Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.


Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Thursday, July 04, 2019

Motivation and Discipline

Happy 4th of July!

Below is an excerpt from a post at The Art of Manliness. The topic is the difference between motivation and discipline and how for some of us, maybe we're further ahead by being motivated rather than being disciplined.

The full post may be read here.

There’s a popular maxim in personal development circles that goes: “F**k motivation. It’s fickle and unreliable and isn’t worth your time. Better to cultivate discipline.”

Everywhere you look these days, people are exalting the sentiment behind this mantra; they’re down on motivation and high on discipline. Your Instagram feed is probably full of “influencers” shouting at you to get disciplined. Discipline, discipline, discipline!

We used to beat the discipline drum ourselves. In fact, we were banging on about discipline before it was cool, man!

But in the past few years, I’ve found myself changing my tune. Chalk it up to the greater self-awareness that (hopefully) comes with age, but I realized that while it felt satisfying in a fist-pumping, chest-thumping kind of way to attribute my good habits to discipline, it wasn’t really the operative force behind their execution.

At the same time that I’ve been questioning the role of discipline in my life, so has the scientific community. It was once thought that people who seem to have the most self-control — who rank themselves highly on this quality and have the positive life outcomes to back that assessment up — were simply better at exercising their willpower. But recent studies have shown this isn’t the case; in fact, as Vox writer Brian Resnick reports, “The people who said they excelled at self-control were hardly using it at all.”

As it turns out, people who seem to exhibit the most self-control aren’t gritting their teeth and using discipline to resist temptations, but instead have minimized the number of temptations they experience in the first place. How? Because of the way they structure their environment and routines, and, because they actually enjoy the habits they pursue.

In other words, though observers on the outside, and even the individual himself, may think he does something because he’s disciplined, he often actually does it because he’s intrinsically motivated to do so.

How do we so readily miss this fact? It happens like this:

Let’s say there’s a guy who makes a habit of waking up at 4:00 in the morning. We find waking up this early extremely difficult. So, we assume this early riser experiences the same resistance we do, and yet manages to overcome it through greater discipline.

Discipline, the ability to resist temptation and exercise willpower, carries all sorts of cultural and even ethical weight, owing to religion, the Puritans, the Protestant work ethic, etc. The possession of discipline is seen as a virtue; its lack, a moral failing.

Thus, when we see that someone is able to wake up early, when we cannot, we not only chalk it up to greater discipline on their part, we equate this greater discipline with superiority of character, which turns their early rising habit into a moral imperative – something we should do too.

But it’s possible to look at this example from a very different angle.

Let’s say there’s a guy who makes a habit of waking up at 4:00 in the morning. He does so because he’s biologically got a “chronotype” – a disposition towards a certain waking/sleeping schedule – that makes him naturally feel great, and function best, when waking up early in the morning.

We, on the other hand, struggle with rising early, not because we’re undisciplined, but because we have a chronotype that naturally predisposes us to go to bed and wake up later. We actually don’t function best super early in the morning, and it’s not even healthy for us to try to do so.

In other words, while we assume that the early riser wakes up early because he’s more disciplined — and the early riser himself is likely to chalk it up to discipline too, because that’s the most flattering way to look at it — what’s really happening is that the early riser’s unique biology and personality dispose him to like a habit that others do not. He’s not driven by discipline to wake up early, he’s motivated to do so. But because we equate early rising with discipline, and discipline with moral character, we try to force ourselves into a mold that’s not right for us.

So the main reason we mistake motivation for discipline is that we miss the fact that some people’s biology and personality predispose them to enjoy things that others find miserable.

When the researcher Daniel F. Chambliss conducted a study on the “nature of excellence” by examining what factors resulted in the stratification of competitive swimmers – why some became Olympians and others did not – he found that:
“At the higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very features of the sport which the “C” swimmer finds unpleasant, the top-level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring—swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say—they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. They enjoy hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals. Coming into the 5.30 AM practices at Mission Viejo, many of the swimmers were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.”



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