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How I confused "discipline" with getting told what to do, and learned to love self-discipline
Redefining discipline—from someone else's bullshit story about something you can never have enough of, to something that comes from inside oneself, and serves as a foundation of calm, creative flow.
Growing up, I came to understand “discipline” either in the sense of punishment or as a macho ‘no pain no gain’ sort of thing—that if you were something like ‘man enough’ you’d have the discipline to get up early, work out, and, you know, do the right thing.
Discipline seemed like a man thing, but not of the kind of man that I wanted to be, or even have anything to do with. Discipline seemed like my sixth-grade P.E. teacher barking orders, or my dad saying “because I said so,” in response to me asking, “why,” both of which only served to make me angry.
Discipline also seemed like something that you were meant to have enough of in advance, like ‘willpower’—and that having enough was something that would be judged by someone else—in particular, a man. Whatever the meaning was, it was clear enough to me that whether I wanted it or not, I clearly didn’t have enough discipline—if I had, I would’ve been playing football instead of drinking Jack and Coke (mostly Jack) over a pallet fire in Glen Canyon.
Like so many other things that I rejected, like organized sports, curfew, and yuppies—and like rules, authority, and structure—discipline seemed like bullshit. It wasn’t even that I was against any particular thing in the first place—it was the rejection, the “no,” the fuck that, that got baked in. I rejected things—and still do—simply because other people have gotten there first. Anything popular is suspect—and while is a good way to avoid Instagram picture spots (see: waterfalls—whatever), keeping me on the road less traveled, it’s also kept me away from a lot of roads that have been traveled at all, which doesn’t leave much room to roam. Even if I did, at the age of sixteen, know what the ’right thing’ was at some subconscious level, I rejected that too, because someone else might have already done that.
It’s not that I never applied myself to anything. I did, even early on in life, although, I will say that most of what I did didn’t seem that hard, and I often left off when things got difficult, like the mural that I left half-finished in the hallway outside my favorite art teacher’s high school classroom. There were some things that I put a lot of time and energy into, like learning Italian—but I enjoyed that so much, and it came so naturally to me, that discipline was not part of the picture.
As I passed from my twenties into my thirties, I started a business that became my livelihood and, eventually, enough of a success that I was able to sell it. Doing that required a lot of effort, even dedication, but still, discipline never crossed my mind, except as something to avoid, as I had been all along. I’m not sure if I had any habits at all. There were things that I did on a regular basis, but everything I did was in the context of maintaining my freedom to choose at all times. I remember my friend Adam telling me that he ate a tuna sandwich for lunch every day, how that freed him up from having to decide what or where to eat, and how that in turn freed him to devote more time to things that mattered. I thought the idea sounded interesting in theory, but not as something that I would actually put into practice. I was all about variety, and so I went on looking for whatever I wanted at the moment, right then, and that was certainly not whatever it had been the day before.
You might think that especially since I was traveling nonstop during all of those years, I would have been on a perpetual one-way ticket, but the irony is that I was so afraid of being alone—and of making the wrong decision, of ending up somewhere that I didn’t want to be—that instead of booking my travel open-ended, I would agonize for days about which return flight would be right for me, and then almost never change those plans once they were made. My freewheeling style was belied by an underlying absence of personal solidity and confidence that very much contradicted my hard-won sense of freedom—and back at home, my friend Adam would be happily eating his tuna sandwich while I scrambled to find a new restaurant that I would be happy with. He was content, and back at work, while I was still—very anxiously—trying to figure out what to have for lunch.
I first began to become aware of the concept of discipline again in my 40’s, when I started to trying to get more fit. I knew that if I really wanted to get stronger, I’d have to work out regularly, perhaps even on a schedule. Same for meditation—it only really works if it becomes a habit, something that you do all the time, not just when you feel like it. I didn’t do either of these. I exercised or meditated whenever the inspiration struck, which wasn’t all that often. Along the way I did pick up the idea that everything is a practice—that in very simple terms we get good at what we do—but it still really didn’t occur to me to consider making a practice of any particular thing.
I did know that that there was no way that things that I might have wanted, but didn’t actually do on any regular basis would become part of me—but my resistance to the idea of structure, regularity, and rules kept me from dedicating myself to much. Instead, I worked from a perpetually a la carte menu of things that I needed and liked to do—work, eating, kitesurfing, yoga, running, flying, chores, paperwork, and whatever else—begrudgingly scheduling things mostly as other required. I was running more often, and learning to fly paragliders certainly did require persistence and determination, but even with things that I loved and wanted to get better at, I continued to do those things just about only when I felt like doing them. Of course I knew of other people who had training routines, running calendars, and workout schedules. I turned my nose up—and those things still felt like other people’s business. Not for me.
