I was talking to a friend over the weekend, and somehow we got onto the topic of discipline. I think we had been talking about PhD programs. We’re both generalists and tend to have interests that are broad rather than deep, so there’s no intrinsic appeal to the idea of getting up each day and drilling deeper into the same topic. If something’s not interesting, move on. So the question arose: “What is the value of discipline?” We started bouncing ideas around, and it’s an interesting topic so I’m blogging it.

One thought was that the idea of discipline was like that of the “Protestant work ethic”, a relic of the industrial age. We are taught that discipline is important in school, because public education was originally designed to teach children the skills they would need in the factory: show up on time, do what you’re told, stay in your seat. Going to work involved doing unpleasant things, so having the discipline to go to work was a valuable skill. But in a world of the Creative Class where authors talk about the value of happiness at work, is the concept of discipline outdated?

It’s tempting to think so, but I think discipline still has value in the modern age. The concept of discipline has to evolve, though. No longer is it sufficient to be disciplined the way the Organization Man was: having a set routine each day, getting up at the same time, kissing the wife and kids goodbye, catching the same train to arrive at the same office at the same time, every family living their identical lives as part of the quotidian herd. This is what comes to mind when we think of discipline and that isn’t where the value lies.

I’ve seen hints of that value in several different works recently. One is The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp, who says “being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. [Writers have their own patterns] but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit.” She describes the importance of “rituals of preparation”, which are “as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more.” Maybe if I got past the first chapter of that book I’d blog more 🙂

Another book where discipline plays a role is Seth Godin’s The Dip. The premise is that you have to go through a period of hardship before breaking through to the next level of achievement. Many people stagnate in their previous level of achievement rather than risk going through “The Dip”. Getting through “The Dip” requires a level of discipline and belief.

In both of these cases, the idea of discipline is important, but the specifics of how it applies to the individual situation differs. Your ritual of preparation will be different than mine. The Dip one business faces is completely different than another. So one of the key points of adapting discipline to this freewheeling world is understanding that there aren’t any universal answers any more. Discipline is going to manifest itself differently in different people, as people have their own lives to lead.

The core of discipline is the ability to set goals and then to meet them. The specific goals will vary from person to person, but developing the character trait of meeting one’s internal goals is valuable no matter where life leads. Even if you start with little goals, those little goals start to accumulate, and you develop the confidence to handle bigger goals, and are achieving more than you ever thought possible.

Gerald Weinberg, in his book Becoming a Technical Leader, states that the best tool to determine whether you are ready to become a problem-solving leader is to spend five minutes each day writing in a personal journal, as a test of your discipline and self-reflection. Five minutes a day is a very little goal, but it’s amazing how hard it is to stick to it (I’ve done 54 out of the past 82 days). The act of trying has improved my discipline in other ways, though, as keeping the journal provides a place to keep track of little goals and my (in)ability to achieve them. I’m setting other little goals for myself, from developing exercise habits to eating healthier. None of them individually are large, but I think the effects will accumulate over time.

Discipline matters, possibly more than ever. There’s been plenty of research to show that effort matters more than talent. Having the wherewithal to continue trying even when facing failure is a valuable skill. We can’t stay in our comfort zones even if we want to – the world changes too fast, eroding the comfort zone even if we don’t move. So the ability to change ourselves, even in small steps, is necessary to continue functioning.

12 thoughts on “Discipline

  1. Another way to think about it: discipline is valuable because it allows you to hillclimb out of a local optimum in your energy/fitness landscape to reach a deeper, more optimal minimum nearby.

  2. I would say that disciple is not so much the keeping of the same daily routine, but the ability to take on and push through hard challenges, both in the short term and in the long term. For instance, I know people who are writers, who even though they don’t really keep a regular schedule, keep plugging away relentlessly to get their projects done and increase their skills.

  3. To me, discipline is not just repetition, but the ability to push through unpleasant, but necessary things to reach a goal. Even if you’re having fun at work, there are guaranteed to be things you don’t enjoy doing that you have to do to reach a larger goal. The primary goal of industrial workforce of the past was to make a living and the drudgery to be endured was labor. The primary goal of the creative class might be loftier or at least more abstract, and the drudgery transformed from physical labor or repetitive motions to more intellectual unpleasantnesses, but it is still there. This may clash with your generalism, but I believe that mastery remains valuable, especially in a multidisciplinary world, and mastery still requires slogging through drudgery, which demands discipline.

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