneur; fully realized potential requires one principal macro-decision. And that decision is how great, or average or sub-par one chooses to be. World-class performance, company profitability, and winning is nothing more than series of consistent choices directed at achieving that end. But again, so is failure. For anyone to blame anything else, such as chance, luck, or natural “this or that,” will comprehensively disqualify them from ever stepping into the ring. If anything else is relied upon, turn in the keys, cash in the chips, the game is over before it even begins.

Luciano Pavarotti, the once in a century tenor that went on to become one of the greatest tenors in history, if not, ever; is a superb example of this concept at play. Most individuals will say Pavarotti was born with world class ability, he was born with it, end of story. Think again, in reflecting on his childhood he writes, “When I was a boy, my father, a baker, introduced me to the wonders of song,” tenor Luciano Pavarotti relates. “He urged me to work very hard to develop my voice. Arrigo Pola, a professional tenor in my hometown of Modena, Italy, took me as a pupil. I also enrolled in a teacher’s college. On graduating, I asked my father, ‘Shall I be a teacher or a singer?’ “‘Luciano,’ my father replied, ‘if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.’ “I chose one. It took seven years of study and frustration before I made my first professional appearance. It took another seven to reach the Metropolitan Opera. And now I think whether it’s laying bricks, writing a book–whatever we choose–we should give ourselves to it. Commitment, that’s the key. Choose one chair.” (Guidepost)

The 1%

 

Eureka2.pngThe term, “the one percent” has become synonymous with exceptional individuals who surpass their peers, their friends, and their colleagues in whatever endeavor they set their intention and energies to. These human aberrations opt for the uphill climb, their “normal” counterparts choose the slippery, downhill path of least resistance. One-percenters know the arduous and welcome the hard. They opt for the taxing and give up their late nights and early mornings. They choose to live a life less ordinary, pay the price and awake to a life that only resided in the blueprint of their mind.

While the other ninety-nine percent absolutely envision “the life,” they know neither where the trailhead begins or why it should be traveled. Many try but find they just cannot sustain the grind. And then the inevitable occurs, compromise or worse, absolute surrender. Little wonder Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.”

It is not a conscious choice to be unexceptional. It is a consequence of fear and the avoidance of failure as if it’s a personal indictment on their potential or even worse, themselves. The concerns with what people will think dull the pain of stalemate and then, the inevitability of settling in for a life of making it work ensues. The other ninety-nice percent’s clarion song is, “what if I fail?” Their dogma is a note of caution to children and friends to not risk too much and their illustrations are those who run straight into the fire and inevitably get burned.

The question for all of us is not if you will fail. Failure is a law and an absolute inevitability. The question only is, will you fail in small stumbles, or will you mortgage a life because you failed decisively and picked up the mantle of “making the best of it.”  For thousands of years, humanity has sought the secret of the vast differentiator between the “haves and have nots” – The answer, while elusive, is simple. It is whether the desire outweighs the pain associated with making it happen. It is not any more complicated than this. Desire is potential’s most reliable foreshadow.

Abraham Maslow, after prodigiously studying and interviewing the highest achievers of his time, summed up his discoveries with a beautiful but haunting conclusion, “Musicians must make music, artists must paint, poets must write if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. What human beings can be, they must be. They must be true to their own nature. This need we may call self-actualization.”  Marcus Aurelius, the epitome of the warrior-poet of the ancient world wrote, “Everything – a horse, a vine – is created for some duty… For what task, then, were you yourself created? A man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for.” And finally, Ralph Waldo Emerson inserted the Maraschino cherry on top of it all by reminding us, “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.” And it is at this place, a decision of cowardice or intentioned resolve that dictates the choice that will either send us careening into mediocrity or toward what it is that makes us eventually come alive.  Perhaps Emerson was right.

