skip to Main Content

Discipline Needs to Be Learned, Not Taught

There is no inherent value to being disciplined.

The willingness to do something difficult is only meaningful if it’s exercised within the context of a worthy goal.

We often force students to do all sorts of things that don’t matter to them in the name of teaching them the virtue of discipline. Students don’t need to learn discipline. Students need to learn how to identify their preferences, how to assess their priorities, and how to think in accordance with principles.

When a person understands what they want, knows how to reason about the cost & benefits involved, and understands the implication of their choices, they can decide for themselves if discipline is useful or not in any given situation.

No matter who you are, life is going to teach you about the necessity of discipline. How do I know that? Because we’re all creatures of desire. Every single one of us will continuously experience the universal phenomenon known as “wanting something that isn’t easy to obtain.” And when that happens to you, me, or anyone else, we will be forced to either forego our desires or exercise some form of discipline.

There will always be moments when it’s simply not easy, fun, and convenient for you to get what you want. During those moments, you can estimate the cost & benefits involved. If the perceived benefits seem to outweigh the costs, you can exercise discipline and find a way to achieve your goal. If the perceived costs seem to make the benefits worth less than the effort, it would be self-defeating to force yourself to work really hard at something you neither value nor believe in just because of a dogmatic attachment to discipline.

The people with the most discipline in the real world are the ones who know what it means to believe in something deeply enough to fight for it in spite of the costs.

True discipline is nothing more than the combination of conviction and determination. And if you try to teach people to be determined without taking their genuine desires to be the rightful starting point, you’ll just make them experts at feeling guilty, resentful, and stressed out.

If you’re afraid that your students won’t ever work hard, you can relax because the combination of desire and difficulty will give them plenty of lessons on the topic of discipline.

If a person doesn’t want a particular thing, then it’s pointless for them to exercise discipline in relation to that thing. If a person truly does want something, however, they will learn to be disciplined as long as you don’t swoop down and save them.

If you really want to teach people how to be disciplined, then discipline yourself enough to let them struggle when it’s good for them. Discipline yourself enough to stop rescuing them and bailing them out every time life tries to make them work hard for something they sincerely desire.

Stop Looking For Something That Works

Sometimes things will work really well for other people, but they won’t work so well for you. Sometimes things won’t work out for other people, but they’ll work really well for you.

Professional advertisers have a phrase for this: “Individual results may vary.”

This simple fact of human experience isn’t limited to services and products sold in the marketplace. It’s also true in the realm of ideas, relationships, family life, physical fitness, non-profit activities, and everything else under the sun.

Every single thing that you will ever glean value from will also be the very thing that breaks someone else’s heart. And every single thing that ever annoys you, angers you, or makes you sad, will also be the very thing that fills someone else’s life with joy.

Whenever I hear people say “Individual results may vary”, I think to myself “Wrong! Individual results MUST vary!”

When investigating a project, person, or program, we often make the mistake of looking for some kind of universal validation to make us feel like everything is going to be okay.

Will I be okay if I get involved with this project? Will I be okay if I date/marry that person? Will I be okay if I enroll in this program? 

What sort of data could possibly give you that information? How in the world are you ever going to get the security of knowing you’ll be okay from discovering some fact like “Celebrity X endorses it” or “Professor Y gives it two thumbs up” or “Senator Z says it’s the right thing to do”?

Now let me be really clear here for all the readers who might fear that I’m belittling the process of critical thinking. I’m not saying you should dismiss the validity of background research or skeptical inquiry altogether. It’s important for you to have some assurance that you’re not marrying an axe murderer who’s merely posing as a stockbroker. There are situations in life that would clearly put us in danger if we turn our brains off and merely think in terms of cheesy platitudes like “follow your heart.” But there’s a big difference between doing background checks to ensure you’re not unknowingly engaging in something that’s criminal or dangerous and looking for someone to give you a guarantee that you’re following a path that won’t possibly fail you.

Everything can fail you. Everything. The church you choose to attend might let you down. The university you choose to attend might disappoint you. The degree you work so hard to get might fail you in the marketplace. That conference you choose to attend might be nothing like you were hoping. That boy or girl who sweeps you off your feet might turn out to be completely incompatible with you.

