There’s a reason you’re told to put your oxygen mask on first.
If your flight loses cabin pressure, and you only have seconds to breathe, it’s tempting to help your children or other family members put on their oxygen masks. You care about your family, and it’s natural to want to put their needs before your own.
But the fact that you care about them is precisely why you need to put on your mask first. You can’t help the people you care about if you’re struggling for breath, or unconscious. Before you can help others, you must first help yourself. If you wish to improve the world, you must first improve yourself.
Think about firemen, and all of the other everyday superheroes who runs towards danger, towards gunfire, towards people in dire need of saving. For every normal person who decides to be a hero and run toward danger, 99 professionals put in hundreds of hours of training before they start fighting fires or healing the wounded.
Firefighters need training before they fight fires, and so do you.
Think about every innovator, inventor, genius or visionary who changes the world through their inventions and organizations. You can probably name them before I do: Benjamin Franklin. Steve Jobs. Thomas Edison. Henry Ford. These people did not do great things upon exiting the womb; they had years of practice and training before they made their contributions to humanity, with hundreds or thousands of failures along the way.
Inventors need practice before they invent something extraordinary, and so do you.
Think about the great leaders, rulers, and conquerers of the past. George Washington. Alexander the Great. Nelson Mandela. Teddy Roosevelt. Napoleon Bonaparte. Winston Churchill. Genghis Khan. Saints and despots alike, they came to rule vast empires and great nations at the most critical moments in history. Those that succeeded were those who made sure their personal problems did not command more attention than the problems of the nation. Those that didn’t were brought down by their own weaknesses.
If you wish to rule a nation, you must first rule yourself – even many leaders today do not understand this.
Read the histories and biographies of important people in history, and you’ll notice patterns. These people were not perfect, not angels, messiahs, enlightened beings, or paragons of virtue. Many come from impoverished, and even abusive circumstances of birth. Many are born into the middle of wars, revolutions, feuds, and catastrophes you would not wish on your worst enemy. Many experience early tragedies that would break even the strongest of people.
They had flaws – often incredible, mind boggling flaws you can barely imagine – but found ways of fixing or managing their weaknesses, so that they could focus on the great work. You’ll find again and again that these people who accomplish extraordinary things don’t do so because they lack weaknesses or obstacles – they do so in spite of them, sometimes arguably because of them.
What you’ll also see over and over are intense periods of training, learning – and failure. Students kneeling at the feet of living masters, so that they might become great. Voracious reading, to try and get the answers to important questions they have, or to make their own answers. Violent battles not with opponents or armies, but with their own weaknesses, desperately trying to overcome their own demons and create something larger than themselves.
If you have even the vaguest ambition of doing something important or noteworthy, ask yourself which is more likely: Making an impact while leaving your personal problems unsolved, unmanaged? Or succeeding after long periods of training, learning, and self improvement?
Is it wise to walk into a hurricane, when you can barely withstand the breeze?
It is easy to look out into the world, and find it lacking. It is to easy to find problems to be solved, corruptions to be fought, people to save. Much harder is looking at yourself, solving the problems that afflict you, fighting the corruptions within you, and saving yourself.
From the New Testament: “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)
Focus on the problems within you, that might prevent your movement or vision, before seeking to challenge the problems afflicting others. If those problems are a current threat to your existence, always ask if this is a problem you need to solve now, or one that can be better challenged when you are stronger, smarter, and more competent.
“But what if I’m called to action? What if I’m forced or challenged to solve something before I’m ready?”
Then it’s even more important to prepare now, to learn now, to train now, and to conquer as many of your inner demons as you can right now. You never know when when you will hear the call to adventure – or be forced by circumstance to avert crisis and tragedy. The more competent you become now, the more you will be able to do when your time comes, whenever that is.
If you wish to rule a nation, you must first rule yourself. If you want to improve the world, first improve yourself.
Before putting on someone else’s oxygen mask, put on your mask first.