(Ooh! Sounds kinky, don’t it?)
I’m writing my new book, and the concept of discipline is a central theme.
Self-discipline, as most people envision it, is a cross between the class bully and the tattling teacher’s pet.
Discipline is no fun, goes the thinking. It ruins good times. It kills creativity and spontenaity. It makes you stiff, uptight, and probably jealous of the happiness of others.
A little discipline is alright, I guess. Turn in your work on time, don’t spend all your money, don’t be late, drive safely. But don’t, like, kill yourself doing it. Life is short!
I don’t have much of an argument with this, actually. In examples like that, “discipline” is sheepskin coat for perfectionism, which is nothing more than the effort to be demonstrably worthy of esteem.
Discipline is the Mindful Practice of Focussed Effort
But I still love the word discipline. For me, it brings up the vision of a dojo, of a person kneeling on a mat in a gi, meditating on the nature of water and preparing, once again, to strive for a perfect control over body and mind.
To me, discipline implies that the effort is its own reward. You’ll never get to a point of perfect discipline, in the same way that you’ll never get to perfect satisfaction or perfect happiness.
Discipline is Not Just a Means To an End
Most troubling to me is when I talk to people for whom discipline is a means to an end: “I just have to go hard for a few more years, get some experience, it’ll be tough man, but it’ll all work out.” Hmm. Something’s not quite right here.
The first assumption is that it will be hard work in the short run, but after a while you’ll be able to slack off. There’s a conflation issue here: Working hard is not the same as “the mindful practice of focussed effort.”
When I turned twenty-four, I realized there was no way I wanted to be working as hard as I was for the rest of my life. But I took a look at my trajectory, and naturally, doing what I was doing would continue to get me the same result. So I realized I had to work smarter, not harder.
It’s funny that it’s called “not harder”, because working smart, in our culture, is a really fucking tough row to hoe. You’re getting undermined at every turn. People denigrate your results because you didn’t put in the hours they did. If you did this good a job in 10 hours, why didn’t you put in 20 and make it twice as good? There’s continual pressure to put in “just a little more time,” or “do just a little more” when in reality, a little more time, or a few more non-essentials, is not only not going to help, it’s going to actively hinder your process. Why? because your mind actually uses the white space that free time provides to learn better and think more creatively.
The second point is that discipline is a life-long effort. The reason it’s lifelong is because there’s a basic human drive towards security, comfort and safety.
The means that it will require persistent effort, every day of your life, or you will inevitably sink back to sea level, with sea level being defined as doing well-defined work, for a well defined wage, deeply in denial about the probability of change and the mechanics of entropy. Just saying…
“Become who you are.” Nietzsche
But discipline doesn’t mean being a hard-case. Necessarily, at least. The nature of water, remember? Infinitely adaptable.
Who do you want to be, really? A good father, a passionate defender, a true person of integrity?
A luminary in your field? Stylish? Serene? Down-to-earth? An adventurer? An iconoclast?
I don’t mean the sort of airy-fairy “I want legs like Angelina Jolie, as wealthy and connected as Arianna Huffington and as respected as Steve Jobs.”
No. I mean, who are you, really?
What are you capable of, profound or petty, bold or meek?
And what is the best, most distilled version of you, each brilliant facet lovingly carved and polished, each flaw seemingly designed for the sole purpose of adding character?
Whatever it is, get clear on it. Carry an image of it in your head, like a hologram, a skin that you’ll someday embody.
Every choice you make does one of two things: It either brings you closer, or further away from that hologram of who you want to be.
And that’s where discipline comes in. Without it, you’ll be the most flat, vapid, lackluster version of yourself.
But it requires you to overcome both that basic drive towards comfort and the deadly pull of inertia.
Discipline is needed in even the mundane decisions of the day. It’s me going to bed at my bedtime every night because it improves my productivity. It’s making the effort to eat vegetables instead of the easy and prevalent starches, and it’s treating my body right by letting it move and stretch.
Without the hologram to guide my focus, those actions would seem onerous or petty, depending on my mood. They definitely wouldn’t be worth the effort.
I struggle with them, and many others besides, every single day. Sometimes I fail. I mean, lets face it, there’s not a single day that I actually nail every single aspect of my katas. Even if I did, that’s not the point. Culmulatively it’s enough that I made more steps towards the hologram than I did back. See? No drill sergeant necessary.
But discipline isn’t tough, I don’t think. It’s kind of annoying, in that I-know-better-but-I -wish-I-didn’t way. I know I feel better if I cook real food and don’t eat the sort of thing that comes in a box. I know I should stop when I start to feel signs of fatigue, instead of powering on. I know that allowing too many obligations to pile up not only reduces my results in all of them, but gouges big chunks out of my quality of life.
I know all these things. I have an iron clad case for every one.
But it still. takes. effort.
The funny thing about true discipline — not control-freak-perfectionism– is that it’s exhilarating. It’s joyful. It’s like hauling yourself up a rock face… yeah, it’s 88% pain in the ass, but then you get in the zone, and you realize, you’re about to do this thing. You get excited. You get fierce. There is no fucking way you’re not going to make it to the top of this cliff.
Discipline gives you experiences like that all the time. It gives you a sense of accomplishment, agency, and confidence.
It doesn’t make you feel bad when you fail. If you tried your hardest, you didn’t fail. It doesn’t make you feel bad when you eat that bag of chips — you make you feel bad over that bag of chips. Your misguided sense of perfectionism is what does it. Discipline knows you’ll have the opportunity to make a better decision the next time, and it doesn’t worry about what’s already in the past.
There’s about 80 more pages like this one in my book, but I wanted to hear from you– what’s your concept of discpline? You like it? Hate it? Mixed feelings? Did my article change any thoughts on the concept for you? I’d love to hear what you think.