As I wrote in a blog post four years ago,

If you’re looking for a fool-proof approach to personal development, there isn’t one. Every good piece of advice that has ever been given is fully capable of making your life worse if you aren’t careful, conscious, and creative in your personal application of it.

Good self-help always begins with the self. Each person is, in the end, responsible for dealing with the variables of his own life. There is no system or teacher that can save any of us from this responsibility. The most beautiful bit of wisdom is immediately transformed into an ugly tool of destruction as soon as it is placed in the hands of someone who surrenders this responsibility to another.

How do we make decisions then? How do we figure out what the right option is? How do we separate the legit stuff from the stuff that’s B.S.?

It’s actually quite easy to separate the fluff from the valuable stuff when evaluating ideas and opportunities.

“Valuable Stuff” = A system, approach, or relationship that actually works for you.

“Fluff” = A system, approach, or relationship that doesn’t actually work for you.

Separating the good from the bad is only hard when you’re approaching the process philosophically, but relatively simple when approaching it pragmatically. If the goal is to establish some objective truth about what everyone should believe, then that’s a difficult task. If the goal, however, is simply to conduct experiments for the sake of seeing what works for you, then things are far more cut and dry.

The hard part is getting to a point where you can accept what works and doesn’t work for you without being too attached to any opinions about what should and shouldn’t work for others.

When making decisions about your life, discovering objective facts about people, places, and projects is overrated. It matters, but not nearly as much as we assume.

Sometimes people will have good advice and good intentions, but their advice still won’t apply to you. It’s not enough to merely find the “right” answers, the “best” ideas, or the most “trustworthy” sources. You still have to calculate your own risk tolerance and conduct your own experiments.

Your physical body is different from everyone else’s physical body. Your personal history is different from everyone else’s personal history. Your style of processing emotions is different from everyone else’s style of processing emotions. Your advantages and disadvantages are different from everyone else’s advantages and disadvantages. Your past mistakes are different from everyone else’s past mistakes. Your combination of heroes, enemies, and friends are different from everyone else’s combination of heroes, enemies, and friends.

What this means is that your life is not a syllogism. You can’t expect to be guaranteed a certain kind of outcome merely because your premises are correct and your rules of inference are valid. There are all sorts of variables and wildcards that make up your life. And the only way to navigate the maze of subjectivity and complexity known as “your way” is to face the uncertainty with poise and overcome the need to have a formula for everything.

Life is a journey, but that’s not the only metaphor. It’s also a battle and it’s also an art. Some answers will have to be fought for and some answers will have to be created.

What do you want? What is your tolerance for risk? What are you willing to try? What are you willing to sacrifice? What are you willing to bet on? What keeps you awake at night? What does your conscience tell you?

Don’t outsource your judgments and responsibilities to someone else. Your questions are your questions. Answer them for yourself.

Stop looking for something that works for everyone and start looking for something that works for you.

Fame Is a Sideshow and It Can Distract You from Either Direction

The pursuit of popularity has two extremes:

  1. Some people bend over backwards to get it.
  2. Some people bend over backwards to avoid it.

Both courses of action miss the point.

“But I want to have lots of fans who adore  me and validate my message…”

When you bend over backwards in order to have fame, you risk compromising the integrity of your message. Substance and self-authenticity take the backseat to sensationalism.

If this is your temptation, it might be useful to remember that having a big crowd doesn’t necessarily mean having a big impact. As Dorothy Day wrote, “It is people who are important, not the masses.”

In the long run, you’ll be much happier and more effective if you build a brand that’s fun to maintain than if you’re constantly revising your modus operandi just to sell tickets. Being widely known doesn’t equal being deeply loved nor does it equal being easily fulfilled.

The blessings of fame are brilliant at concealing the burdens that accompany them. Fame is like fire. It’s a powerful tool that can empower you to do what others only dream of, but it will blind you and burn you to ashes if you immerse yourself in it.