* * *
One of the first things that I can recall doing that required something approaching discipline was what’s known as SIV training. Short for the French phrase ‘Simulation d’Incident en Vol’, which translates to “doing your best to get the napkin that you’re hanging from to stop flying, on purpose, and then get it to fly again” during SIV training you get towed up to 4,000’ over a lake and, under the guidance of an instructor via radio, purposefully induce collapses, stalls, and twists in the paraglider wing so as to learn how to recover from those situations. This is basically an exercise in subjecting yourself to PTSD, where the “P” is both “pre” and “post.” It’s masochistic, really, and it also really is what you have to do to fly these things properly.
Just to be clear, by “flying” I mean “paragliding,“ although that lonesome gerund doesn’t really carry anywhere near enough weight. “Gliding” makes it sound passive, but you don’t just “go” paragliding. This is not a ride—it’s a form of unpowered aviation where the aircraft is an engineered textile structure that also happens to be able to fold up and fit in a backpack. It’s a highly involved sport that requires significant training to even begin to do, and at least a hundred of hours of practice to get to an intermediate level of proficiency—and something that you have to keep doing regularly if you’re going to do it at all, at least if you’re interested in doing it without breaking your back, neck, or pelvis.
For me, SIV was terrifying, mostly unpleasant—and a necessary part of flying. I knew that to continue to progress into more advanced flying with a reasonable degree of safety, I had to subject myself to these simulated “incidents” on a regular basis, but I can’t say that it was something that I wanted to do, nor something that I enjoyed enough the first time to make it any easier going back the second and the third.
Driving the last stretch of Highway 128 up towards Lake Berryessa at 6am on a Thursday morning, nearing the turnoff for the aptly-named Pleasure Cove Marina where we would set out for the day on and above the lake, the sky turning slowly pink in the California dawn, I was gripping the wheel, shaking and muttering, two parts of myself deep in conversation with one another. One part wanted very much to turn around and go back to bed, even though I’d already driven an hour and a half to get that far. The other part knew full well that if I did turn around, my flying career would effectively be over. Without SIV, I could cruise the predictable coastal breeze along the bluffs in Pacifica, but without this acrobatic training there was no way to rationalize going to fly in the mountains, where the only way to stay aloft was to seek out thermals—columns of rising air which airplane passengers experience as turbulence—and fly directly into them. Perhaps you get the point.
There are some that do fly in the mountains without SIV, but to my way of thinking, it wouldn’t be sane to choose to do the type of flying that I wanted to do without that training—and so I checked in with my fear, told myself that I could do it, and I kept driving. I showed up. I chose to practice, even though I didn’t want to.
Still, the word “discipline” still wasn’t present in my consciousness, and this was probably more an example of sheer determination.
A few years later, and just about five years ago, I went from drinking every day to drinking almost never (and since then, even less than almost never). This is the sort of change that a lot people associate with requiring a lot of discipline, you know, sticktuitivness, because, the thinking goes, every day is a struggle, and you have to use the power of your will to make yourself do (or not do, in this case) the thing that you are aiming for.
Well… Bullshit. Not only was my own experience that it wasn’t about willpower, the reading that I did after having made that decision reinforced my understanding that changing that lifelong habit wasn’t about gritting it out on a daily basis. It was about changing how I thought about drinking, and even moreso, internalizing the changes that had already occurred to how I thought about alcohol, and then letting those new beliefs guide my actions. Embodying my beliefs, as opposed to forcing myself to do something.
I didn’t use that fancy word at the time, but it did feel like I had discovered something new that I believed, and then, having that to refer to, that I could let myself do what I believed in. I continued to do things in life pretty much as they occurred to me—it’s just that once those new beliefs emerged, and that was pretty much all at once, drinking didn’t occur to me much any longer. So, “discipline,” no, still not for me.
After flying intensively for several years, including paragliding trips all over the western U.S, and to Mexico, Austria, Slovenia, Columbia, and Brazil, it was becoming more and more clear to me how much time and energy flying was requiring. In particular, cross country flying—XC, as we call it—is at least a day-long endeavor every go-round, because of the time it takes to prepare to go flying, drive to a suitable take-off site, fly for several hours in some weather-determined direction, retrieve pilots who have landed in various places, and then finally return home. Good flying requires good flying conditions, which means paying attention to and chasing suitable weather, and that can often mean driving three, four, five or more hours on short notice to link up with other pilots who are geared up and game for adventure. Hanging from strings at ten thousand feet in the sky is certainly all-consuming while you’re doing it, and the whole enterprise quickly becomes all-consuming even while you’re not doing it, if you’re paying attention to the opportunities that arise to go flying—and they do. If you want to fly, when it’s good, you go.
