On the distribution of Triumph and Disaster in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’

Everyone knows a few lines from Kipling’s poem ‘If’. It was written in 1910, apparently as an homage to the charismatic mercenary, toff and politician Leander Starr Jameson, who led a notorious failed coup against the Boer government in South Africa. It’s particularly loved by sportspeople. In her autobiography, English ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington says she reads it before every race she competes in. Inscribed on the wall of the players’ entrance to the Centre Court at Wimbledon are perhaps the poem’s two most famous lines:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

It sounds like a tall order, but something we can all perhaps aspire to: tempering the twin urges to gloat and to wallow. Kipling’s use of the word ‘Imposters’ suggests that Triumphs and Disasters are relatively rare events: the former, presumably, events that have a very high utility; the latter a low utility. Thinking about all the events in an average person’s life, Kipling’s couplet suggests the following – Gaussian – distribution for Triumph and Disaster as their outcomes:


Indeed, there are few events in an average person’s life that result in either Triumph or Disaster. But herein lies a problem with Kipling’s claim: most of the events in a person’s life aren’t of the sort of which it makes sense to say they resulted in Triumph or Disaster. Going out to buy milk, for example; or catching a bus. Success or failure in these things doesn’t amount to triumph or disaster. Triumph and Disaster are confined to the outcomes of a very specific kind of event: high-stakes, zero-sum games, such as carrying out a coup, taking a penalty kick in a shoot-out or playing in the Wimbledon Final.

If we contain the population under consideration to only those events that can result in Triumph or Disaster, we see a very different kind of distribution:


This is a U-shaped distribution: the majority of outcomes are Triumphs or Disasters. And this seems right: you don’t go into battle with a reasonable expectation that things will turn out just about OK; you hope for Glory and have a healthy fear of Ignominious Defeat. Relatively rarely, coups (and even wars) are bloodless, and in boxing matches one fighter wins but both praise one another and are praised.

So, returning to Kipling, if we reasonably constrain the population of events over which Triumph and Disaster are distributed as outcomes to those for which it makes sense to say they could result in Triumph or Disaster, it seems we can no longer consider them to be Imposters. And for people who make a living by going in for these kinds of events, whether on the battlefield or the playing field, Triumph and Disaster – in varying measures, may well be constant companions.

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