On self discipline, an examination of popular ideas

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Afterthoughts: Atomic Habits by James Clear

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Quarantine has meant different things for different people. Some are working on their craft, some are just trying to get through, some are getting by. Prolonged physical isolation is an interesting nugget to explore and begets self discipline. It reminds me of this idea I have heard only twice now. The first time while watching an interview with Michael B. Jordan, and the next more recently from reading Shoe Dog, the memoirs of the founder of Nike. It goes that a common trait shared among winners of long-term games – the highest performers of the world e.g. scientists, entertainers, business titans – is their ability to tolerate being alone.

I thought, instantly, of the 10,000 hour rule described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. In order to become an expert in any area, you need just dedicate yourself to it for 10,000 hours. This, in turn, reminded me of the idea of Grit popularised by Angela Duckworth. That again had stark similarities with one facet of the Big Five personality tests: conscientiousness. They all describe, in essence, the same idea that Michael B. Jordan and Phil Knight go into. The nuance of how they describe this core idea, however, is the most sobering.

In many ways, each of these concepts are lenses through which to understand self-discipline. Gladwell makes it quantifiable. As much as you can quantify it. Duckworth provides evidence for what binds those with self-discipline, a perseverance. A necessary, but not sufficient, trait of life’s winners. Jordan and Knight present the inevitable second-order effect of isolation, an oft omitted implication.

Each of these add a level a nuance to the meaning of self-discipline. It presents as something to strive for, but can never truly attain. It is a challenge testing a mix of desire, willpower, and design (of your life, surroundings, environment). A trial that resets daily and doesn’t care about the results of the past.

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