I was working on a project, and I realized I couldn't do it. Not because the ability was beyond me, but simply because I didn't have the self discipline to force myself through the boring portion.

What is "self discipline," and is it a positive trait?

Self discipline appears to be the ability to force oneself to do unpleasant things. The actions of a self disciplined person go against what they would "normally choose to do." I have heard that phrase many times. It's kind of contradictory. If a person is self disciplined, what defines normal for them? I think the phrase must be interpreted as "they do things a non-disciplined person would not do, given all other conditions the same." It strikes me that self discipline is a thinking man's game: the ability to do something that hurts now in exchange for a payoff down the road. It is a long term evaluative strategy that instinct doesn't allow for. It is the student who studies hard to graduate with the high GPA and so can get the job no one else can get. It's the weight lifter who puts in time and effort so he remains healthy throughout life. It's the dieter who refrains from certain good-tasting foods in order to cease being overweight. It's the smoker who simply goes cold turkey.

The examples I've given above all paint self discipline as a positive. But such discipline contradicts the philosophy that life must be lived for the moment. If we do not cut loose, we never enjoy, and so life becomes all strain and nothing worth the strain ever comes down the pike. I have seen workaholics grind themselves to nothing, and I can see where too much discipline can be a negative. The easy thing to say here is that "we must seek a balance between driving ourselves and enjoying ourselves." I don't quite believe that. Because it isn't a balance that's the target, IMHO. It is the scales weighted toward self discipline.

What makes me put the weight there? The fact that the moments when we cut loose must be chosen. It cannot be merely that when the coin comes up tails, we drop our morals/duties/plans/goals and go flake off. That becomes roughly the same as no self discipline at all. There is a major difference between the dieter who every once in a while breaks down and cleans out the pantry and the one who plans for two weeks in advance to really enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner. Self discipline six days out of seven counts for nothing. Also, some goals cannot be recovered. The individual who decides they want to wait until they are married until they have sex cannot slip for one evening and still have virginity-until-wedding as a goal. A certain level of constant dedication must be maintained constantly for any level to count at all.

A person must make a decision regarding life as to what the priorities are and then apply self discipline to maintain/achieve those priorities. This is my philosophy... it appears to be successful. Those who prefer to live life on a whim and who do not occassionally flog themselves toward a goal tend to end up, in my experience, bitter and frustrated when they don't get anywhere. I have been that person. Where self discipline is a negative, I generally find that it is because the person has chosen a "wrong" goal. A goal may be wrong for any number of reasons. It may not be what the person wants any more. It may be that they have become focused on an interim goal and not the end goal (i.e. earning money instead of that for which they earn money). It may also be a goal that the world looks down upon: society views very differently the bodybuilder who works eight hours a day and the artist driven by passion. Even the phrases we use to refer to such people reflect this. One gets labled "Adonis Complex." We don't have a "Picasso Disorder."

So how does a person cultivate self discipline? Something has to trigger a burning desire. "I want to be physically fit" may not translate into gym time until there's a pretty face that needs attracting. "Never again" may not translate into political action until the first time the anti-semitism is personal. There must also be a mind involved. Because the instinct of human beings will sabatoge work. Appetite surpression is not easy. It requires concious focus and a damn good reason. A liquified human undergoing the Bessamer Process, the dross pumped from the body, mind and soul. Self discipline is the drive to continue pumping the bellows on yourself.

When that goal is achieved, there is a sense of wonder, of awe, a wave of tension release that is unmatched by simply satiating the various instinct hungers. The first time one of these happens, the body sits there with a new appetite: I want that to happen again. Over time, the body can be taught that subsuming the initial hungers leads to the filling of this greater hunger.

Upon observing a particularly self controled individual, what do we assume about their background? Some major trauma. Grooming by similarly self controled parents. High intelligence coupled with low thyroid levels. Those are the only rationales I can imagine. And upon hearing any of these, we say, "Ah. That explains it."

I do not believe that greatness can be achieved by those who do not, at some level, posess the ability to deny themselves in the short run in order to achieve in the long run.

Self control is a function of will, which does not require either burning desire nor trauma to achieve.

The basis of self control is simply mastering one's trivial desires so that one may fufill a greater goal or desire, be it intellectually or emotionally motivated.

I can decide I need to eat more vegetables to stay healthy, for example, without any great passion about health, or even a great lack of health, if I simply logically analyze the benefits I will gain from doing so, as opposed to not doing so, and decide that to do so would be the better course of action. In this case, discipline would be required to maintain this course of action, until it became habit, because one does not derive an immediately noticeable benefit from such a choice, so one has to keep trucking even without having cessation of want to signal that one is doing what one should do.

In fact, THIS is true self control; the time when one does something one knows must be done, but that one is NOT strongly motivated to do. If I have a driving passion to create a work of art, it is surrender to this passion, not mastery of myself, which has made me stay up days in a row to complete it. If I start driving carefully because I almost died in an accident, I am merely reacting to my fear of death.

Discipline is knowing what must be done and doing it, even if one mourns that one must forgo things which one wishes to do or have.

Contrast this to grinding one into one's duties, often as a means to escape personal problems; one is the art of seeing and doing with wisdom and purpose, the other is simply an indirect means of self gratification.

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