You were probably taught from a young age you need discipline to achieve success in life. Discipline is following specific rules, set by your past self or others.
I don’t usually begin with a story, but here I will. Because we need to go as far away as possible in space and in time to really understand discipline. We need an example far detached from the bullshit of the current age and from the norms you are used to. We need to start fresh.
Come with me to Yarmuk, present day Syria in the far year 636 AD. The young Muslim Rashidun Caliphate was quickly expanding and started to threaten the powerful Byzantine empire (who had just kicked the ass of the also powerful Persian Sasanian empire in a long and dramatic war).
Both armies consolidated their full strength and met on a small plain. A lot was to be decided in “the battle of the century“, one that would change the course of world history.
The Byzantines had every kind of advantage. They were more, better armed, had their legendary heavy cavalry and, as true followers of the Roman tradition, were very disciplined.
The Muslims had creativity and heart.
As it was a flat field battle, not some kind of sneaky valley ambush, terrain didn’t give an advantage to either side. Was it possible for the underdog to win against all odds?
For 4 days the The Byzantines attacked and the Muslim situation was often desperate, there were moments where the flanks were so close to collapsing that Muslim women from the camp grabbed arms and rushed to help. Each time the day was somehow saved and smart cavalry counterattacks at every opportunity made sure the Byzantines got hit very hard too.
After heavy casualties on both sides, on the morning of the 5-th day The Byzantines offered a truce to the still numerically inferior Muslim army. All Muslim commanders thought they should accept and be happy with the draw, achieved against all odds. All except one – the legendary army leader Khalid ibn al-Walid. He smelled the fear of the opponent and declined. The fight would go on.
On the 6-th day the Muslim army attacked the numerically superior enemy with virtually only infantry. Most cavalry was kept in reserve and used for a grand flanking maneuver. 8000 horsemen smashed into the Byzantine left wing. It was too much and happened too fast to counter at a strategic level, leaving everyone’s fate in the hands of small unit commanders and individual soldiers.
Can you guess what happened to discipline in this one critical moment? It vanished. There was no longer a single army – just hoards of different nationalities under the falling Byzantine flag. Slavs, Franks, Georgians, Armenians, Christian Arabs, Lombards, Avars, Khazars, Balkans, Göktürks – they didn’t even like each other that much. First it was every nation, then eventually every men for themselves. In the end they were dispersed and obliterated with few surviving.
Why was it worth telling this long and seemingly irrelevant story?
Because the hardest thing in your life is change. If you could achieve growth every day, nothing would be impossible. But as we discussed in the inertia post, with change you’re always the underdog. You are the small army, you are Khalid ibn al-Walid fighting against all odds. The only way to win is to have creativity and heart. Discipline can be a tactical plus but is not always needed… and has potential harms too.
Discipline can only help you achieve the possible. Creativity can help you achieve the impossible. And with change you have to achieve the impossible, to successfully overcome your inner wiring that is always calling for inertia.
Discipline and rules are not inspirational, creativity is. Motivation, passion and doing things from your heart are at odds with rules.
Let’s get back to the battle story and see why it’s so relevant.
The Muslims in the battle showed the signs of strong discipline all along. But was it really their driver, or was it something more internal and powerful like faith, love and brotherhood? The women that grabbed weapons and charged into the battle, did they have this rule in their military wife SOPs? I’d rather think they were doing this for the first time in their lives.
Sometimes we see the signs of discipline but it’s only because they are aligned with the goal of a more powerful force, like love. Discipline can be the result, but never the reason of creating anything of true value. Rules cannot create. They can only govern what is already in existence.
Love and Freedom and their forms are the only creative forces in humans. And rules don’t add Love and decrease Freedom in the equation of creation.
But we don’t know how to teach love. We don’t know how to manufacture it. So we bail ourselves and others out with the easy solution – “just have discipline…”. Well, enough of this bullshit already, lets call things with their real names, especially when answering these all important “why” questions. Like why did the superior Byzantine army failed?
In war, discipline is no doubt a big tactical advantage. You need it or it’s all a mess. Then why don’t just make it an absolute value and base everything on it? You place the smartest person as commander, create a hierarchy of command to the lowest level and everyone follows all orders perfectly. Now let’s be realistic, what will happen?
