Muscle for life

If You’re Not Going to Finish, Don’t Even Begin

If You’re Not Going to Finish, Don’t Even Begin

No, this article isn’t related to the obvious sexual innuendo in the title (made you click though!). It’s about a challenge I have for you.

It’s a simple but incredibly powerful. It will teach you a lesson that many people fail to learn and thus fail in many other ways. Here it is:

From now on, you have to finish everything you begin. 

If you say you’re going to do something–even if you only say it to yourself–and take that first step, you now have to see it through to the end. No matter what happens. No matter how hard it gets. No matter how many excuses you can find to quit.

And by everything, I mean everything: losing those 15 pounds…learning that new hobby…launching that blog…hell…building and flying that kite. No matter how big or small, once you set your eyes on a goal and begin moving toward it, you’re now obligated to make it happen.

What’s the point of this challenge? What important lesson can it teach you?

Well, its significance goes far beyond the logistical benefit of just “getting things done.” It has much deeper and broader ramifications and can change you in radical, fundamental ways.

You see, one of the most common things I see in the unhappy and ineffective people I know is a weakness of intention. An inability to simply say “I’m going to do this” and then do it. A reluctance to fully commit to something and admit that it matters.

Sure, they choose to see things differently. They have cute little rationalizations worked out for their behaviors. They just like a lot of variety in their lives, they say. They don’t mind being a jack of all trades, master of none. They’re fine with everything as it is. They don’t need or want more.

But underneath those empty justifications is a fear. A fear of  investing not just their sweat but their spirit in an activity and of caring about the outcome. A simple fear of the pain of failure–a pain they’ve felt too many times in the past, and a pain that causes irreparable cracks in their false perceptions of themselves.

And so the behaviors of the serial dilettante are understandable…but insidious. They make the problem worse and worse, until eventually just setting a goal of any kind becomes distasteful. “Maybe” and “try” become watchwords. Crutches, even.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though.

If you never step foot on this slippery slope, you’ll never find yourself tumbling down the mountain. And you avoid the fall by staying on the narrow path perfectly expressed in the following quote:

“Aut non tentaris, aut perfice.”

(“Either don’t attempt it, or carry it through to the end.”)


When I first read this, it rung my mind like a bell. This isn’t an empty cliche that belongs on a hallmark card–it’s a transformative principle of living that, I think, we should all should reflect on.

If you take this not as mere advice but law, you can’t help but change for the better. You’ll come to appreciate Napoleon’s admonition that we be “slow in deliberation and swift in execution.” That is, you’ll consider your commitments more carefully and learn to focus on what really matters, ultimately taking on less but doing more.

And more importantly, this approach to living makes you feel empowered. You come to trust your abilities. Even finishing small commitments proves that you’re capable of more, and you’ll be able to parlay that confidence into greater and greater achievements.

As Robert Greene talks about in his fantastic book The 33 Strategies of War, putting this philosophy into action reveals to you the “joy in attack mode.” You learn that any mistakes you make can be rectified with even more vigorous action. You realize the tremendous power of momentum and learn to ride it through the rough spots. You gain access to a primal source of aggressive energy that overpowers caution and inertia.

The influential writer Charles Bukowski minced no words in his expression of this enduring truism:

“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start.

“This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery — isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it.

“And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine.

“If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”

The summary of this article is this:

You have to give yourself wholeheartedly to something to achieve anything worth having. 

If that’s a scary thought, I understand. It takes courage to accept. But if you embrace it, you’ll gain a monumental advantage in life, and especially over anyone competing with you.

Whether you’re battling a field of bloodthirsty peers or just the internal forces of ennui, you’ll become the worst type of opponent: the indefatigable one.  The one that says you might beat me, but it’ll cost you more than you can imagine…that uses setbacks as fuel for redoubled effort…that takes blows with a smile and is just too damn hard to destroy.

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I'm Mike and I'm the creator of Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics, and I believe that EVERYONE can achieve the body of their dreams.

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(I wrote this book under a pen name simply because I want to keep it, and future books of mine that will have nothing to do with health and fitness, completely separate from my main line of work. But I can still promote it! )

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Leave a Comment!
  • Abhijit

    Sorry Mike, I am going to have to replace my Pulse Pre-Workout with reading this article.

    • Michael Matthews

      LOL doh, I’m shooting myself in the foot! 😉 Glad you liked it.

      • Quentin

        He’s going to ‘finish it’ and replace it with more Pulse – if I get his gist!

        • Michael Matthews


  • Aracorn

    What, no Yoda quote?
    Good advice though. Definitely something I’ve found I have issue with and that requires active effort and a focused attitude to remedy.

    • Michael Matthews

      Lol I was thinking of working it in actually. 😉 Honestly give the “challenge” a go for a few months. You might be surprised how much that habit can improve things.

  • Rebecca

    Great advice. I am a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none”. This is something that I always liked until recently. And I noticed that it has a lot to do with the fact that I get very bored. But I have been learning, very slowly, the benefit of sticking it out. The only thing I ever did this with is my marriage, which has been on the rocks more than a few times. But in beginning to stick things out, I realize that it’s very important to think very carefully about how much you can commit to something. So it’s best to set small goals first. For me that may not be 15 pounds, but 5 or not running a certain mileage for 90 days but 30 days, etc. But when you complete the small goals, you gain more power for the bigger ones. It’s like snowball affect and it gets a bit exciting after a while.

    • rebecca

      Although the quote about possibly losing wives and girlfriends I’m not so sure about, but I’m a girl. haha. But seriously, being married is a huge commitment. So what do you do when one commitment gets pushed to the side for another one?

      • Michael Matthews

        Haha yeah I think he’s just making a point there. I wouldn’t go that far personally. 🙂

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Rebecca! I totally agree that setting small goals first is the way to go.

  • Quentin

    Great article Mikey. You’ve picked up on the fault with most people (me included). My attention is dragged in so many directions (because I love so many different things) but it causes me to mostly not finish what I start! Now I just need to learn how to prioritise and I’m on my way…

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Quentin! Yeah I understand. It seems to be human nature I guess.

  • ClubWolf

    Hi Mike,

    Do you find that picking one thing to do in a day and focussing all your attention and energy on it is better than picking a few things to do in a day and giving slightly less effort into each thing? I’m talking about things like projects, making plans etc.

    So like when you write articles for this website do you focus on one article and nail it or switch between writing on lots of different articles?

    • Michael Matthews

      I would love to focus on just one thing per day but the nature of my work requires that I split my time among many different things. Just the way it is.

  • Pingback: The Simple Science of Effective (and Ineffective) Goal Setting | Muscle For Life()

  • David Cairns

    Wow I love this article, I haven’t bought this book yet but definitely on the agenda, I’m always thinking of doing things but I’m just so unmotivated sometimes it takes wise words from someone to motivate you,as for the Yoda quote I think this one is the most relevant “you don’t try, you do, or you do not “

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks David! Let me know what you think of the book when you get around to it.

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