The Paradox of Discipline, and Four Questions to Ask Ourselves

The more I listen to interviews with great creators, the more they echo the same themes. It goes something like this:

The act of creation is exceptionally hard and painful.

Writing, in particular, is torture.

It’s great to have talent, but without a disciplined process for creation, talent means nothing.

We human beings do everything we can to avoid the hard work of creating our art. To counteract this, we must create rituals and structures that make it impossible for us to hide: time every day in which the only thing we can do is produce. (For example, per Neil Gaiman, “I would go down to my lovely little gazebo at the bottom of the garden, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn’t anything. Not allowed to do a crossword, not allowed to read a book, not allowed to phone a friend, not allowed to make a clay model of something. All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.”)

We must be forgiving with ourselves when we are creating, and brutally tough on ourselves when we are editing and refining.

This isn’t going to be fun. But if we are to do our best work, if we are to give our gifts to the world, we have to be willing to grind out the effort each and every day, no matter how hard it feels and how little we feel like doing it on that particular day.

Now, I believe that these insights apply to everyone, not just to “creative” types. No one said that doing excellent, meaningful work was going to be easy, and I expect that writers and artists are just living the fully-distilled version of creating work that matters.

If these insights are to apply to all of us—and I believe they do—then we have four questions we need to answer honestly:

  1. Am I willing to care, at a personal level, about my work?
  2. Am I willing to take personal, emotional risk to put my best into my work?
  3. Will engaging in this kind of sustained, daily effort help me grow?
  4. Am I going to decide to learn how to put in sustained effort over time?

This framing feels fundamentally different from conversations about “work-life balance” and the perennial elevator small talk of “just three days until the weekend.”

In one view, work is something to be endured and minimized so we can refresh in our free time, and work being hard is an indication of something being wrong.

In another view, work being hard is the necessary precondition for it being meaningful, because there is nothing worth producing that doesn’t require risk and struggle.

While this doesn’t mean that all work we find hard is rewarding, it means that we cannot use “hard” as a barometer for something being wrong at work.

Somewhere, somehow, each of us has to find our own version of discipline.

For example, I don’t have access to Neil Gaiman’s gazebo, nor do I write fantastical fiction or comics. But both Neil and I need time alone, time to think, time with the proverbial blank page; time when we’re looking straight at a problem we don’t know the answer to; time when our job is to sit there until we produce one thing that is one small step in the right direction.

Discipline is often not fun. It is, at a minimum, the act of sitting with discomfort and delaying gratification because we know that this is what it feels like when we do real work.

Of course, most of us have not figured out what our art is, we don’t know what we are uniquely suited to do in the world.

That’s OK. We don’t need the full answer today. We need, instead, to decide to start doing meaningful, personal work as soon as possible.

And how do we start? Not with musing, reflection or pretending that if we wait long enough inspiration will touch us. That’s a great way of hiding.

Instead, we start with building a practice of creative discipline into our days, weeks and lives: we put ourselves in situations every day where we ask ourselves to make one small thing that we are proud of, one small thing that is over and above the exact thing we were asked to do.

With this mindset, our work becomes something we can take personally, and each thing we ship can be different and better for what we’ve put into it.

From the moment we decide to take our work personally, we start to show up like professionals, and, bit by bit, we watch the yield that comes from refusing to be swayed too quickly by the thoughts that all of us have: this is too hard; this might not be good enough; if I care a little less, then I won’t be hurt if I come up short.

Caring less and risking less are great ways to stay safe in the short term, and even better ways to ensure that we stay where we are in the long term.

Whereas if we shift our attitude towards our work and learn how to build discipline into our days, we set ourselves down the harder but much more rewarding path of sharing what only we have to offer through our work.

Writing Great Annual Goals

It’s the time of year when lots of folks are writing their annual goals. It can feel daunting. Too often this becomes an exercise in list-writing, task after task that we know we must get through.

Somehow, in the process of listing out everything we lose something: the meaning behind it all, the “so what.”

If I boil this exercise down to its essence, my thought experiment is: imagine it is December 31, 2021 and I’m looking back at the year. How will I (and, if these goals are for work, my boss) know how I did?

Here’s how you can bring clarity to the answer to this question.

Take a step back and write two short paragraphs.

  • Paragraph 1: if I’ve done this by the end of the year it will be a good year
  • Paragraph 2: if I’ve done this it will be a great year

Write in simple prose and focus on the stuff that really matters. Not each individual task, but where you will be and how it will feel. Most important, write paragraphs that are specific and clear enough that you, and the colleagues that will be looking at this with you in a year’s time, will be able to judge clearly how you did.

For example, when I think about 2021 for 60 Decibels, we obviously have goals around growth, revenues, profitability and impact. But those numbers alone aren’t my goals for the year. Rather, I’ve written down where I want us to be as a business and as a team, what questions we will have answered for ourselves and in the market, and the strategic milestones we will have hit that set us up for the next success.

What I write down doesn’t feel like a list of accomplishments, it’s more like a description of a location on a map: at this new (future) vantage point, thinks look and feel like this, they smell like this. Here’s who I am, and who we are, thanks to the miles we’ve walked. Here’s what we can now see thanks to how high we’ve climbed.