No need for a thought experiment here as history provides many real examples. The discipline-based army will win 9 battles against opponents without enough heart or intelligence (the combination is rare). And on the tenth time you face a military genius like Khalid ibn al-Walid, Hannibal, Yi Sun-sin or Alexander the Great, leading a motivated army that fights with heart. I can assure you you’re gonna have your ass kicked and lose the progress of the first 9 battles.
Have you heard of people making a New Year’s resolution to go the gym every Thursday, although it’s not their favorite thing. They go 9 times and when they’re supposed to go for the 10th they face Alexander the Great leading an strategically superior army composed of beer and friends and fun and a pretty girl new to the crowd. They can’t (and objectively shouldn’t) say no to that! The gym rhythm is broken, the rule “Gym every Thursday” is no longer a rule. They feel guilty for their gym rule-breaking, don’t want to think about the gym anymore and it all ends in a strategic gym defeat.
This happens because discipline cannot really create new motivation. You can only use it to try to hold on to the one you already have. But then you virtually give up creativity because you commit to rules instead. And creativity is what creates new motivation.
I understand the idea is to feel better because of your actual Game of Life gym progress.
But believe me, if you don’t really enjoy it, it won’t stick.
And if you enjoy it, it’s not a matter of discipline. It’s a matter of freedom to do what you already enjoy.
So in a nutshell, in the big all-important picture of creating new motivation, discipline is admitting your losing trajectory but delaying the loss itself. It’s guaranteed anti-growth.
When you think deeper, the Byzantines had lost the battle before it had begun. Creativity always wins given enough time. Khalid ibn al-Walid was outnumbered and overpowered and needed 5 days for a single moment to seize. But when he did, it was game over. The Byzantines objectively had numerous moments where they could win, like better use of their heavy cavalry. But in their hearts they were in Sheep mode and were blind to them. They were fighting for victory based on their objective advantage. The outnumbered Muslims were fighting for their faith and their lives. They didn’t need discipline. They had the right moves in their minds and hearts. And when the situation diverged from all knows SOPs, when things got tough, creativity and real motivation smashed discipline and fake motivation.
In this regard there is a amazing quote by another great general and strategist, Julius Caesar. In a war against Pompey during the Battle of Dyrrachium, Caesar had a really bad day. A defector told Pompey about a weak point in his camp fortifications, he got attacked, barely held his army’s line. A counterattack to retake an important position, plagued by orientation issues, was also a costly failure for Caesar, sending his men into a hasty retreat with losses of some ~1000 men and more than 32 officers. In the mess a random soldier from his own side even attempted to kill Caesar, who was saved by his bodyguards. Moral was at an all time low but Pompey decided not to press on the advantage and the battle ended with Caesar withdrawing his army to fight another day.
Caesar remarked on this decision saying:
“[Pompey’s forces] would have won today, if only they were commanded by a winner”.
Words I’ll never forget…
In the battle for personal growth, you’ll always be the underdog. But you’re also the commander. Make sure in the rare chances you get to actually change, press the temporary advantage home to an actual win, as big as possible. Commit everything and command like a winner, not like Pompey (who went on to lose the war).
Now let’s ask another important question. When do life choices matter the most, when things are easy or when things are tough? I think we’d all agree that the critical situations in life are the tough ones. The ones we didn’t expect. The hard choices.
And now what on earth makes you think your discipline will hold up better in a tough spot than the one of a Roman army with a 1300-year tradition of discipline? Despite wishing you the best, I’d say objectively the odds are not in your favor.
So if we can’t really rely on discipline when things get rough, how do we approach it at all?
It has so many issues that I have a radical proposal.
Discipline is useless unless dealing with potential critical fails.
Example 1: A surgeon has 20+ must-do tasks before an operation. Is discipline useful?
If I’d have a surgeon rely on creativity to perform the 20+ tasks before he starts, instead of say a checklist on the wall, i’d be very nervous. Remember that Sheep Mode is generally bad for your mind, but sometimes needed in critical environments.
Example 2: You want to exercise more. Is discipline useful?
Let’s divide all exercise in 2 categories:
– Activities you like.
