Discipline Can Make You Good, Not the Best

I have a pet theory about discipline:

Discipline can help you become good at something, but it can’t make you world-class.

If you want to be in good shape, it’s not unreasonable to expect success if you put in enough hard work. Same is true if you wanted to be a decent guitar player or a better-than-average writer. Show up, put in the hours, be patient. You can win because most people aren’t trying very hard.

What if, instead, you want to be one of the world’s best guitar players or athletes? Discipline matters, but it’s merely a prerequisite. But now your benchmark isn’t the unfocused majority, but the <1% of the people that are also obsessed, focused, driven and passionate.

When your aim is not to be good, but the best, the logic of “try harder” doesn’t work, because the people you need to try harder than are also following the same approach. Discipline switches from being the key to success, to a mere precondition assumed before you start.

Sink or Swim?

I started thinking about this idea after talking with a family friend. His daughter is around 13 years old, and engaged in competitive swimming. The conversation reminded me of being that age and competing in swimming, except she was actually really talented at it.

This girl was competing in national and international swim meets for her age group. She obviously had a gift, but what struck me was the amount of time she spent training. Up at 5am most mornings to swim for a few hours before classes, and not home until 7-8pm to keep training after school.

The amount of discipline and passion for the sport she possessed was incredible. Much of her life revolved around swimming and she was barely a teenager.

However in this environment, of international competitions, her level of dedication wasn’t unusual. And considering her parents are relatively well-adjusted (unlike some child athlete’s parents who aim to live their ambitions through their children) she may even be a bit less disciplined than her competitors.

If being completely obsessed with the sport and training hours every day while going to school full-time doesn’t even separate you from a crowd of tweens, how can “being more disciplined” possibly make you world-class?

You Can Be Good at Many Things. You Can’t Be the Best at Everything

Last week’s post about the reality of trade-offs in lifestyle decisions sparked a lot of reader comments. Many people disagreed with me, pointing out supposed examples of how people can excel in many different areas of life without having to sacrifice one or the other.

I don’t disagree with them, but I think it depends on how you frame the issue. If you want to be good in several major areas of your life, you can probably accomplish it.

Right now, I feel almost all major areas of my life are good or great. My business is doing well, I’m in decent shape, I’ve been traveling and although recently moving has flipped up my social life again, I’m confident that will be rewarding too.

But all those things are issues of being “good”. While being good at anything isn’t easy, and it requires a fair bit of work, it is a qualitatively different challenge than being world class.

Choosing To Be The Best or Just Good Enough?

The discussion from this and last week’s article bring up two questions in my mind:

  1. What do you want to be the best at, merely good enough and what will you ignore altogether?
  2. How will you define “the best” narrowly and creatively enough to allow you to succeed and to still live an enjoyable life?

As for the first question, being the best has both high rewards and high costs. High rewards because being #1 often pays disproportionately to being #2. As Cal Newport explains:

“In other words, both Florez and Pavarotti are exceptional tenors, but Pavarotti was slightly better — the best among an elite class. The impact of this small difference, however, was huge. Whereas we estimated that Florez was well off but not wealthy, when Pavarotti died in 2007, sources estimated his estate to be worth $275 to 475 million.”

But with the high rewards come high costs, as the competition becomes just as smart, fierce, talented and, yes, even as hard-working as you are. Discipline and ruthless focus switch from being decisive factors in winning to mere entry fees just for a chance to play the game.

Therefore, it makes sense to aim to be the best at a tiny minority of your life, perhaps even one sole pursuit.

Is Polymath a Dirty Word?

I think it’s certainly possible to be good, if not great, at several different skills. I know people who are decent artists, musicians, history buffs and make a good living with happy personal lives. Talents often support one another, so being good at one enhances your skills in another.

I don’t believe polymath pursuits are a bad thing. If you have multiple interests, why not try them all out? Learning new things is part of what makes life interesting. Even if your guitar lessons don’t lead to a record deal, that doesn’t mean they were a waste of time.

But my sense is these polymath pursuits, and indeed how well you master the multiple areas of your life, are deeply connected to how you answer the first question. If you decide to be the best in a fiercely competitive field, you either need to make heavy sacrifices with no guarantees of success, or be lucky and talented enough to get away without needing them.

If, in contrast, your answer of which pond you want to be “the best” at is not swimming with sharks, you make it easier to succeed in life’s other pursuits and decrease the chance that you’ll drown.

One way to do this would be to select a pond that is small enough that you can succeed without becoming a slave to your ambition.

Perhaps a better way is to creatively redefine the ponds, so that you can succeed (often on the strength of multiple talents) because nobody realized you could swim there.