When I capture my goals for the year in these terms, everything feels more tangible, more visceral, and more motivating. Better yet, it’s easier for our team to understand where we’re headed and why, so we can all get behind that vision.

If it’s a good year, this is where we’ll be.

And if it’s a great year, this is where we’ll be.

Here’s to a great 2021.

Want New Habits? Set Up More Reminders.

Change is only possible through the cultivation of new habits. Most of the time these habits grow or fade thanks to tiny, daily reminders.

We are, after all, trying to replace old habits with new ones, and we’re entitled to some help.

Reminders can be people or places, words, smells or feelings. They are formed through promises we make to others and intentions we set for ourselves.

Reminders nudge us to do the things we said we want to do—they push us forward when we feel like ignoring our best-laid plans, and, on the days we forget those plans entirely, reminders put them in front of us, in plain sight, where they’re impossible to ignore.

The reminder distracts us from the delusion that the choice of whether to do this new thing, today, is a big decision. It’s not. We already said this was important to us, and that decision won’t improve if we revisit it. Our job, today, is to start. Once we start, we tend to continue.

So whether it’s making a plan to meet someone for an early morning walk, chopping up the raw vegetables we want to eat instead of chips, a colleague giving us a supportive nod right before we walk on stage, or just whispering our intention to ourselves before a difficult conversation, one of our jobs is to set up reminders everywhere.

They help us turn our plans into habits, our habits into practices, and our practices into the new person we aim to become.

Commitments are a series of choices that we make again and again.

Reminders help make each of those choices a little more straightforward.

Bringing Joy to our Jobs

I’ve written before about Total Immersion swimming. While it’s taught me a good deal about swimming, the bigger lessons are the Kaizen-based mindset that form its foundation.

Kaizen, a Japanese word that describes the idea of continues improvement, is an attitude we can apply to anything in life. For me, Kaizen is a mindset that is equal parts curiosity, self-reflection, self-knowledge, high standards, patience, and discipline.

To illustrate the thinking, here’s an excerpt from a Total Immersion blog post by TI founder, the late Terry Laughlin, that I got a few weeks ago. Swimming is, of course, just a placeholder:

Expect improvement. Most adult swimmers have become resigned to swimming year after year with little to show for it. A T.I. Swimmer’s goal should be Kaizen (continuous improvement) Swimming. Because swimming offers limitless opportunities for solving the UHSP (Universal Human Swimming Problem) and increasing self-awareness, you could continue gaining in Mastery for decades. I still make exciting advances every year, and still sense almost limitless possibilities for further improvement. The refinements I’m making are fairly subtle, but my capacity for fine distinctions in position and timing has increased steadily. My current focus is on greater relaxation, especially when swimming faster.

There’s so much to grab onto in this short excerpt:

  • The mindset of expecting improvement, rather than resignation to being stuck. It’s all too common in the workforce to resign oneself to no longer improving. Not only is this a depressing thought, it’s an enormous waste of talent and potential.
  • The notion of increasing self-awareness. I’ve found that self-awareness builds on itself. The more genuine curiosity and humility we hold, the more we discover.
  • “Gaining in Mastery for decades.” Imagine continuing to work on mastery, in something as deceptively simple as recreational swimming, for decades. Imagine applying this same mindset to other skills we hope to develop in life: listening, learning to apologize, being courageous, connecting with people, writing, public speaking, presence…
  • “Limitless possibilities for further improvement.” Terry sees learning at a micro-level, the tiny subtle improvements, as joyful. So often we think of learning and growth as painful, something we must endure, because it can be uncomfortable. Terry knows that learning often feels like struggle. The question is, what would it take for us to convert that struggle into joy?

The Difference Between Discomfort and Injury

Every athlete knows that aches and pains are part of the process. Especially as we get older, something always hurts a bit.

The challenge is distinguishing between aches and injuries.

For an ache, the best approach is to continue to work the area to promote healing. Usually a slightly different activity is best, but, counter-intuitively, healing happens faster through more use of the affected area. This increases blood flow and stretches and strengthens the supporting muscles and tendons.

Injuries, on the other hand, require rest. We suspend activity, ice the area, maybe immobilize it until it stabilizes and is ready to be built up again.

These truths apply to our mind and hearts, not just to our bodies.

When we are challenged emotionally, when we take what feels like a professional risk and fall short, we often misdiagnose the difference between discomfort and injury. Any blow – in the form of embarrassment, a critique, a sale we didn’t close, a displeased client – hurts our ego.

It can feel like an injury, but it’s usually just discomfort.

If we allow ourselves the mistake of bandaging up and immobilizing that new muscle that we’ve just used the first time, healing will take forever.

What this new muscle really needs is more work and more effort, so it can be strengthened.

The 21st Century Resume

In a world in which access to knowledge is democratized and elite universities are exposed as little more than factories for social network currency and expensive badges, how should we be reading resumes? (Assuming, that is, that we should be reading them at all.)

