On January 9th, 49 BC, Julius Caesar stood at the north bank of the narrow Rubicon River as a Roman general and former governor of Cisalpine Gaul.
Julius Caesar’s skills as a general and a leader were displayed in such brilliant fashion over the preceding decade, that the Roman Senate had grown uneasy. Threatened by his growing power in the north, the powers in Rome decided to recall him to the capital to face prosecution, explicitly requiring him to come alone and unarmed. If he brought soldiers with him over the Rubicon, it would certainly trigger a civil war.
At the age of 50, standing at the ultimate crossroads of his life, Caesar had a choice: he could fold his cards, or he could double down. He could lay down his weapons and return to Rome, a move that would effectively end his political career. Or he could cross the Rubicon with his legion of soldiers, march 200 miles to the city of Rome and initiate a civil war in his quest to unify the land under one empire under his leadership.
It was a risk that would entail innumerable variables, and considerable uncertainty. It was a risk so monumental in his life, in the future of Rome, and in the future of human civilization that we still remember it almost 2,100 years later.
Yet, in this moment, on the night of January 9th, all of this was just an unexecuted idea in Caesar’s mind. All his planning, all his strategizing, all his worries and doubts hinged on his ability to take action. The choice was his, and his alone.
On the morning of January 10th, 49 BC, Julius Caesar stood at the south bank of the narrow Rubicon River as a renegade at war with Rome.
The Narrow Stream and the Raging River
Just as Caesar had over two millennia ago, you may be staring down a binary choice in deciding your own future. Do you quit your job? Do you start a family? Do you start a business? Do you move to a new city?
Your circumstances and risks will differ from Caesar’s, but your thought process will follow a similar pattern. You will have the choice to fold your cards and play it safe, or double down and pursue a better and brighter future. In order to shape your future and to define the course of history, you must first cross your Rubicon.
Before any of Caesar’s plans could come to fruition, he needed to bring his legion of Roman soldiers across the Rubicon River, just a narrow stream that formed the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy. This tiny stream is what physically stood between Caesar and the opportunity to form the greatest empire the world has ever seen. But the Rubicon River was not his obstacle.
What really stood between Caesar and his ambitions was a raging river of doubt and insecurity in his mind. It was his mental Rubicon.
As you stare down your own Rubicon, realize that what you see in front of you is not the obstacle, but rather the battle you are fighting in your own mind.
All Too Human
Despite his god-like aura, what Caesar felt on the night of January 9th was all too human. Sitting in his camp, on the cusp of the unknown, he pondered his future. He knew that the consequences of either of his choices were dire. He wrestled with doubt, overconfidence, uncertainty, arrogance, insecurity, pride. All of these and more, a rollercoaster of emotion, wrapped up into one moment that, unbeknownst to him, would define the course of human history.
No matter how foreign Caesar’s predicament may seem to us today, we face similar pressures and emotions when pondering the next steps in our own lives. In fact, most of us live on the north bank of the Rubicon river—thinking, planning, dreaming, and never taking that next critical step to better our station in life.
And who does history remember? Who are the ones who write history? Who are the ones who control their destiny? It is those who decide, once and for all, to cross over to the south bank, in the face of oppression, in the face of tyranny, in the face of objection, in the face of self-doubt, and in the face of every force designed to keep them in place.
Sure, you can make all the excuses you can think of for why you can’t or won’t cross your Rubicon. But remember that before Caesar was Julius Caesar, he stood at the north bank of the Rubicon, unsure of himself and unsure of his future, just like you.
Permission for Action
We naturally and habitually overestimate our environment, surroundings, and competition, while simultaneously underestimating our own abilities, strengths, and talents. It is this crippling self-doubt that often causes us to hesitate in giving ourselves permission to act.
When facing a seemingly irreversible life-changing decision like taking on a complex long-term project at work, building a business, starting a family, or quitting your job, your mind instinctually goes into panic mode. You instantly jump to every imaginable obstacle, overwhelming difficulty and anything that could possibly go wrong. You look for external permission for validation. You wait for every traffic light to be green. You stifle yourself at every turn.
Notice that your mind is brilliantly skilled in talking you out of things. Imagine if you could apply that brilliance to talking yourself into decisions. It is not “taking action” you are afraid of. In fact, when you take the action, you will have all the information and resources available to make it happen. What you are actually afraid of is asking for your own permission to do so.
On the night of January 9th, after much deliberation on his future, Caesar gave himself permission to take his soldiers across the Rubicon. He had certainly dispatched with the idea of asking others for permission. He was no longer waiting for all the traffic lights of life to turn green.
In a decision that would etch his name in stone for eternity, Julius Caesar had overcome his mental Rubicon before he could cross the physical Rubicon.
“The Die is Cast”
Shortly after taking his fateful action to cross the Rubicon, Caesar uttered his famous line, “ālea iacta est,” meaning “the die is cast.” It was his point of no return.
Once the dice are thrown, the moment they leave your hand, you have no control over the outcome. You have made an irreversible decision. As daunting a thought as that sounds, it is also the most freeing. There is no room for doubt and second-guessing. It is on you to make the most of your decision.
The day I committed publicly to building my own future, I was frightened. Hitting publish was my “crossing the Rubicon” moment. After hitting publish, the rush of relief and the freeing feeling I had allowed me to leave my past behind and commit 110% to building a future and a destiny all my own. The die was cast on that day. I have no control over how it will land. But I do control which direction it is thrown, how high, how far, and how fast. As random as fate can seem, we have more control over it than we realize.
Your Incorporeal Transformation
By making the decision to control his own destiny, Caesar experienced what could be termed as an “incorporeal transformation.” It’s the type of transformation where nothing physically changes in the body, but something just clicks and transforms how one approaches life. Like Caesar transforming from Roman general to renegade at war with Rome, you will undergo a similar deep transformation once you commit to crossing your Rubicon.
When you put yourself in the shoes of Caesar, you realize that the Rubicon River is not so much a physical obstacle as it is mental. What you don’t need is big, complicated strategies or plans. What you do need is to give yourself permission for action.
The real Rubicon is not a river. It is not that critical binary decision that you face. It is not in making that bold move. It is in giving yourself permission to act. That is the real barrier between you and what you want. Sure, the Rubicon River is a physical thing that we can all point to, dip our toes in, or even jump across. But what we never talk about is the fact that Caesar, after weeks, months, and years of deliberating in his mind, finally gave himself permission to go after what he wanted on the morning of January 10th.
Give yourself permission. Cross your Rubicon. Write your history.
You can hear a fascinating account of the actual history of Caesar crossing the Rubicon from the Hardcore History podcast by Dan Carlin.
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