The ancients were fond of an expression: Character is fate.
It means that character is deterministic, that who you are determines what you will do.
Self-discipline is one of those special things that is both predictive and deterministic. It both predicts that you will be great, AND it makes whatever you are doing great. It is not a means to an end. It is not just something we value until we get something we think we might really value—this job title, that amount of money, winning the biggest game, landing the best opportunity.
No. Discipline is the win. When you are disciplined about your craft…you win. When you know you put your best into something…you win. When your self-worth is tied to things you can control (effort, for example)…you win.
This is what I mean when I say, as I titled my latest book, Discipline is Destiny. Who we are, the standards we hold ourselves to, the things we do regularly—in the end, these are all better predictors of the trajectory of our lives than things like talent, resources, or anything else. So here, adapted from my latest book, Discipline is Destiny: The Power of Self-Control, are 25 habits that will put you on the best trajectory possible.
1. Attack the dawn. The morning hours are the most productive hours. Because in the morning, you are free. Hemingway would talk about how he’d get up early because early, there was, “no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” Toni Morrison found she was just more confident in the morning, before the day had exacted its toll and the mind was fresh. Like most of us, she realized she was just, “not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.” Who can be? After a day of banal conversations, frustrations, mistakes, and exhaustion.
2. Quit being a slave. On an ordinary afternoon in 1949, the physicist Richard Feynman was going about his business when he felt a pull to have a drink. Not an intense craving by any means, but it was a disconcerting desire for alcohol. On the spot, Feynman gave up drinking right then and there. Nothing, he felt, should have that kind of power over him. At the core of the idea of self-mastery is an instinctive reaction against anything that masters us. We have to drop bad habits. We have to quit being a slave—to cigarettes or soda, to likes on social media, to work, or your lust for power. The body can’t be in charge. Neither can the habit. We have to be the boss.
3. Just be about the work. Before he was a big time comedian, Hasan Minhaj was asked if he thought he was going to make it big. “I don’t like that question,” he said. “I fundamentally don’t like that question.” Because the question implies that doing comedy is a means to an end—the Netflix special, selling out the stadium, doing this, getting that. “No, no, no,” he said, “I get to do comedy…I won. It being predicated on doing X or being bigger than Y—no, no, no. To me, it’s always just been about the work. I’m on house money, full time.”
4. Manage the load. “Absolute activity, of whatever kind,” Goethe said, “ultimately leads to bankruptcy.” No one is invincible. No one can carry on forever. We are all susceptible to what the American swimmer Simone Manuel has helped popularize: Overtraining Syndrome. Even iron eventually breaks, or wears out.
5. Do the hard things first. The poet and pacifist William Stafford put forth a daily rule: “Do the hard things first.” Don’t wait. Don’t tell yourself you’ll warm up to it. Don’t tell yourself you’ll get this other stuff out of the way and then…No. Do it now. Do it first. Get it over with.
6. Keep the main thing the main thing. “I wish I knew how people do good and long sustained work and still keep all kinds of other lines going–social, economic, etc,” John Steinbeck once wrote in the middle of the long grind of a novel. The truth is, they don’t! It is impossible to be committed to anything–professionally or personally–without the discipline to say no to all those other superfluous things.
7. Make little progress each day. One of the best rules I’ve heard as a writer is that the way to write a book is by producing “two crappy pages a day.” It’s by carving out a small win each and every day—getting words on the page—that a book is created. Hemingway once said that “the first draft of anything is shit,” and he’s right (I actually have that on my wall as a reminder).
8. Be kind to yourself. The Stoic philosopher Cleanthes was once walking through the streets of Athens when he came across a man berating himself for some failure. Seeing how upset he was, Cleanthes–normally one to mind his own business–could not help himself but to stop and say kindly, “Remember, you’re not talking to a bad man.” Discipline isn’t about beating yourself up. There’s a firmness involved, for sure. Ultimately, after a lifetime of study of Stoicism, this is how Seneca came to judge his own growth—“What progress have I made?” he wrote. “I have begun to be a friend to myself.” It is an act of self discipline to be kind to the self. To be a good friend. To make yourself better. To celebrate your progress, however small. That’s what friends do.
9. Bring distinction to everything you do. Plutarch tells us about a general and statesman in Greece named Epaminondas who, despite his brilliance on and off the battlefield, was appointed to an insultingly minor office in Thebes responsible for the city’s sewers. In fact, it was because of his brilliance that he was put in this role, as a number of jealous and fearful rivals thought it would effectively end his career. But instead of being provoked or despairing at his irrelevance, Epaminondas took fully to his new job, declaring that the distinction of the office isn’t brought to the man, the man brings the distinction to the office. With discipline and earnestness, Plutarch wrote, “he proceeded to transform that insignificant office into a great and respected honor, even though previously it had involved nothing more than overseeing the clearing of dung and the diverting of water from the streets.”
10. Practice. The wonderfully curious economist Tyler Cowen has come to ask greats of various fields some version of the question: How do you practice your scales? What drills or exercises make you better at what you do? If a person wants to get better, wants to continue to develop and polish, they must know the answer to that question.
11. Be hard on yourself. “Take the cold bath bravely, ‘’ W.E.B Dubois wrote to his daughter. “Make yourself do unpleasant things so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.” By being hard on ourselves, it makes it harder for others to be hard on us. By being our own tyrant, we take away the power of tyrants over us.
12. View everything in the calm and mild light. George Washington had a mantra that always calmed him down when things seemed to be at their absolute worst. In a single two week period in 1797, Washington included it in three different letters. And later, in Washington’s greatest but probably least known moment, when he talked down the mutinous troops who were plotting to overthrow the U.S government at Newburgh, he said it, as he urged them away from acting on their anger and frustration. View everything, he liked to say, “in the calm light of mild philosophy.”
