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Discipline is a measure not a trait

Success is not a gift

When we see other people who are more successful than us we often put that down to a fundamental lack of something in ourselves that they have and we do not. Part of that comes from our own insecurity but another reason is to give ourselves an excuse for not moving: if I am not succeeding "because I lack [xyz]" then it is not my faul, but if I am not succeeding "because I am not trying" then I have no one to blame but myself. The truth is somewhere in between but much more the latter than we actually would like to admit. A good example is discipline. We think that someone who is successful due to hard work is "disciplined" and we are not. They intrinsically have something which is allowing them to succeed: the ability to focus and persevere. Man, I wish I had that superpower! The implication is that if "I had more discipline I would be succeeding just as much". It sounds like we are admiring the other person but we are really dismissing their achievement as due to something they were given and not something they worked hard for. It is also wrong. While it may be true that they *currently* have more discipline than we do, it is never true that someone has inherently more discipline than another person. It is not a fixed quantity like height. It is more like being fit. It is definitely true that someone can be more fit than another person. And also true that some people have an easier time staying fit than others. But everyone can become fit and healthy with hard work and exercise (and, dare I say it, discipline).


The way we get fooled into believing that discipline is a character trait is because we focus on the grand things that people do which do take a lot of discipline and focus. Much more than we seem to possess ourselves But that is not where the war is won. That is like saying the team that won the superbowl just showed up at the start of the game, played, and won. There is a lot of hard work and perseverance over time behind that win just as there is a lot of hard work and perseverance over time behind developing the discipline to succeed The good news is that half the battle is simply about remembering to be disciplined. Our bad habits do not attack us with a frontal assault, they distract you so that you forget to focus. Very rarely do we have some big singular obstacle that we need enormous will power to overcome. Instead the war is lost in a thousand tiny skirmishes. Eating that extra gummy bear when you said you would stop after 10. Taking the elevator up one floor "just this one time". I'll just watch this one more youtube video and then get started on that work I need to do. When we have this sea of little things that we let go of because they don't really matter, we are correct. Each individual thing doesn't matter. Watching that next video even though we said we would stop, doesn't really matter. Eating that next gummy bear, doesn't really matter. Taking the elevator this one time instead of walking, it just doesn't matter. By themselves at least.

But what is happening is that slowly, tiny failure by tiny failure, we start building up this psychic debt of guilt and shame. It didn't happen all at once. No single raindrop feels responsible for the flood.

When you finally come up for air, and realize that yet again it's been four hours of "just one more" you feel that cumulative burden of failure and start to internalize that as a character flaw rather than a situation. If only you had the discipline to stop, right?

Baby steps

But this realization also gives us the pathway out. Every one of those little failures is an opportunity for success. They are collectively overwhelming but individually easy to deal with. So just pick one thing to focus on and let everything else lie. Something easy and likely something that doesn't truly matter. It won't feel like much at first, in fact it will probably feel irritating. And you won't succeed every time or even necessarily most of the time. Failure is inevitable. Discomfort is inevitable. Just like when you exercise your muscles feel discomfort, when you exercise your willpower it doesn't' feel comfortable. And, just like exercise, you start small. You start with the 10 pound weights and work your way up to 100 pounds. You start by swearing off social media for 10 minutes and then slowly work your way up to a week. Discipline can be developed, just so long as you set yourself up for success instead of failure. And the first step is to stop talking about "being disciplined" and instead talk about "developing discipline".