The Beauty of Discipline
I have to admit, I’ve always hated discipline.
But at an early age my dad told me that discipline was key to success in life, and because I could see implicitly that he was right, I practiced discipline diligently in just about everything I undertook, from sports to school to work.
Looking back I can’t deny that discipline was critical in everything I did well (as well as the culprit in everything that I didn’t do so well). I can say without doubt that my dad was right, that taking extra steps to do things the right way, again and again, really is key to success.
But there was a problem.
See, in my mind, the ultimate reward for years of discipline would be the arrival of the day when I could discard it. Someday, I promised myself, I would be successful enough to live a discipline-free life, to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. No two days would be the same, and no one would be able to expect anything of me that I didn’t feel like doing. That would, in fact, be the definition of success.
I don’t think I’m terribly different from many entrepreneurs and leaders out there. Though we all understand the importance of hard work and diligence in meeting our daily responsibilities, many of us quietly yearn for the day when our businesses will be in a place where we can be spontaneous and free, where we can choose how to spend our time depending on what we feel like doing at any given moment, on any given day.
Well, things don’t always turn out the way we think they will. For me there were two flaws in my thinking:
First, when it comes to having a family, freedom and spontaneity are really rare. There always seems to be an appointment, a game, a recital or a family activity to attend when you’re a parent or a spouse. And on that day when there are no activities, there’s usually an illness or an unexpected emergency.
But even if my home life was out of my control, I vowed to find a way to be discipline-free at work. That meant that whenever I wasn’t working with a client, writing a book or traveling to give a talk, I would free myself from time commitments and responsibilities that I didn’t enjoy. I would go to the office and bounce from one conversation to another based on whatever whims moved me that day or that hour. I would be as free from discipline as I had ever been in my life.
Well, to a certain extent, I was able to achieve that goal. And that’s when the second flaw in my thinking became apparent: freedom from discipline left me feeling empty.
Not only did my productivity diminish – which wasn’t a total shock – but something else happened that surprised me. I came to dread any activity, even relatively enjoyable ones, which prevented me from exercising “freedom.” I found that even though my days began with the promise of spontaneous creativity, they almost always ended with a sense of sluggish disappointment. I’d drive home feeling like a conscientious seventh grader who had spent his entire weekend playing video games. Aimless. Wasteful. A little ashamed.
In a very limited way, I think I caught a glimpse of what it must be like for professional athletes and famous actors who, when they’re between projects or seasons, have so much freedom in their lives and still seem unhappy. There is just something ultimately lonely and unfulfilling about not having any clear responsibilities, even if those responsibilities aren’t exactly stimulating.
And there is a point here for leaders and managers who, like me, often dread having to live more structured, disciplined lives than we think we want. After having indulged my life-long desire for freedom, I am now a reformed advocate of discipline, not just because it works, but because it has its own rewards.
Don’t get me wrong. I still greatly appreciate and understand the need for occasional freedom and unstructured time. We all need that. But I have to admit that I didn’t realize that freedom becomes its own kind of prison without a general sense of structure and limits. By embracing the need for discipline in our lives, at work and at home, we receive a sense of peace and humility that is far better than freedom. And ironically, it makes occasional opportunities for freedom much more enjoyable.
And so, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my wife and my children for filling my world with so many to-dos, which I probably never would have chosen for myself, thereby preventing me from the misery of too much freedom at home. And I’d like to apologize to my colleagues for tolerating my random interruptions during my prolonged period of adolescent rebellion. I guess it’s better to learn something at age 46 than never at all.
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