– Activities you feel “meh” about or dislike.
There are 2 major possibilities here:
1. You like some sports and “meh” or dislike others.
There is a perfectly logical solution – Engage in the ones you like, forget the rest, have fun, all is perfect. No need for discipline as you’re naturally going after fun. If there is no time for healthy fun, you need more freedom, until you have enough to be able to allocate time for such a positive experience.
2. You don’t like any sports or exercise.
Well that’s the case for some people. But it’s entirely fixable.
The truth is sports are not equally fun and maybe you just didn’t try the fun ones with fun people before.
Just start with the most engaging sports (the ones that really release dopamine – like skiing or sports where you chase and catch/throw/kick/hit a ball or similar object) with the fastest learning curve so you get some faster rewards. Examples:
Running or swimming have a fast learning curve but are boring to most uncommitted people, so not a good choice.
Tennis or skiing are exiting, but have a slow learning curve, so maybe. You can try if you have the patience, it’s worth it.
But how about table tennis or badminton or ultimate frisbee or dodgeball? Just make sure it’s fun and it will stick. Cultural sport trends do not matter, just the amount of fun. I once gathered friends to play competitive dodgeball, which is a sport completely unheard of in my home country of Bulgaria. From 18 to 60+ years old, they all loved their very first game. Everyone can throw or dodge a ball, and it’s 100% guaranteed fun!
It’s all about knowing yourself and experimenting with sports. We are all built to love them! There is no one in the world that doesn’t like a nice dopamine release when you smash that ball right into the corner. The mechanism is built into you. Don’t ruin it by being a disciplined swimmer if your physical condition allows for fun sports. Try until you find the fun one for you! And when given a chance to try a new sport, don’t be like Pompey. Give it all 🙂
When I hear people saying they need discipline to exercise it’s just incomprehensible to me. Forget the gym, you didn’t evolve to bench but to run, have some old fashioned fun chasing a ball!
So we don’t need discipline for anything that has the potential to be fun or rewarding, even if it currently is not. Changing a potentially fun activity into an actual fun activity is usually solvable using only Game of Life knowledge. For example you can just ask experts what sports they will suggest you that are fun and match your physical condition.
What doesn’t have this potential for fun then and how do we approach it? How about work? Surely, surely there is a need for discipline at work?
Amazingly, not at all (unless you’re a surgeon or the few other professions where errors are very critical).
I co-own a startup with a 50 million dollar valuation and no VC investors and it didn’t take any discipline whatsoever to get here. I was just having creative fun much of the time and the inevitable boring parts had the comforting feeling of making money in real time. And I know money equals progress and freedom, so that’s an OK deal. I always had creativity or the feeling of progress. When one of those is present, you’re motivated and thus you don’t need discipline.
Of course people around me only see the results (e.g. me working in strange hours or on holidays) and think I’m incredibly disciplined but I know better and I’m not. I just love the feelings my work brings and care about the incredible people I work with. That’s the place you want to be in.
How do you get there? Here are a few guiding principles for this kind of freedom:
– Be a hunter and build self-love.
– Don’t be afraid of being a bad person.
– Know what the building blocks of work are.
– Pick your industry well as they are not created equal.
– Learn to understand money and value and how they interchange.
– Fight Inertia, don’t be Pompey. Grab life’s chances.
So where do you really maybe need discipline? I can only think of one area: Caring for your health.
Going to the dentist and recommended medical check-ups are objectively not fun. But there are structural workarounds and creating discipline for those needs alone may be avoided. For example you can schedule a regular dentist appointment directly with the dentist, put it in your calendar and that’s it, problem solved – you will bring your ass to the dentist when the time comes. Creativity will, as always, give better solutions than rules.
So unless you have a must-have-discipline job, you’re safe from this menace on happiness.
You’re ready to steer your life and use your amazing human intelligence to structure it so love, freedom and creativity are your driving forces, not fear and rules.
You are the underdog in your fight for positive personal change. But the underdog can win against Inertia over and over again… if you love yourself, enjoy the fight, have faith and desire freedom.
The really good leader takes even half a chance and when given a potential win, commands like a winner…
While the discipline you build often ends up fighting for the enemy. Are you still sure you need it?