While it depends on what exactly you are looking for, I’d bet that most 21st century jobs value:

Capacity for learning over knowledge.

Ability to build and provide value to networks over credentials and badges.

Expanding disciplines of responsibility over contained functional expertise.

Facility navigating multiple cultures over being able to thrive within one culture (note: culture is not the same thing as nationality. Not even close.)

Sustained and deep effort that result in exceptional skill in an area of interest.

GPAs, going to a fancy school and job titles with incrementally more seniority are terrible proxies for these sorts of capabilities. Which is why I’d rather see a resume that:

Tells me the latest skill you mastered and what you’re working on.

Describes a knowledge gap you had in your latest job and how you filled it.

Identifies the networks you’re a part of or have created, and what you’ve done to strengthen them.

Helps me see that these networks bring together all sorts of different people with a shared purpose.

And highlights a few areas in your life where you’ve been putting in the hours for a decade or more, even if it has nothing to do with “your job.”

We can do so much better than a listing of schools, job titles and “accomplishments.”

And what better way to stand out from the crowd than to have a resume that actually stands out?

It’s true, most people reading it won’t like your new resume. That’s good news, because your 21st Century Resume will serve as an automatic filter to help you identify the kind of people you want to be working with in today’s fast-changing world.

Kaizen Basking

Rowers talk about how, when the whole crew is in sync, the boat somehow lifts a few inches out of the water and magically seems to glide.

That moment is the payoff from the accumulated effort of years of training, focus and discipline, the prerequisites to that moment of synchronicity.

This can happen in our day-to-day as well. We put in analytical, emotional and financial effort to make something work just right, but still it’s not quite there yet.

And then we see something new. It’s something that had been there all along, hidden in plain sight. Then things just click, and something that was almost-there is suddenly there. What a great feeling that is.

Kaizen is the Japanese word for continuous improvement. It’s based on the principle that we never arrive because we are always on the journey.

We are.

But, thankfully, we sometimes get to experience those moments of discontinuous leaps, where something comes together and we perform at another level.

Don’t forget to bask in those moments before resuming your journey.

I’m not the best

Compared to everyone around me, I’m not the best thinker, writer, speaker, leader, organizer, coach, or blogger.

I’m not the best risk-taker, strategist, fundraiser, relationship manager, pipeline-generator, or closer.

Nor am I the best author, researcher, public speaker, project manager, course designer, facilitator, data analyzer, financial planner, business modeler, lean startup doer, creator, thinker, researcher or innovator.

The good news is, it is not my job to be the best.

My job, first and foremost, is to care the most.

Then I have to turn that caring into a willingness to put myself on the line.

Then I need to translate that into fierce dedication to follow-through, relentless commitment to outcomes, ongoing openness to learning, and strong orientation to partnership. I must be able to see where I know enough already, where I can learn things I need to learn, and where others will be better placed than I am to take parts of the work forward.

Someone else is always going to be better than I am, smarter, more experienced, or more capable in some way.

But my decisions about what I will do, what role I choose to play, what steps I will take next, where I choose to take the reins – these will never get out of the gate if they go through a “best at” filter.

Baby steps

We’re sometimes confounded by the big changes we want to make.

We get a glimpse of the person we hope to become, or a new behavior we hope to engage in, and nearly immediately find ourselves frustrated that we’ve not suddenly mastered that new set of actions. This isn’t how we change.

Real, honest, deep change starts small and builds, with steps like:

I will observe my reactions.

I will understand what triggers me.

I will watch the group.

I will experiment with new ways to respond.

I will be more observant about how people react to the things I do, and about how I react to the things they do.

Step by small step is the only way we get to bigger things like “I will stay grounded in stressful situations,” or “I will be more effective at confronting aggressive people.”

We owe ourselves the space to start small, figure out the component parts of the change we want to make, and then be deliberate and persistent. Our job is to go easy on ourselves along the way, while also not letting ourselves off the hook of continued progress.

Looking backwards the changes will look like leaps, but often they’re the accumulation of lots and lots of baby steps.

 

Our practice

We become who we are going to be someday through practice, and we will excel at the things that we practice.

“Who we are going to be” doesn’t refer to doctor, lawyer or firefighter.  It doesn’t even mean “great public speaker,” or “fiction writer” or “people manager.” We have to right-size our lens to the component parts that we can actually, manageably practice. And we have to remember that, conscious or not, we are always practicing many things.

We can practice generosity, openness, and stillness.

We can practice being courageous, not taking it all so personally, and seeking out others’ strengths.

We can practice demagoguery, reinforcing our biases, blaming others, and deflecting criticism.

We can practice objectifying others, defining “us” by demonizing “them,” and stoking fear.

We can practice hiding, critiquing, standing on the sidelines.

We can practice raising our hands first, doing the work, being reliable.

We can practice speaking in a way that others understand and relate to, every time

We can practice telling stories and using the words “for example.”

We can practice telling ourselves a story about our own limitations, and that this is all we will ever be.

Or we can practice being honest with ourselves, not shying away from our fears, and seeking out feedback.

And of course, most important at all, we can practice practicing.

Whatever we practice, that is what we become.