[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
My elementary school band teacher hung a poster in his classroom that read: "Don't make excuses, make improvements." Whenever someone messed up, needed correction, talked out of turn, etc, he would reprimand us, as any teacher would. And as any teacher knows, sometimes kids push back if they feel they're being unfairly punished. When one of us pushed back, he'd simply point to the poster and say, "Don't make excuses, make improvements!" This was maddening, but he was right.
We are accountable for our own actions, and we know this. We just don't always like it. Sometimes, I find myself falling into the trap of blaming the world for my circumstances. Shunning responsibility is making an excuse, and people make excuses all the time. Your boss doesn't understand your working style. Your parents aren't supporting your dreams. Your partner isn't listening, or isn't pulling their own weight. People make excuses for their own attitudes and behaviors, and for other people's too. Once you notice yourself making excuses, you'll notice it in other people too and you'll probably find it annoying.
At a pre-Covid work conference, I was telling a colleague about my mom and said, "I admire her; she's a badass!" His retort was simply, "Hello apple, meet tree." I blushed. But his comment inspired a new conversation around what exactly it means to be a badass; what characteristics are required to be the person who embodies what all of us hope to be. We decided that the most badass character traits of all are disciple, accountability, strength, and kindness.
Retired Navy Seal Jocko Willink wrote an entire book called Disciple Equals Freedom (read it if you haven't already). The underlying point being that discipline is required in order to live a meaningful, productive life.
Discipline could mean waking up early to workout. It could mean putting your cellphone away so you can concentrate on work. It could mean turning off the TV to get to bed on time, or working at a job you don't really love until you can move onto something greater. Discipline could mean choosing healthy foods to fuel your body or saying no to a social activity. It could mean saving money when everyone around you is spending recklessly. Discipline can be boring. It can mean doing the same thing, day after day, until you've mastered your craft. Most importantly, being disciplined in whatever it is you're trying to do won't be easy. It's easy to do the bare minimum. It's easy to do what everyone else is doing. It's comfortable to be complacent. You can't be disciplined until you have a pretty good idea of whatever it is you want to accomplish, so discipline requires setting goals, too. And setting goals, or articulating your dreams, can be really scary.
Retired Navy Seal and ultra runner David Goggins, author of Can't Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy Your Odds wrote, "While isolation for a lot of people can fuck up your mind, it was while in isolation that I was able to change my mindset completely. I didn’t see isolation as a bad thing, I saw it as a great way to gain focus and discipline." It wasn't until he was alone that he figured out what it was he really wanted. Until you know what you want, you won't be able to figure out how to get there. Here's how to make discipline a daily practice.
1. Be Very Clear and Authentic About What You Want
It's easier to make scarifies when you're pursuing something you actually care about. There's no benefit in pursuing something half-heartedly, so find something that excites you and pursue it passionately.
2. Don't Take Advice From Just Anyone
This is important. I don't take financial advice from people who are broke, and I don't take career advice from people who have never done what I'm doing. Take advice from people who have the life you want, who you admire, or who are experts in the field you're pursuing. If you listen to everyone, you'll end up confused and rudderless.
3. Fail Often
Do things you probably will fail at and pay close attention to where you went wrong. One of the first times I really messed up was when I was working in fundraising. I mailed a grant to the wrong address and missed out on a potential $20,000 of funding. To make sure I didn't make the same mistake again, I made sure that all the addresses were updated in our CRM, and I created a calendar of deadlines, making sure to work a month in advance to ensure I had time for last-minute stuff. Mistakes aren't bad if you learn from them.
4. Be Okay Being Different and/or Being Alone
I was in high school when I learned the advantages of being different and doing my own thing. I knew I had the chance to earn a college scholarship, so I trained hard, mostly by myself. I woke up early before school to run, and I didn't really go to parties or worry about fitting in. I didn't care that I wasn't the most popular kid because I was busy pursuing a greater goal.
5. Invest in Yourself
Nobody cares as much about your own success as you do, so give yourself the tools you need to succeed. In training for ultras, I spend money on a strength coach, a yoga membership, and bi-monthly massages. I buy healthy food for myself and ensure that I have the tools I need to succeed. If I don't, nobody else will.
6. Remove Negative Influences From Your Life
When I first moved to California, I didn't know many people and in trying to find new friends, I gained a new understanding of what constituents a negative influence. There were people who only wanted to drink, who stayed up late, who complained often, and who generally drained me of energy. I also met people who were chasing big goals, who were warm and caring, and who built healthy boundaries. Choosing my community wisely helped me be a more positive, happy person.
P.S. Listen to Jocko's podcast, read about cultivating discipline, or watch Jordan Peterson talk about creating a disciplined life here or take a self-assessment to understand your personality type here.