In my Mastermind group last week, a colleague expressed frustration. “I write down what I want to do, and then I don’t do it. I just do whatever projects I feel like doing. I hate that. I need to change that.”
I voiced my opinion that inspiration and enthusiasm towards a project generally had a positive effect on productivity, but it was really just to be the devil’s advocate. In reality, she was doing exactly what she needed to do… Testing her limits.
Between Two Extremes…
Is usually where you find your perfect balance.
But you don’t know that it’s the perfect balance until you have context to back it up. You need to visit those extremes, just for the experience. And second-hand experience rarely cuts the mustard.
That’s why I don’t say a word when people of my acquaintance challenge themselves with feats of physical strength and endurances.
100 pushups a day for a year? Do what you feel, brah.
Walk from one end of Africa to the other? It’s your life.
Swear off the internet? Whatevs.
All these are discipline challenges. It’s barely about the act itself– it’s the execution of a commitment.
It’s to see if you can do what you say you’ll do, even when it isn’t easy.
It’s to see if you can persevere once the shine has worn off.
It’s to see if you have the wherewithal to get around roadblocks
It’s because you have something to prove.
But it would be a mistake to end on that note.
All the time I see people getting into the habit of these commitments– forgetting that it isn’t the act that’s the important part.
So they test, and they test, and they test— without actually taking their achievements as proof.
They still feel like they have something to prove.
They don’t take the next step.
After you’ve proven that you can stick to a commitment, (and because you’re human, you know that you can be lazy and slothful) the next step is to learn when each response is appropriate to the context.
People who get too disciplined sometimes retreat into perfectionism and dogmatism. I once heard about a bodybuilder who hadn’t missed a single workout in something like 17 years. Even on the day of his father’s funeral, he hit the gym.
It is one thing to stick to a routine or regimen because it’s a touchstone in your life. It is not okay to exorcise your feelings of powerlessness or inadequacy by retreating into an illusion of rigid, precise control. Worse, you come to regard the people around you as weak or inferior for not meeting your impossibly high standards.
If you’ve lived within the prison of your own high standards for a long time, you must first learn compassion for yourself and your essential humanity. And then you must learn to grant yourself grace.
Grace isn’t a term often used outside of religious contexts, but it’s loosely defined as “unmerited favor”. The chief aspect of grace is that it can’t be earned; it is only granted. Only you can grant it, and love yourself and your foibles in your entirety.
Now before I lose you completely, I want to point out the fundamental usefulness of this view.
Primarily, it means that you don’t need to struggle to earn good things. Good things happen to you without any particular merit on your part. (Bad things too, of course). But like we discussed last week– you won’t know which is which. You’re simply able to go with the flow, in the understanding that things happen, and you will act appropriately, in the proper measure and intensity.
That’s it. That’s pretty much the essence of Zen lifestyle there. I’m not guaranteeing it will bring you happiness, but it will certainly lower your stress level.
But it’s a long road to that level of self-control. And the first necessary step is to test yourself, and learn who you are. And then you must take the proof of your character that you gained in those exercises, and with that wisdom, neither over- nor under-react. Not seek to control what you can’t control, or give up when you shouldn’t.
When you approach life with self-knowledge like this, every action you perform will be right for you in that moment. You will rarely be torn about the proper action. You will not worry about the future, because you have the discipline in the present to do what you can to protect yourself, and you have confidence in your ability to act correctly should something you couldn’t have planned for occur.
And finally, you must practice. Every day, you have to keep clear in your mind who you are and what you stand for, and you must will yourself to have you actions reflect that.
It’s damn hard work. But there’s a sort of euphoria to it as well. Zen Buddhists call it satori, but it has a place in Western tradition, known as “grokking-in-fullness“. Have you ever grokked yourself so deeply that there was no doubt or dissemblance, only a profound assurance? And more importantly, do you want it enough to work for it?