“You will never have a greater or lesser dominion than that over yourself...the height of a man's success is gauged by his self-mastery; the depth of his failure by his self-abandonment. ...And this law is the expression of eternal justice. He who cannot establish dominion over himself will have no dominion over others.”
― Leonardo Da Vinci
(This was originally posted on Quora.)
When I was in primary school, my maths teacher had a rule: no one was allowed bring their own pencil to class. We could only use the ones in a box on each desk, and woe betide you if you broke the rule.
However, there was a slight problem. The box on the table where I had my assigned seat contained four pencils. For five people. I was at the bottom of the classroom pecking order, meaning there was no way of me getting one of them. Hierarchically, I was the monkey in a nature documentary which sulks under a tree, picking fleas out of its fur whilst the others eat fresh fruit. I had no friends and therefore no pencil.
For any sane teacher, this would have been a non-issue. I could have brought my own or raised my hand and received one. Or she would have forked out 13p to add another to the box. She was not a rational human being, and this turned into a year long saga. Each morning at 9 am, maths class began and I faced the same pencil orientated challenge. Some days I tried to sneak into the room early to grab one before anyone else. Or I smuggled in my own pencil in my pocket, or asked someone on another table to pass me a spare.
Sometimes these techniques worked. Only sometimes. Most of the time, one of the other kids on my table raised their hand to snitch and thwarted my plan. The teacher then screeched at me for at least 60 seconds about my unbelievable incompetence. Every damn time. There was no solution. Considering she taught maths, her ignorance to the fact that four pencils do not go between five people was a tad concerning.
I then always spent the rest of the lesson shaking, unable to do any work whatsoever. As a result, I ended up despising maths and doing everything possible to avoid it for the rest of my time in school. I spent classes napping, making art or reading - which was out of character for me. In every other subject, I was conscientious and focused, yet maths terrified me.
Then I neared the end of primary school and a big issue came up. I planned on going to a high ranking secondary school- a decision made for me by my family years before. The idea that I HAD to get in was impressed on me to the point where I imagined my life would end if I didn't. When I heard of a girl a few years older than me who became suicidal after failing to secure a place, I understood. The problem was that the first step to getting in was achieving something like 90% in a series of four exams. English comprehension. Essay writing. Verbal reasoning. And maths.
The first three were no problem. The fourth, as you might imagine, was a huge issue. I had no motivation whatsoever to revise it. This was when I first learned the important of discipline.
Every night when I got home after 7 hours at school, my mother gave me no option but to revise maths until bedtime. This is the same mother who tied a pen to my hand each day in the right position before I went to school when she realized I didn't hold it correctly. After about three days I got the point and stopped clenching pens in my fists like a spear. The same happened with studying maths. It became a discipline. I worked every day, no longer questioning it before long.
You can guess how this ends. I sat a six-hour exam at the ripe old age of 11, got the required grades and a place at the school. And everyone lived happily ever after. * I have now gladly forgotten everything I learned because none of it was in anyway useful.
This story illustrates a wider point which, I swear, is relevant to this topic.
Motivation is fragile. Discipline is antifragile. I get questions every day on Quora which are some variation of 'how can I be motivated all the time even though I hate my work?' My response is always the same: forget about motivation and focus on building discipline. Banish the former word from your vocabulary. Build a schedule for what you need to do. Then stick to it as well as you can. If something distracts you, it wherever possible. For me this has meant deleting social media, blocking distracting sites, etc etc. If I only wrote when I was motivated to, you would not be reading this. I did not wake up this morning and feel like writing. I woke up this morning to no other option.
This is not a semantic issue. Motivation and discipline are different concepts.
Motivation is finite, limited and unreliable. It is a good catalyst, it just does not last. We have this idea of successful people waking up each morning, motivated to write or invest or paint or compose or run their business or whatever. Yet I listen to and read interviews with such people for hours each day and 99.9% of them clearly live disciplined lives. They have self-imposed schedules and restrictions. They have rules for themselves.
Kafka had his day job, so he wrote between 10.30pm and the early hours of the morning. If he did not do it then, it would not have happened. Auden advised other writers to "decide what you want or ought to do with the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble." Seneca described himself as 'appropriating part of the night for study' until he was forced to succumb to sleep. Behind every person I admire lies unshakeable discipline.
Discipline is infinite, unlimited and reliable. Well, not quite. I'm just a sucker for symmetry. Close enough.
The question is not ‘how can I be motivated?’ but ‘how can I be disciplined?’ That is an easy question to answer, as long as you know there is no magic bullet. or quick fix It goes like this:
- Set a schedule/regime for whatever you are trying to do, with clear goals and a clear plan for how you can do it
- Don’t deviate from it. Reassess it if it is not working, just do not deviate because you are lazy or bored.
- Repeat ad infinitum.
Truly, that’s it. Hence, I have given up my old search for the perfect day planning technique, the perfect planner, the perfect routine. I do not pretend to be a figure of unshakeable self-discipline and impeccable habits. No teenager is. At the same time, it is something I am focused on building. I have a clear image of what I want to achieve and what will get me there. Each time I catch myself expecting to be carried by motivation, I recall the pencil scenario and remind myself that it is a dangerous resource to rely on. I turn away from the Pinterest platitudes, look at the index card on my desk with the day's tasks and continue.
*Actually, no. I ended up hating that school. The academic backing it gave me was valuable and I met some amazing people there, but I was not happy.