Redefining the Game

My friend Benny has been enjoying a lot of success from his blog. In speaking eight languages fluently, he certainly deserves it. But as Benny explains, as far as polyglots go, he isn’t unusual. As part of his guide he interviewed people who speak 30+ languages to varying degrees of fluency.

In response to this, he explained to me:

“My goal isn’t to have the most languages, but maybe to be the best extrovert polyglot.”

Instead of trying to be the person with the most languages (a nearly impossible task) he redefined his mission to focus on the speaking, travel and social aspect of the languages which makes his job of being unique and world-class much more achievable.

Discipline is a necessary ingredient. But, in aiming for something remarkable, perhaps success owes less to the brunt force of effort, and more to guiding that effort in an uncommon direction.

  • Matt

    I really enjoyed this post, as it dicusses something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.

    Here’s a counter question: if I become good at several related things, would I be great at all of them combined? Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) talked about this in his blog (can’t find link right now, as I’m at work; shhhh!). My personal goal is to be the best architect of dynamic cognition; I plan on writing my own cognitive architecture. This requires a LOT of knowledge in multiple fields, as well as practical experience creating the architectures. If I become good (top 10% or so) at each of these fields, would I be in the top 0.01% of them combined?

    I don’t think it would be a direct comparison, but it would be partially true. Being good at a bunch of related common things would be common enough. To be in the top 0.01%, you would have to be in the top 10% of uncommon or rare fields.

    I’m just writing off the top of my head here, and wil personally explore the topic later. What are your thoughts?

  • Dave

    Matt’s comment above is a very interesting way to look at specialization.

  • Wendy Irene

    I liked the part about Matt’s comment…shhh I’m at work, LOL! Thanks for the laugh 🙂 It is really interesting analyzing what it means to be world class at something, what it takes, what the costs are, and how to walk that fine line of not becoming a slave to your ambition because there is so much of life that in the end you could be really disappointed to have missed out on. This is definitely my favorite think deep blog! Back to ‘work’…hehe

  • Duff

    Luckily there is no competition to be myself–but if I had a twin….

    Personally I think being the best in a given competitive game is largely due to luck, once you have the basics of discipline, ruthless single-minded focus, good instruction, etc. We tend to think there are games of skill and games of chance, but once everyone knows the rules of the game and has developed the skill, all that’s left is to chance.

  • Scott Young


    I definitely agree. Coupling kind of fits into my “redefining the pond” maneuver to find an area with less competition. I wrote a little about those ideas here:


    The situation is obviously filled with more nuances than I’ve laid out here, and I’m hoping to touch back on some of these ideas in the future.


  • Karanime

    Great post. It’s stuff like this that got me subscribing to your blog in the first place.

    No, really. I never say this to people. I really like this post. 🙂

    I always thought that to succeed, you had to be good at what you did, and you also had to be you. Since no one else is you, there’s no competition. I mean, what smaller pond is there than one only one fish can swim in? It’s a fishtank. No contest.

    You’re cool.


  • Zengirl @ Heart and Mind


    As a Gemini, I have many interests in real life so I know I am jack of all trade and expert at not one subject! Do I want to be? I know I will be best at something if my life dependent on it, otherwise I am okay knowing little of lot of stuff. Does it make me a bad person? I am not sure, but I hope not.


  • Jason

    Perhaps another interesting question would be: what is more likely to make you happier…being the best at one thing to the detriment of other areas of your life, or being great at many things but never being remarkable?

    And, if leading a great balanced life will make you pretty damn happy…is it worth the risk of striving for greatness when the odds are definitely not in your favour?

  • Will

    i love the WORLD CLASS theme. the path to become a world class is very similar to the path to be a martial artist master, in my point of view of course.

    i want to become a world class muay thai master (personal goal) and make the lethal art of the eight weapons even more popular in my country (Brazil).

    Muay Thai is something beyond fight, it makes your inner self incredibly stronger, it builds up character and confidence, and when teached with proper guidance it makes no deliquents but people that respect themselves and others, humble and order!

    so my dear Scott, i really like you work with the words and the messages you spread using them. you have a nice sight over things, that’s why i’m asking you for more WORLD CLASS POSTS! A PASSIONATE AND OBJECTIVE OPINION ABOUT WHAT IS NEEDED TO BECOME WORLD CLASS POST!! AND FINALLY THE ULTIMATE POST, A CROSSING POST ABOUT WORLD CLASS PATH AND MARTIAL ARTS MASTERY PATH!!!
    if you could do that you would make very happy!

    as a fellow craftsman, i’m sure you are able to understand the importance of these topics.

    sorry for my terrible english. i’m still learning.
    keep the good job.
    and may the kiiling fist of Thai always protect you on your journey.