13. Stay in the saddle. There is an old German word sitzfleisch which means basically sitting your butt in the chair and not getting up until the task is complete. Even as it goes numb, even as one by one, the people around you call it a day. Showing up yourself, day after day, until your back aches, your eyes water, and your limbs turn to mush. Many a great conqueror in the days of horseback were called “Old Iron Ass” for their ability to stay in the saddle.
14. Get back up when you fall. It’s wonderfully fitting that in both the Zen tradition and the Bible, we have a version of the proverb about falling down seven times and getting up eight. Even the most self-disciplined of us will stagger. Marcus Aurelius said it was inevitable to be jarred by circumstances, but the key was to get back the rhythm as quickly as possible, to come back to yourself, rather than giving in.
15. Find your comrades. The Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus introduced the common mess hall and required that all citizens eat together. It was harder to eat more than your fair share, more than your healthy share, when you were surrounded by your comrades in battle.
16. Be a little deaf. We have to develop the ability to ignore, to endure, to forget. Not just cruel provocations from jerks, but also unintentional slights and mistakes from people we love or respect. “It helps to be a little deaf,” was the advice that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was given by her mother-in-law. It helped guide her through not just 56 years of marriage, but also a 27-year career on the court with colleagues she adored–but surely disagreed with on a regular basis.
17. Speak little. Robert Greene puts it perfectly: “Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less.” They have the discipline and this discipline creates a powerful presence.
18. Focus. Ludwig van Beethoven was known for drifting off in social conversations. Are you even listening to me, a friend once asked. Sorry, Beethoven replied, “I was just occupied with such a lovely, deep thought, I couldn’t bear to be disturbed.” They called this his raptus. His flow state. His place of deep work. His profound concentrated periods of focus. The source of his musical greatness. We can all develop this skill. As Steve Jobs, speaking to his top designer Jonny Ive, would explain, “focus is not this thing you aspire to…or something you do on Monday. It’s something you do every minute.”
19. Delegate. Delegation is not cheap but it affords you the most expensive thing in the world: time. Not just any kind of time, but time to reflect and to think, a precious commodity to say the least. We need this space to learn, space to plan. An opportunity to examine what is important to us. To step back and look at how we’re doing in life. And when necessary, as we said above, to get back to keeping the main thing the main thing.
20. Hustle. “There’s no excuse for a player not hustling,” Lou Gehrig would say. “I believe every player owes it to himself, his club and to the public to hustle every minute he is on the ball field.” I’m not just about running, exactly, but about maximum effort. In any and every situation.
21. Slow down. There’s a difference between hustling and hurrying. They like to say in the military that slow is smooth and smooth is fast. The saying in the ancient world was festina lente. That is, to make haste slowly. Energy plus moderation. Measured exertion. Eagerness, but under control. “Slowly,” the poet Juan Ramon Jimenez would say, “you do everything correctly.”
22. Be strict only with yourself. It was said that the true majesty of Marcus Aurelius was that his exactingness was directed only at himself. He found a way to work with flawed people, putting them to service for the good of the empire, searching them for virtues which he celebrated, accepting their vices, which he knew were not in his control. Tolerant with others, he reminded himself, strict with yourself.
23. Get the little things right. Dating back, perhaps to time immemorial, is the poem and proverb about a horse. “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,” it begins. And then because of the shoe, the horse was lost and because of the horse, the rider and because of the rider, the message and because of the message the battle and because of the battle, the kingdom. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. Because of poor discipline, everything was lost. Save yourself. Save the world. Get the little things right.
24. Beware perfectionism. As Churchill said, another way to spell “perfectionism” is p-a-r-a-l-y-s-i-s. Again, it’s good to have high standards but all virtues become vices if taken too far. An obsession with getting it perfect misses the forest for the trees–because ultimately the biggest miss of the target is failing to get your shot off.
25. Do your best. In an interview with Admiral Hyman Rickover for a chance to join the nuclear submarine program, a young Jimmy Carter was asked how he ranked in his class at the Naval Academy. “59th in a class of 840 sir,” Carter replied with pride. Rickover followed up with, “Did you always do your best?” Carter began to instinctively answer that of course he always did his best, but something inside of him caused him to pause and reconsider. “No, sir, I didn’t always do my best.” Rickover didn’t say anything and just looked at Carter for a long time. Then he stood up, asked one final question, “Why not?”, and walked out of the room.
The Stoics believed that, in the end, it’s not about what we do, it’s about who we are when we do it. They believed that anything you do well is noble, no matter how humble or impressive, as long as it’s the right thing. That greatness is up to you—it’s what you bring to everything you do.
Temperance, as Cicero claimed, can be the fine polish on top of a great life.
It’s not a palace or a throne that makes someone impressive, the Stoics would say, but kingly behavior that does. It’s discipline, self-control. He wasn’t after power or status, he said, but, “perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy or sloth or pretense.” He was after becoming the best version of himself possible, putting a fine polish on top of everything he did, no matter how humble or impressive.
The aim of Discipline is Destiny: The Power of Self-Control, is to teach you how to harness the powers of self-discipline. The Stoics believed that we are all born to fulfill a great destiny. And while not everyone’s destiny is the same, everyone’s destiny is achieved with self-discipline and self-control. Discipline is Destiny is a book that will help you fulfill yours.
Because we’d like to encourage you to preorder Discipline is Destiny right now, we’ve put together some exciting bonuses, including a signed and numbered page from the original manuscript. You can learn more about those and how to receive them over at dailystoic.com/preorder.