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"If-" contains a multitude of characteristics deemed essential to the ideal man. They almost all express stoicism and reserve – the classic British "stiff upper lip." In particular, a man must be humble, patient, rational, truthful, dependable, and persevering. His behavior in response to deleterious events and cruel men is important; he must continue to have faith in himself when others doubt him, he must understand that his words might be twisted and used for evil, he must be able to deal with the highest and lowest echelons of society, and he must be able to withstand the lies and hatred emanating from others. This group of ideal characteristics is similar to those expressed in "The Thousandth Man", another poem dealing with manhood.
The virtues expressed in "If-" are devoid of showiness or glamour; it is notable that Kipling says nothing of heroic deeds or great wealth or fame. For him the true measure of a man is his humility and his stoicism. Kipling's biographer, Andrew Lycett, considers the poem one of the writer's finest and notes in 2009 that "If-" is absolutely valuable even in the complicated postmodern world: "In these straitened times, the old-fashioned virtues of fortitude, responsibilities and resolution, as articulated in 'If-', become ever more important."