Even beyond the time involved, free-flight sports such as paragliding and hang gliding are so demanding of the brain and psyche, at least for me, that I found myself not just distracted beforehand but drained of energy for couple of days after each flying day, and so, as much as I enjoyed and even loved flying, I had to reckon with the fact that it was detracting in a significant way from my other pursuits—most of all, my focus on writing. Flying was beautiful, interesting, and even life-changing at times, but not my profession.
The truth is that once I got to be able to do the type of flying that I wanted to do, I didn’t feel that I could continue to do it unless I made nearly a full time job of it—and that was too much. And so, before long, I stopped.
I put my gear on the shelf, and after a year of not using it, I sold it.
I miss flying. It’s an experience is deservedly described as transcendental—something that gives access to a new way of being, and quite literally a new dimension, as well as the mode of flight, something that humans simply did not evolve to do. I miss flying, but, and, I don’t miss the time required to pursue it. I miss flying between the clouds, I miss thermaling with raptors, I miss surfing above mountain ridges, my attention both dissolved into the ether and laser-focused on every detail. I miss it—but not enough to justify doing it, at least not at the moment.
Was giving up flying an act of discipline? Did I need to use willpower to keep myself from packing the van and going off on a flying trip instead of sitting down at my desk to write? No, but it did feel like a conscious act, a decision to “cut something off,” which is in fact the root meaning of the word “decide.” I stopped, and I stopped by acting upon my values. As much as I wanted to embody “pilot,” I wanted to embody “writer” much more, and so I chose to focus on the latter.
* * *
Last June I had just returned from a trip to Europe where I enjoyed some beer and local wine during a month of hiking in Corsica. I didn’t feel any conflict about drinking occasionally per se, but I did find myself getting tired of explaining—mostly, to myself—the details of how “occasionally” worked. Chance or not, shortly thereafter I bumped into some other people that were beginning a year of not drinking together, and I decided to join them. Not long afterwards, through that same group, I met this guy T Callahan who proposed what seemed to me at least to be a fascinating redefinition of the word “discipline.”
T suggested that it could be seen as something “rising from a seed that ultimately grows habit,” instead of as a force of will that draws upon a reservoir of (perhaps, at least for me as a man, masculine) strength—something that accumulates over time instead of somehow just being there from the start. Something that is a reflection of who we actually are and how we act in the present, as opposed to some imaginary…bullshit.
Another conversation a couple of months later, this time with my friend James Brown, introduced me to the idea that “the root of the word ’discipline’ is ’disciple.’ …the question really isn't ’how disciplined are you?’ The bigger question is: what are you a disciple to?” James took me a bit further along a path of seeing discipline not so much as willful effort from the top down but as the embodiment of values—letting your philosophy guide your actions, from the bottom up—building on a foundation instead of trying to control oneself, which, to be honest, I’m not even sure if really possible.
Both James and T encouraged me to recognize how I actually had been quite disciplined in many ways in the past, by acting in alignment with my values—even if my values were to reject just about everything, including the idea of discipline itself—and, much more recently, in stopping drinking, in giving up flying, and in choosing to focus on writing.
These actions add up over time to become evidence of discipline. Instead of feeling that I needed a full tank of this stuff to begin with, before I could even start to do something that might ’require’ discipline, the tank, so to speak, fills over time based on day-to-day intentional actions. I find now that when I consider something now that might require discipline, I can refer to the accumulated evidence that I have been able to act in accordance with my values, and that that serves the function of something like what I had imagined discipline to be, so long ago.
For me, it’s often the simplest things that are the most difficult to follow through with. I know that I value the quality of presence that I observe in people who meditate regularly, but I have resisted the regular practice of meditation myself. I listen to myself saying that I don’t want to, or that I’ll do it later. I value physical well-being, strength, flexibility, and longevity, and although I am more fit my fifties that I ever was earlier in life, I have resisted establishing a regular practice of exercise, on my. I hear myself saying that “it hurts,” or “I can’t,” or again, that I’ll do it “later.” Well… when exactly is that? It does remind me of the hints that I got from my intuition over the years about drinking—that I was suffering, and that drinking less would be good for me, but that I would change that later, and that I didn’t want to make the change alone.
Now, with some accumulated evidence of an ability to embody other values that I hold, I can hold the fact that I did learn how to fly paragliders—which required many many hours of practice, confronting fear, dealing with unpleasant situations, pushing the boundary of what was possible for me—and see that if I could do that, I can certainly meditate for ten or fifteen minutes every day. I can look at the truth that I made a major life-changing course correction to my relationship with alcohol, and that (in my case) I did do it on my own, and that helps me to see that I can develop a daily strength exercise routine, if I really want to.
