Discipline is Freedom

by Frank Martin

Steve Jobs wore the same turtleneck and jeans combo for years. He also lead Apple out of near failure to being one of the most beloved and successful technology companies. It could be argued that, while one didn’t directly lead to the other, not having to think about what to wear freed Jobs up to spend his energy in other more worthwhile areas.

Discipline is freedom, defining freedom as understanding an individual’s abilities within a constrained environment. Epictetus offers perhaps the best definition of freedom in his book the Enchiridion: “Freedom isn’t the right or ability to do whatever you please. Freedom comes from understanding the limits of our own power and the natural limits put in place by divine providence.”

Discipline is defined by the lack of freedom, isn’t it? Well yes, the above quote makes that pretty clear, but this is how a child defines freedom. Looking back at what Epictetus says, there is an explicit acknowledgement that true freedom includes restriction. This is because freedom in this sense is the freedom not to be dragged around or controlled by momentary whim. You can still enjoy having coffee with a friend (I’m doing exactly that as I write this) but you can also engage in things that speak to something larger, like the article I’m writing. Yes, there is a certain kind of enjoyment of the creative act of writing, but unlike, say, the cup of tea I have sitting next to me, there’s more to the work I’m doing than the simple momentary pleasure of creation. It takes a certain level of discipline to stick with something that won’t give immediate rewards and may never beyond the simple act of creation. In a sense this is what it means to be an adult as well, the ability to enjoy momentary pleasure yes, but the ability to focus and engage in activity that may or may not be enjoyable in the moment, but will contribute something lasting as well. The freedom I’m urging us towards is the freedom to pursue wisdom, not things, contribution, creation, not just consumption.

Discipline is the practice of using habits and external systems rather than relying solely on willpower to direct your life or just drifting and doing whatever you feel like in the moment. Though this may not be true for everyone, not having these systems can lead us down the easy street of sitting around doing nothing, especially in a generation which, according to a NY Times article from June of last year has seen nine of ten people in their 20’s and 30’s return home after college. You can look at anyone who has accomplished something and see the lie that you can do anything you want for what it is.

Just about any person you can think of has used discipline to get where they are. Discipline frees up precious mental willpower so instead of pondering what to wear today, we can be thinking about that great line from Seneca, or Montaigne, or the Heart of the Sea (or Harry Potter for that matter) and how it might apply to our lives, or brainstorming ideas for our next project. Knowing whats next on our schedule frees us up to focus on other more important things.

Discipline has gotten a bad wrap the past couple years that it doesn’t particularly deserve. From a certain perspective, it can be extremely freeing. Its how some of the most accomplished people in history and today have done what they did, so there must be something to it, right?

The underpinnings of this blog are founded on one such system thats been time tested and proven by everyone from ex-slaves to emperors and entrepreneurs for the last couple thousand years, Stoicism. Look for a quick and dirty intro to this Philosophy of Life sometime in the next couple weeks. For now, we’re going to get nice and concrete. Next week I’ll be publishing an article outlining my own organizational system as a suggested real world implementation of discipline.