a life-changing book

celebration of discipline Oct 11, 2021
As I contemplated why I felt like a failure despite the amazing things I was doing every day, I was reminded of what all my teachers used to tell me: grades aren't a measure of how much you've learned. You can get perfect scores on everything while learning nothing. You could also learn more than you've ever learned in your life while failing every test. The important thing isn't the grade: it's that you improve every day.


I think a lot about distraction. In fact, I often get distracted thinking about distraction. Distraction is really terrible: it's like a thief – it steals time, energy, and motivation from the things I actually want to do.

I've paradoxically found that the goals I set are often a distraction from what I actually hope to accomplish. For better or for worse, this has made me a much less goal-motivated person. That's probably a shock to those who know me, but it's true.

In college, there were plenty of opportunities to set goals (and I took advantage of most of them). Unfortunately, the pursuit of those goals didn't necessarily fill my time with things that were healthful and beneficial. In fact, a single-minded focus on accomplishing a certain (arbitrary) goal often consumed my every waking moment until I finished the goal, found it unattainable, or it became undesirable.

I got my favorite illustration of this from some mid-pandemic activities with my friends. Since we couldn't meet each other in person, we decided to do some virtual exercise challenges to keep us out of the grip of the YouTube/Facebook/Reddit rabbit holes. I participated in a burpee challenge and a six-pack abs challenge.

I'll give a disclaimer here: I'm not going to discourage you from setting goals. I want to share what I have learned from setting, reaching, and failing at goals. Read it if you want to understand what it's like to find your motivation outside of accomplishing relatively arbitrary tasks in endless cycles of huge motivation followed closely by lethargy.

the pursuit of...

On the first day of my challenges, I ate 2000 calories worth of eggs, fish, and vegetables, did five burpees (I'm convinced burpees were invented by a sadist), and did a calisthenics workout. The next day I ate the same way and did ten burpees followed by a 5-mile run and an ab workout. The next day the diet continued and I did fifteen burpees and a calisthenics workout. The next day was twenty burpees and a run followed by an ab workout. This pattern continued until I was doing 100 burpees per day, running 30 miles a week, exercising every day, and getting 60-80% of my calories from protein. I was in the best shape I had ever been in my life!

But do you know why I was still a failure? Because after a month of workouts I still didn't have my six-pack abs and I couldn't do 100 burpees without taking a break. I failed both challenges.

After I accepted defeat, I started eating ice cream straight out of the bucket, sleeping late, and watching cartoons from the '90s. Somehow my pursuit of these goals led me to the same end that most people find when they try out a new diet or set a New Year's resolution: I had no motivation to keep going. This change happened on the exact day that I planned to finish my challenges.

As I contemplated why I felt like a failure despite the amazing things I was doing every day, I was reminded of what all my teachers used to tell me: grades aren't a measure of how much you've learned. You can get perfect scores on everything while learning nothing. You could also learn more than you've ever learned in your life while failing every test. The important thing isn't the grade: it's that you improve every day.

(Arbitrary) goals and grades have never been conducive to improvement or learning. They discourage those who cannot achieve them within a certain (arbitrary) timeframe while also discouraging those who have already met the goal or made the grade from going further and reaching their full potential.

Instead of setting goals that are chased intensely then forgotten whether or not they're actually achieved, I have found that discipline is the better answer.

celebration of discipline

Discipline, as defined here, is the intentional altering of your behavior over the timeframe of the entire rest of your life. It doesn't happen by accident and the past cannot prevent you from practicing it. There is no point of time after which you will be "finished" with discipline. Further, discipline doesn't care about what you accomplish, but how you grow from it.

Discipline doesn't allow you to "set a goal" that isn't sustainable for the rest of your life. When I woke up early every morning to force myself to do hard cardio workouts, that wasn't discipline. When I studied thousands of Spanish flashcards per day, that wasn't discipline either. If I choose to do 100 burpees in the backyard to meet my (arbitrary) goal instead of playing soccer with the young kids living with me (which is arguably just as rigorous exercise), that doesn't make my life better at all. Even if I study a million flashcards per day, it means absolutely nothing if I'm still too nervous and shy to have a conversation in Spanish.

Setting rigid goals doesn't allow for flexibility. It locks you into a path that probably isn't optimal today and definitely won't be optimal tomorrow. It's always better to mindfully consider what you choose to do every moment of the day.

I subconsciously knew this, but I couldn't use words to describe it until I read the life-changing book I alluded to in the title of this post. The book is Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline. It's a wonderful book and it's sold millions of copies worldwide. It needs no introduction from me, but here's a brief summary of what the book taught me:

  • Our small habits and daily rituals have a greater impact on our life than any one-time actions. These habits and rituals are the foundation upon which we can build greatness.
  • Greatness cannot be measured relative to anything or anyone else. Greatness is almost never visible to anyone, including yourself. Humility is trusting that it's there even if no one sees it.

Foster presents three types of discipline: inward, outward, and corporate. In each chapter, he provides history and countless examples of what it might look like for someone to practice these disciplines. The best part about the book is that he helps the reader to understand that discipline isn't forcing yourself to "go through the motions" whether or not you actually want to. Discipline requires you to stop where you are (no matter what else is trying to distract you) and contemplate which direction you actually want to follow.

These days, I'm much healthier than I was during my burpee days. If I don't sleep well at night, I don't get up and force my body to further exhaustion at 5:00 am. I just keep sleeping instead! That's much healthier!

Spiritually, I've found that taking time away from the things that distract me (whether they're homework, people, or even service projects) is the most critical when I think there's not enough time to finish them. This reorientation away from temporary goals (like getting high grades and finishing homework assignments on a weekly cycle of stress and relaxation) during difficult times is the habit – the discipline – that allows me to actually be a great student.

I highly recommend that you read the book.

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an addendum

I took a page out of Richard Foster's book and started brainstorming ahead of time what it might look like for me to practice discipline, especially during my free time! If I don't get refreshed during my free time, I might as well not have any.

This brainstorming helps you when you're in the moment. If you've planned ahead, you don't have to worry about figuring out what to do in the heat of the battle.

I listed all the things I might like to do with my free time, then ranked them in decreasing order of preference. Now, when I'm feeling distracted, all I have to do is read this list and I'm presented with more than 20 things I really enjoy! I rarely get beyond the top 10. I've attached the list below!


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