Self-Discipline: The Secret Ingredient
The development of self-discipline is like exercising a muscle that develops the more you use it.
No one achieves mastery of a skill, competence in a profession, or knowledge of a subject without hours and hours of effort, frustration and setbacks. Natural gifts — intelligence, size, strength and quick reflexes — are a bonus, but rarely sufficient to achieve the highest level of success.
Here are some levels of mastery that few manage to reach:
- Intelligence. Approximately one-tenth of 1% of Americans are estimated to have an IQ of 145 or higher (over 320,000 individuals). Despite being gifted, most have not achieved extraordinary success in any field. Psychologist Lewis Terman and his disciples conducted studies of genius individuals (those with IQs of 150 or higher) and concluded that "intelligence and achievement were far from perfectly correlated."
- Physicality. Many American children play an athletic sport, but less than 0.01% can compete at a professional level. The truly great athletes that achieve mythical status — the Bradys, Jordans, Mantles and Woods — are not distinguished for their physical gifts but for developing their talents.
- Creativity. Some people have a natural ability to hear the perfect pitch or capture the essence of a single moment or scene and translate reality into a piece of unforgettable music, literature or art. Yet, the Beethovens, Monets and Shakespeares stand atop their professions after centuries of lesser competitors that appear and fade to obscurity.
10,000 Hours for Mastery
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claimed that 10,000 hours of intensive, deliberate practice is necessary to gain mastery of a complex skill or subject like playing violin or excelling at computer programming. While the amount of time needed is questioned, few dispute that achieving proficiency and, ultimately, mastery of any activity is difficult. Tom Hanks, the coach of the female professional baseball team in the movie A League of Their Own, said, "If it were easy, everyone would do it."
The road to success includes:
- Failures - Edison supposedly had 1,000 failed experiments before successfully inventing the light bulb;
- Obstacles - Steven King's first novel, Carrie, was rejected by thirty different publishers, and;
- Challenges - Stephen Spielberg, a multi-Oscar winner and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, was rejected twice by the University of Southern California School of Cinema Arts before acceptance at California State University in Long Beach, CA.
What sets people like the above apart? Why do scientists persist after a series of failed experiments? How do business people like Jeff Bezos retain the energy to manage growing companies after reaching multi-billionaire status? How does anyone spend hours each day, year after year, chasing elusive success?
The answer is self-discipline.
Self-discipline is often missing in discussions of the drivers of success, overshadowed by intelligence, natural abilities, hard work, personal connections and luck. Many winners do not recognize the trait in themselves nor remember the many times that self-discipline is necessary before medals are won, victories achieved or goals reached. Yet, self-discipline — the practice of continually pursuing an objective despite the effort required, the obstacles to overcome and the temptations to pursue a less difficult target — is often the single critical influence in ultimate outcomes.
Many incorrectly equate "willpower" with self-discipline. Willpower — the ability to say "no" to temptation — is a synonym for self-control. Scientific studies over the last two decades found that willpower is a function of one's genetics, preferences, planning and financial status. In short, willpower is not the exercise of self-control, but the consequence of reduced levels of temptations. Avoiding sweets because one dislikes their taste is not willpower, but fortune. On the other hand, self-discipline is learned, structured, well thought out and consistent. It is strengthened through practice.
According to Brent Gleeson, author of Embrace the Suck: The Navy SEAL Way To An Extraordinary Life, people with self-discipline are more decisive, not letting impulses or feelings dictate the actions they take to achieve the desired outcome.
Implement the following strategies to learn and practice the skills needed for success:
- Establish personal goals and a plan. A person who travels without a destination is subject to the whims of chance, as likely to be shipwrecked as landing on the welcoming shores of Odysseus' sirens. Define what success means to you in as much quantifiable detail as possible, then develop a plan to achieve that status.
- Confront your weaknesses. Personal weaknesses are the Achilles' heel for everyone, leading to procrastination, half-hearted effort and premonitions of defeat. Poring over accounting and finance papers to understand security analysis is tedious. Waiting another day before giving up a favorite food, alcohol or tobacco for better long-term health is easily rationalized. Prioritizing the activities that one wants over those activities one enjoys is tempting. Weaknesses seduce intentions, necessitating self-awareness to exercise self-discipline.
- Avoid temptations. Gleeson notes that removing the bigger temptations from his environment in his quest to become a SEAL was critical. He quit buying sweets and junk food to lose weight. He quit drinking. If procrastination is a problem for you, turn off social media and schedule phone calls and meetings for specific periods of the day. Reduce the time spent with those who substitute play for work. Removing the biggest temptations from your environment will significantly improve your self-discipline.
- Seek out mentors. Look to others who have the qualities you seek and ask for their help changing your bad habits and attitude. A good mentor provides objective feedback without malice, typically because they have made a similar journey themselves. Very few winners are self-made; those we call "experts" have learned from others, and most are eager to pass on their knowledge and encouragement. Isaac Newton wrote of his appreciation for the wisdom of others in a letter to his rival Robert Hooke: "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
- Implement new habits and rituals. Humans are creatures of habit, from how we dress each morning to the route taken to the local grocery store. Habits are those repeatable actions taken each time a reminder occurs, triggering a response and ending with a reward. Implementing a new habit or changing an old one begins with the motive to make a change. Your motive is the expected reward when the change occurs. Identify the circumstances that trigger the habit. Is it a time of day, a place or a situation? Once known, eliminate or alter the trigger and always be mindful of your actions while forming a new habit.
- Forgive yourself and continue forward. Few permanent changes occur overnight. Inculcating a frame of mind is often a process of progress and setbacks, two steps ahead and one step back. When you fall, fall forward and be quick to get back up. Identify the reasons for your failure and move on, confident that you are prepared if similar obstacles transpire in the future. Warren Buffett spent years at the knee of Benjamin Graham, the Father of Security Analysis, before setting up his investment fund. Jeff Bezos spent 80 and 100 hours each week for four years in the bowels of Wall Street to learn the art of entrepreneurship and fundraising.
Harry Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, was famous for the wooden plaque on his desk that read, "The Buck Stops Here." Truman understood the importance of self-discipline, serving as the commander of an artillery unit on the front lines in World War, despite having been initially rejected for poor eyesight. He ultimately passed the physical by memorizing the eye chart. When asked whether leaders require discipline in an interview, the former President replied, "First, they need self-discipline. In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves … self-discipline with all of them came first."
Self-discipline is the ability to stay the course and act, regardless of how you're feeling, physically or emotionally. You do it despite distractions, hard work or unfavorable odds. It also enables people to achieve great success, even though others are intimidated by the difficulties.
The development of self-discipline is available to all; it's like exercising a muscle that develops size and strength the more you use it. It is also the foundation of any future success.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor