Discipline is the second of my set of uncomfortable words that we would rather not hear.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get through life – or at least our work day – without any unpleasantries?  Alas, we all know that won’t happen.  Not only do we have to deal with difficult situations and trying people, but even our language contains words that make us uncomfortable and anxious.

In this series of posts, I’m going to identify five uncomfortable words that we would rather not hear, and propose a solution to dealing with them.

In the first post, I focused on ‘personal responsibility.’  Here’s the second: Discipline.

There are a number of different definitions for the word.  I’m using it like this:  A discipline is some action that you take because you understand the positive impact of that action, regardless of how you feel about it.  Typically it refers to something we do regularly, as opposed to a one-time event.  So, we discipline ourselves to do the good things in our careers, our businesses and our lives, whether we want to or not, and whether they feel good or not.

            Here’s an example.

I discipline myself to swim laps in the morning once or twice a week.  I do that because I discovered, 30 years ago, that swimming laps in the morning brought me relief from back pain.  That is still true today.  If I miss about three weeks or so because I’m traveling or otherwise engaged, my back starts to tighten up.

Now, imagine a cold winter day in February in West Michigan. Image 6:15 AM.  The temperature is in the teens, the snow is 6 inches deep, it’s dark, and the wind is blowing.  Now, image me driving in those conditions to the swimming pool, parking in the slush on the side of the road, gingerly stepping over the snow piles to slip and slide my way to the entrance.  Then, imagine changing into my swimming suit, and diving into a pool of especially cool water.  Finally, image me mindlessly swimming back and forth for 30 minutes in what most be the most boring exercises known to mankind:  You can’t watch TV, you can’t talk to the person next to you, you can’t listen to talk radio – you’ve just got to gut it out.

I don’t like it.  I’d rather not do it. But, I do.

Why?  Because it is a discipline.  Regardless of how I feel, regardless of my issues at the moment, I still do it.  Pretty much once a week for thirty years.  I do it because, for me, it is a good thing to do.

            That’s what I mean by discipline.

Throughout the history of mankind, successful people have been disciplined people.  At some point in their development, they have discovered the power that lies in discipline.  And they chose, with an act of willfulness and intentionality, to pursue disciplines. As a result, they accomplish, they achieve, and they improve. They rise above the pack on the basis of the strength of their wills and their ability to discipline themselves to do the right things, consistently, methodically and regularly.

Can you imagine, for example, the players on a Super Bowl team who got there without discipline?  Can you imagine a top-level musician who never practices? How about a doctor who never did put in the long hours of an internship because he didn’t feel like it?  Look close at the lives and routines of anyone who has been successful in any endeavor, and you’ll discover a character built upon the basis of a set of disciplines.

On the other hand, throughout the history of mankind, unsuccessful people are invariably undisciplined.  They meander through life, reacting to whatever pops up, taking as their guidance their own hungers and feelings.  For example, they feel like drinking a few beers, and so give into those feelings, and a couple of hours later are sloppy and out of control.

Or, they spend hours playing video games because it feels good, instead of learning the skills and attitudes of a potential career.

In my work with sales people, executives and business owners, I find myself regularly teaching certain proven disciplines. “Do this, do it regularly and well, and you’ll get better results.”

Unfortunately, it seems like that message is increasingly ignored.  “Take the time to create a monthly plan,” I’ll implore them. “It’s a discipline that will bring you greater results, over and over again.”

“I’d rather not,” is the mental dialogue that goes on in many sales people.  “I don’t’ feel like it.”  Or, “I have better things to do.”

That’s just one example, and the list of such things goes on and on. It seems like more and more people think that they can have what they want in life without discipline.  To them, ‘discipline, is a dirty word – a vestige of the mindset of an earlier generation. Maybe the reason for that springs up out of culture that promotes instant gratification and entitlement. Why discipline yourself and work for things, for example, when you’re just entitled to them?

But our popular culture is just a blip in the history of our species.  The fundamental truth – that disciplined people rise to the top, and undisciplined people don’t – will not be disproven by the trends of the time.    If you want to be successful in any endeavor, discipline yourself to do the right things, in the right way, over and over.    Discipline, like ‘personal responsibility,’ is one of those hard-sounding words that we would rather not hear, but that are absolutely essential to your success. Discipline, like personal responsibility, should be embraced and developed, not shunned and ignored.


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