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Cultivate The Vital Principle

In the summer of 1812, Pierre Jean Moricheau-Beaupré sat looking over a column of men that stretched across the horizon.

As a regimental surgeon he was part of one of the most successful military forces ever assembled.

Napoleon’s Grande Armée numbered just over 600,000 men as he departed France with the intention of winning a quick victory over the Russians and solidifying his control over the continent.

By September Napoleon had pushed the smaller Russian force all the way back to Moscow where the tsar staged a fitful defence before retreating further.

Aware that they would never be able to defeat the French in a direct military engagement, the Russians opted for a different strategy and burned every field, farmhouse, and granary they had once vowed to protect.

The scarcity of supplies left Napoleon facing an impossible decision.

Attempt to overwinter in Moscow with no provisions, or instead make a sad and embarrassing retreat to restock supplies and prepare for another campaign.

With snow flurries having already fallen, Napoleon led his army out of Moscow on October 19, realising that it could not survive the winter there.

By this time, the Grande Armée was down to some 100,000 troops, the rest having died, deserted or been wounded, captured or left along the supply line.

Safety was some 750 miles away when the column of soldiers set off along a route with little to no food. Meanwhile, the Russian’s mounted harrying attacks on the exhausted and starving men.

Worse still an unusually early winter set in, complete with high winds, sub-zero temperatures and lots of snow.

On particularly bad nights, thousands of men and horses succumbed to exposure.

Of the 612,000 combatants who entered Russia it is estimated that only 112,000 returned to the frontier.

As a surgeon, Beaupré could do little to alleviate the suffering he witnessed on that fateful march.

The best he could do was record his observations, which he did and later published in ‘A Treatise on the Effects and Properties of the Cold: With a Sketch, Historical and Medical, of the Russian Campaign’.

This is where it gets interesting, because Beaupré came to believe that physical limits were not necessarily the most critical factor in determining who lived and who died.

He believed that mortality hinged on mindset.

Beaupré saw that the soldiers who lost hope were the first to fall. He resorted to calling this ineffable quality that animates life the “vital principle,” which he linked to the body’s ability to resist the environment.

Luckily for most of us we will never face a survival situation that puts our life on the line, but modern life still tests us with mental, physical and emotional challenges. And mindset is still the deciding factor that determines the outcome 9 times out of 10.

It is true that some things will be out of your personal control. However, it is also true that your attitude towards challenge and difficulty greatly influences your level of success and more importantly, happiness.

Takeaway Tactic

When it comes to hardship, why is it that one person can push through while another will quit?

I’ve used many strategies to get through hardship, both during my military career, and in the course of setting up a business.

However, one that always works to keep me moving forward is to Zone My Focus.

By that I mean that I zone my focus down to only one step ahead of me, and I make that step as small as I need to ensure that I actually take it.

Many people defeat themselves long before the real suffering begins because they look so far ahead that the size of the task ahead becomes so big that it seems pointless to try and keep going.

Why fight the impossible and inevitable, right?

Forget that.

You are never out of the fight.

Break everything down to one week ahead, one day ahead, one hour ahead if that’s what you need!

By only focusing on one step at a time you accomplish two things:

  1. You lessen the chance of psyching yourself out.
  2. You provide yourself with small wins by mentally checking off each small chunk you complete.

This strategy sounds so simple and you’d think the brain would simply dismiss you trying to ignore the bigger picture, but I promise you it is highly effective. 

As those wins accumulate you will build momentum and confidence in equal measure, allowing you to take even more positive action, until before you know it you have put yourself back in control of the situation.

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