The Anti-Hedge

 “Research suggests that once a musician had enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.” – Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Malcom Gladwell’s quote above aptly links meaningful levels of achievement with substantial hard work. There simply is no other formula for achievement, nor shortcuts to differentiation.  No individual who has made a mark on our history or found themselves on the front cover of some magazine has fallen backward into that position of renown or influence. Albeit an icon for many, especially us runners, Forrest Gump, falling backward into renown works in Hollywood and fairy tales, but it only works there. Hard work, razor-honed talent, and an incessant commitment to work is the key. Like it or not, prodigious work is the compulsory initial step.

Several years ago, I sat down over coffee with a man I respect. In this conversation over exorbitantly priced coffee and desserts I cannot pronounce, he stated, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” I care about this man, so I smiled and acknowledged his statement. The thought that came to my mind was, “Hey Forrest, life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get, but rest assured, what drops in your in your lap will almost always require a napkin.” But judiciousness and civilized deportment won the day, and I took another sip of my overpriced coffee and bit my tongue in the name of brotherhood.

Let’s all get honest and make a collective admission here. Mere mortals and yours truly, would often rather sit down on a warm Sunday afternoon and take in the sun, catch a game, or even take a nap. In fact, I have personally learned to use sophisticated words and philosophies to excuse and justify my enjoyment of the “good life.” Nevertheless, you allow me to pursue a dream or a goal and this Sunday afternoon sloth transforms into a relentless, workaholic, crazy man. Is it the hard work that creates this internal burn and passion? Not a chance. But the vision unmistakably does. Steve Jobs, Founder, CEO, and the previous generation’s greatest visionary nailed it when he said, “If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.” A simple but irrefutable truth that if grasped, will utterly transform how you approach life.

We all intuitively understand that there is nothing more dangerous or intimidating than backing someone into a corner or pushing them to “a point of no return.” Energies, focus, and commitment previously laid dormant, ignites into an unbendable resolve that is simply unstoppable. Take for example, Julius Caesar. In 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, marched into Italy and violated nearly every code that had been established by the Roman Senate to protect their authority and rule. Army’s had to be disbanded before entering Italy. For whatever reason, Julius Caesar decided to cross the invisible line of treason and its grounds for execution and standing on the edge of the Rubicon, stated, “Alea iacta est”, “the die is cast.” At the edge of the Rubicon, the point of return was cast, and both figuratively and literally, he prepared his men for a battle they simply could not lose. Why? Because he had to win, there was simply no alternative. Had he marched his men into Italy and been deterred, he would have been executed or at best, arrested. The Rubicon was Julius Caesar’s point of no return, and he played it masterfully.

In 1519, Hernando Cortes, packed up his gear, boarded a ship and led an armada to the shores of Veracruz, Mexico with the intent of expanding the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The environment was harsh, riddled with disease, and to make matters worse, a committed native opposition who had found themselves backed into a corner, committed to holding their homeland. Suffice it to say, the prospects for Cortes did not look bright. Morale among his men was low and more than a handful were intent on leaving the island. Knowing the prospects of success, Cortes did what any normal person would do [insert sarcasm here], he destroyed the ships and in doing so, eliminated all hope of escape or returning home. Confronting the overwhelming odds and the psyche of his men, he did the only logical thing possible; he eliminated any alternative to victory. Retreat and a safe passage home were no longer viable. In ordering the destruction of the ships, he backed his men into a corner, and they somehow found the resolve and focus to finish the mission.

The simple message of these tales of conquest is simple. Our beliefs regarding what is possible, dictate what is possible. Nothing more, nothing less. Your own visions or the visions of the organization must be more than compelling enough, as well as its consequences for failure, to push people (or yourself) into the corner and create an outcome. But for most mere mortals, the fact of the matter is that we are not lazy, inept, or incompetent…. We are simply too fearful of failure and lack the courage to “go all in.” It is called timidity, it’s the ride of the coward, and that my friends, is why you are not living the life or leading the organization you know is possible. Impact and influence first begin with the ability to simply say, “Alea iacta es” – The die is cast, now go burn the ships. Until that call is made, cash it in, leave the table and pass on the torch to someone who is.