What does it take to achieve something great? After years of studying the lives of legendary figures — the kind of people you read about in history books — I finally have an answer. And I can tell you right now, it’s not what you think.
Hard work, passion, discipline, talent — these are the usual suspects. They are the heroes of any good story. The sexy poster child inspiring you to buy the book, watch the movie, and dream of your own success.
But the most important actor is missing in this picture. It’s the Quasimodo of any success story, hiding behind the curtain. Hiding because of his ugly face and dark, bloody history. Hiding because the public is scared of him. Yet every successful person knows she would have never achieved greatness without him.
This hidden figure goes by the name of sacrifice. It has been with us for a long time, much longer than we can remember. But lately we have been ignoring it. In the age of quick fixes and growth hackers, nobody wants to make sacrifices anymore. That is a grave mistake. Let me tell you why.
Two Legendary Sacrifices
It was winter when he decided to leave. The sun was barely up. A chilly wind was blowing through his long hair. Looking at the horizon, he knew exactly where he had to go.
It took him three days and nights, through snow and ice, to finally get there. But he felt the hardest part was still ahead. And upon seeing the tree he knew he was right.
From the roots of the World Tree sprang the object of his desire, the only thing that could give him peace of mind again. It was the Well of Urd. And guarding it was Mimir, the all-knowing and all-seeing shadow being. Looking Mimir in the eye, Odin knew this wouldn’t be easy.
Yes, Odin — the Allfather. The Teacher of Gods and Father of Men and dozens of other names. That Odin. You see, even someone known as the Wise One can’t achieve something great without sacrifice. Odin was about to do something horrible.
Whoever drank a drop out of the Well of Urd would gain the knowledge of the cosmos. That was Odin’s desire. Looking straight at Mimir he declared, I’m here to drink from the well. What do you want in exchange for letting me? Mimir responded bluntly, Your eye.
Without hesitation, Odin took his knife and gouged out his right eye. With blood dripping from his fingers, he plopped it into the clear water. Mimir then filled a giant drinking horn and handed it to Odin. He emptied it in one sip.
A rush bolder through his mind and body. Odin closed his one remaining eye. And when he opened it, Odin could see farther and better than he ever had before.
This story is about 2500 years old. Whenever something has survived for so long, I pay close attention to it. The collective human mind operates according to Darwinian principles. Only the most important stories, the ones that are useful for our survival as a species, survive natural selection.
Before the wide-spread adoption of writing, stories, legends, and myths were responsible for humans surviving and thriving. They were passed on by word of mouth. And there’s only so many stories you can remember to tell your children.
But what happens once writing gets adopted on a larger scale? The good stories spread even more. And the really good ones spread like wildfire. They ignite deep passions, unleash buried energies, and travel for generations. Just like this next story.
Some time later, God tested Abraham. He said, Abraham! Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.
You’ve probably read this one before. It’s one of the most famous stories in the Bible. I remember first hearing it in school and thinking, What was the point of that? It took me another 20 years to truly get it.
You see, Abraham made a pact with God. He promised Abraham to make him the father of nations, although he and his wife were over 90 at the time. In exchange, Abraham would have complete faith in God.
As you can imagine, it took quite a miracle for these nonagenarian lovebirds to have a child. But they did. According to the pact, this would be the son whose offspring would give rise to several nations, fulfilling Abraham’s deepest desire. But before that could happen, one important thing was required.
You guessed it: a sacrifice.
Because every prophet worth his salt knows that any great thing requires sacrifice. The early Christians knew it. So did the Germanic tribes before them. And all other conquering tribes before that.
Granted, there are small differences between the different versions of the story. The Bible opposes human sacrifice, so in that version God eventually prevents Abraham from killing his son. The Norse version is a bit bloodier, but still no humans are slain. In contrast, the Mayan version contains many human sacrifices.
Every great civilization has recognized the necessity of sacrifice. Until we came along. I believe this is a mistake.
Now before you go and crucify a chicken in your living room, let’s try and adapt this whole sacrifice thing to the 21st century. For that, we will need some more help from my favorite Norse god.
The Most Badass Sacrifice Ever Made
His unquenchable thirst for wisdom and unstoppable will defined Odin. After drinking from the Well of Urd he had knowledge about every little thing in the cosmos. But there was still something left.
Something so powerful that it could influence not only the known world, but also whatever lies beyond it. Something that could model the past and shape the future. Something that only a handful of beings possessed: knowledge of the runes.
Runes were the written letters of the time. By learning how to read and write, Odin could grow his power exponentially. He could reach farther and wider than any traveler, and leave a legacy that could survive for ages. But what we now take for granted was no easy feat 2500 years ago.
Odin looked with his one eye at Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Around it lived the Norns, three clear-sighted maidens that could influence the fate of any living being. They did it by carving runes in Yggdrasil’s trunk.
But the Norns weren’t about to give up this knowledge to a bearded, one-eyed guy just because he asked. Prove to us you are worthy of such powerful insights and fearful truths as these runes hold, the Norns said. Such tremendous power required a fitting sacrifice. So Odin made the weirdest and most powerful sacrifice I’ve ever heard of.
He sacrificed himself to himself — a sacrifice of a god to a god.
It took me a while to wrap my head around this idea. So don’t worry if it doesn’t make complete sense right now. I promise by the end of this article it will.
Odin hung himself from a branch of Yggdrasil and pierced himself with a spear. He forbade the other gods to offer any help. Without food or water, he hung there for nine days and nine nights, seeking to understand the runes. After the last night, the runes finally revealed their secrets to him.
Then I was fertilized and became wise;
I truly grew and thrived.
From a word to a word I was led to a word,
From a work to a work I was led to a work.Odin the Wise One
According to the legend, Odin learned chants that could heal wounds of the body and the soul, daze his enemies and render their weapons worthless, win and keep the heart of a lover, and many other awesome abilities. Not bad for a guy hanging from a tree. Now let’s see how we can apply this to our own lives.
Putting it all together
By now I hope I’ve convinced you of the importance of sacrifice. It’s hard, it’s bloody, and it’s messy. But it’s also necessary. So let’s see how you can put these ancient lessons into practice.
1. Anything worth having requires sacrifice
Don’t worry, you won’t have to go as far as Odin did. As long as you’re not seeking to gain knowledge of the whole cosmos, something smaller will do. But even small goals will require sacrifice. Want a healthy body? You have to sacrifice that weekly pizza tradition. Want to be productive? You’ll need to sacrifice your amateur gaming career. Want to be a good parent? You will have to sacrifice many things! So before committing to any worthwhile pursuit, ask yourself: What sacrifice will this require? and Am I willing to pay the price?
2. Trust the process
Anyone who read the Old Testament knows that offering his son was only the culmination of Abraham’s story. To get there, he had do make many other sacrifices. He left the safety and comfort of his home at 75. He went looking for an unknown land, with no map or guidance. He lead a small army against a legion of marauders when he was 80+ years old. And you don’t want to put in the reps because you’re not feeling like it? Nothing great comes overnight. The road is long and hard and full of sacrifices. But if you stick with it long enough, you will get there. Have faith in the process, put in the work, and the rewards will come.
3. You have to sacrifice your old self
This is what Odin meant by “sacrificing myself to myself”. While you don’t have to do it by hanging from a tree for nine days, you will have to let go of your old self. If you want to grow, to become a better person, to achieve something great, you need to sacrifice your old self. That person always hanging out with the wrong people. Or that person who developed a nasty habit that’s holding you back. That person has to go. Sacrifice your old self and replace it with someone better.