This shift from “I don’t want to” and “I can’t” to “I can,” from no to yes, is part of this redefinition. I’m starting to see discipline as something at the center of a positive feedback loop of embodying personal values, the subsequent accomplishment, and the resulting feeling of being even more able to hold and embody values. A source of strength, yes, but one that is formed by way of practice, and that anyone can form—not something that you’re just born with, or without enough of.
Taking action based on values builds discipline like a muscle. I recall my own axiom: everything is a practice. I get good at what I do. In a way, “having” discipline can be seen as the proof of regular, repeated, ongoing, habitual action, as opposed to discipline being the pre-requisite for action.
What is required beforehand are values. Perhaps I’ve come to see discipline as making a practice of values—and seeing it this way takes the ego out of the process, instead of requiring it’s will—or someone else’s—to order me around. Once I decided that I didn’t want to be the old(er) guy cruising the party with a drink in his hand any longer, I went from being attached to my freedom to choose to drink at any moment to being free from having to choose, pretty much ever. Similarly, I went from the freedom to go flying at a moment’s notice on any given day to the freedom from having that particular and very persistent tug on my leash, pulling me out the door and off into the sky for what was—don’t get me wrong—an absolutely incredible experience, truly outstanding, very worthwhile, and something that I learned a lot from, but also, something that I didn’t need to do, and therefore, at least presently, a distraction from that which I value most.
When traveling, I’ve gone from feeling that I have to ever-so-carefully choose my precisely ideal return flight long in advance to feeling that I have the freedom to leave my return open, perhaps because now I have the confidence that my values will guide me back at the right time, whenever that is, without having to know exactly when that is in advance—which is impossible anyhow. More importantly, I know that this discipline is serving not just my further freedom, but my creative energy. As Henry Miller wrote, “The great freedom and spontaneity Picasso reveals is born, one feels, because of the impact, the pressure, the support of the whole being, which for an endless period, has been subservient to the discipline of the spirit.”
All of that brings me back to what I sensed as bullshit from the start. What I thought was “discipline” was bullshit, because it wasn’t anything like aligning myself with any values of my own. At best it was someone else’s rules or values, but it was coming from outside, and really, it was also just my own assumptions based on cliches that I had heard mumblingly repeated, and—like just about everything else in early life—never explained. What I thought about discipline was dead wrong. It’s not about how someone else might see me—or how I imagine someone else seeing me. To the extent that I didn’t feel like I had ’enough’ was not because I was deficient, but because I hadn’t built it up by way of practice, and by seeing the results.
Connor Beaton wrote recently that “Discipline is a form of self-respect, self-care and self-love,” and I’ve started to shake hands with this kind of discipline, or, more specifically, “self-discipline,” as Steven Pressfield put it, that which is “generated from within.” I’m not saying that all of a sudden I’ve become a devotee of 6am workouts on the daily. I still don’t believe in following the crowd, or even in setting my alarm unless I have a flight to catch—but I’m no longer averse to dedicating myself to something that I believe in, and to acting on that dedication, even to the point of giving up other things, and also to the point of taking action even though, in the moment, I might not feel like want to.
I still resist on principle, just because I don’t want to be like anyone else that might have unearthed this bit of everyday wisdom before me, but as much as I’ve averse to admitting it, I’m starting to get a perverse pleasure from keeping myself more tightly wired to my values and my goals. Not spreading myself so thin. Not trying everything all the time, or something new, every time. Keeping things simple, in service of a higher purpose—and even, yes, a bit of discipline.
You should see my fridge. Now it’s just a stack of tuna sandwiches—nothing else.
Thanks for being here and for being part of this journey.
You can support me in my work by participating here on my Substack. If you choose to become a paying subscriber, so much the better, but either way, your presence, reading, feedback, and participation by way of questions and discussion is a huge part of what motivates me.
Annie Grace, This Naked Mind — on changing one’s relationship with alcohol
Maia Szalavitz, Unbroken Brain — on addiction as a learning disorder
Charlie Engle, Running Man — on getting sober and running across the Sahara
Jack Grapes, Method Writing — my favorite writing teacher, on writing
Steven Pressfield, Govt Cheese: A Memoir
Henry Miller, Sextet: Six Essays
Henry Miller, Sexus (The Rosy Crucifixion, #1)
Some questions for you
What does the word “discipline” conjure up for you? Have you ever had the feeling that it’s something that you don’t have ’enough’ of?
Do you have any regular practices—things that you do repeatedly as part of who you are? Are there any of these that you do whether you want to or not?
What’s more important to you, novelty or regularity?
What values do you hold close enough to make part of your life—to embody?
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