“But I don’t want to be like those cult-leaders or cheesy celebrities who have tons of weird followers…”

Is your message so unimportant to you that you’re willing to abandon it just because thousands of annoying people might like it? Do you believe in your message enough to stand by it even if it means having to put up with being adored by a few irrational or overly enthusiastic loyalists? Do you detest being called a “celebrity” so much that you’re okay with watering down your convictions and suppressing what you have to say?

It’s a good thing if you don’t want to become a cult-leader. It’s a bad thing if you believe the solution is to look at followers and fans as wicked little demons that need to be repelled at all costs. It’s a good thing if you don’t crave fame. It’s a bad thing if you treat all publicity and praise as if it’s a germ that can infect your integrity.

When you bend over backwards to avoid fame, you’re still guilty of prioritizing numbers over the integrity of your message. Assuming that you’re a winner for having a small following is just as superficial as assuming that you’re a loser for not having a big following.

Some leaders go out of their way to distinguish themselves from superficial celebrities and they just end up becoming a mirror image of the very people they despise. “I never want to be like those goofy people on TV”, they say while running like the wind from every invitation to share their gifts with new audiences.

Being obsessed with staying small is not automatically superior to being obsessed with going big. Being afraid of mass exposure is no more virtuous than being intoxicated by it.

If you can’t handle the crowd that comes and goes with your message, then you can’t handle the message.

Fame is a sideshow and it can distract you from either direction.

Fame is neither inherently good nor inherently bad.

When you idolize fame, you make it a god. When you fear fame, you make it a devil. Either way, you lose because that attitude causes you to give power to something other than yourself.

Your personal power isn’t determined by the number of people who know your name. It’s determined by what you do with whatever degree of influence you happen to have.

You can’t always control who will be drawn to you. Sometimes you’ll be liked when you’d rather be left alone. Sometimes you’ll be left alone when you’d rather be liked.

What matters, in the end, is your commitment to something that can’t be measured in terms of masses and minuses. Character, not crowds, is what makes the world go round.

Love: Before & After

Life often takes the form of a two-fold battle:

  1. Learning to love yourself enough to pursue your dreams even when others hate you for it.
  2. Learning to love yourself again after you’ve pursued your dreams, failed to realize them, and lost your pride in the process.

Self-love: Sometimes we need it in order to be our best. Sometimes we need it precisely because we aren’t our best.

Sometimes we need it in order to motivate us to work. Sometimes we need it precisely because motivation doesn’t always work.

Sometimes we need it in order to create new beginnings. Sometimes we need it in order to make peace with our endings.

I’ve never consider myself a hopeless romantic, but there’s at least one thing I’ve always admired about them: They find a way to make love survive even when they can’t keep all their dreams alive.

You should do the same.

Love yourself enough to go after what you want, but don’t stop loving yourself just because you fail to get it.

Before and after your dreams, your life is still worth fighting for.


Distracted By The Opposition

“When left to my own devices, I feel neutral or antagonistic towards X. However, I’m going to willfully transform myself into the kind of person who actively supports X for no other reason than that some people are silly in the way they express their hatred for X.”

“When left to my own devices, I feel passionate about X. However, I’m going to willfully transform myself into the kind of person who actively fights against X for no other reason than that some people are silly in the way they express their passion for X.”

If this is the logic you use for determining your direction in life, you might want to think twice.


Because there’s nothing you could possibly believe or support that’s ever going to be entirely free from some kind of association with people who express their convictions in a way that seems silly or shameful to you.

If passions and causes were sports teams, everyone would have at least one embarrassing player on their team. And although you may see yourself as not belonging to any particular ideological team, you will almost certainly be lumped into the same category with some very unlikeable people merely because they share certain sentiments in common with you.

Are you really willing to betray your interests, tastes, and ideas just because of those people? Is your sense of ambition so small, your sense of inspiration so weak that it’s only worth following when your convictions are solely shared by individuals who receive your stamp of approval?

There’s a wide and wonderful world of possibility waiting for you out there. There’s also a bunch of “idiots” who enjoy exploring those same possibilities.

What’s more important: getting the most out of your experiences or never being seen standing next to an “idiot” who roots for the same things as you?

Life is filled with many good things. Don’t abandon those things just because your enemies and opponents like them too.

Back To Top