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.

No hobbies

People dabble in everything.  Restaurants and bed n’ breakfasts are popular semi-serious pursuits – romantic ideas right up until the moment when you’re mopping the floors or scrubbing pots with ammonia at 2am.  Then, they’re just hard work.

Of course restaurants that don’t work flame out (not 9 out of 10, which is the conventional wisdom, but three out of five in the first five years): if not enough people come through the door to buy dinner – or if you don’t manage your staff right, or purchasing right, or any other number of things – you don’t make ends meet and you’re forced to close up shop.

Nonprofit work is a sometimes hobby too, but without the floor-scrubbing to keep us honest.  So nonprofit service, philanthropy, board service or a part-time CEO role can be something we do a little bit on the side, when it’s easy and convenient (meaning: a little bit well) because, well, doing something is better than doing nothing.

It’s not though.

Doing something poorly and inattentively, especially service work, can be worse than nothing, because we’re making promises we can’t keep to people to whom too many promises have already been broken.  Real lives, real hopes, real dreams walk through our doors every day, and if we don’t treat these dreams with the respect, the seriousness, and the professionalism they deserve, we and they are better off just staying home.

We can do this just a few hours a week, do this as part of something bigger, do this in whatever way works in our lives.  But no hobbies, please.  It’s just too important.