  • Scott Young


    I don’t think that’s necessarily the trade-off. I still think we can all be the “best” at something, and indeed, considering the rewards Cal mentioned, having that as a goal is probably worthwhile. My thought is that the tradeoff is between being the best at something specific and unique as opposed to widely competed for. And the more specific, smaller and unique that “best” category fills, conversely the more you can invest in becoming “good” at other areas of life.


    Thanks. May the striking keyboard of the blogger be with you as well!


  • jonathanfigaro

    In self-discipline one makes a “disciple” of oneself. One is one’s own teacher, trainer, coach, and “disciplinarian.” It is an odd sort of relationship, paradoxical in its own way, and many of us don’t handle it very well. There is much unhappiness and personal distress in the world because of failures to control tempers, appetites, passions, and impulses. “Oh, if only I had stopped myself” is an all too familiar refrain.

    If we can remove ourselves from this frame of mind, we can successfully conquer ourselves from mental aggravation.

  • Jen Gresham

    When ambition and mastery become the goal instead of a happy by-product, you’re on a fast path to burnout and disappointment. It seems society’s focus on fame (another way of interpreting the desire to be “world class”) only grows, while career satisifcation disappears down the toilet. I believe the two trends are related.

    Growing up, I wrote poetry starting in my earliest years. I didn’t have the discipline you describe in your friend’s daughter–it was just something I really enjoyed doing. At the time, I thought getting my work published in a journal would be a huge achievement. Until I did it. Then I wanted to be published in more prestigious journals. Then I wanted a book. Where does it end? Is a Pulitzer good enough? A Nobel prize?

    You see, it’s a never ending cycle of ambition. You’re never satisfied, and before long, you’ve forgotten you ever did the work just for joy. Yes, if you define your pond narrowly enough you can declare yourself “the best.” Who cares? Wouldn’t it be better to just enjoy the process of learning and growing? Ambition itself isn’t a bad thing (I have plenty of it myself), but unbridled, it can be dangerous.

    In the search for a more meaningful life, I’m trying to put aside my own desires for fame and focus instead on stretching my mind and relationships, whether that be in one field or many.

  • shreevidya

    most [all of the time :)] of the time i agree with your articles, always want to hear more such refreshing ones. nothing to disagree with, but you can add some thing more with your next article. all the best!

  • Katie Brandt

    Good post. One thing I think you left out was having the passion and practicing hard everyday for a LONG time period. As Malcom Gladwell pointed out in his book Outliers, it usally take at least 10 years on consistent practice and hard work to really become the best at something.

  • Saravanan

    Good one Scott.
    I do agree with your thoughts.
    Discipline is just a pre-requisite…But a mandatory pre-requisite as far as I am concerned.

    Also, I feel that enthusiasm matters a lots as well in achieving greater heights.

    What do you say?


  • fairykarma

    The issue I have with professional athletes is you get 5-10 hours of glory (if you do not get injured and if you end up being good enough). After that, then what?

    You will be between 30 and 40 basically restarting your life, presumably chasing world-class status in something else with a less physical emphasis. In this case you HAVE to choose a niche.

    Not too many Noble Prize Laureates were previously world-class athletes.

  • Nick

    Love this post- I think to be world class at anything, you need the combo of discipline and the strategy of finding a new pond to swim in.

    There’s a quote by Warren Buffet, (I’m paraphrasing)- “There are three I’s to every cycle- The innovator, the imitator, and the idiot”.

    To be the innovator, you need (I assume) to be exploring those new ponds and then dive deep in.

  • James

    Hello Scott,

    I love your blog, especially the discussion format you’ve adopted. One of the challenges of personal development (and my favorite challenge) is finding creative ways to kill two birds with one stone. Everybody only gets the same 24 hours in a day but you could find creative ways to make your work fun or multitask. For instance, I’m working on a memory system where I can quiz myself while I’m working out. If something stumps me, I’ll remember to give it another look after my workout. I don’t bother counting out my sets and reps.

    I think if someone wants to be above average results, they need to find activities that address more than one area of life. Otherwise, what you get out of life seems to be a combination of inborn talent, chance, and priorities.

  • James

    … and marketing.

  • Graeme, Relationship Blogger

    Hey, didn’t I just read this on Tim Ferris’ blog? 🙂 Thank you for sharing and reminding us to avoid the dark pit of mediocrity.

  • Jarju Isatou

    Hello Scott
    Discipline is better than hardwork because if you are hardworking with no discipline people would not like,and if harvest your crops and you are selling inthe market people will not like you and you would not have customers and profit but if you are discipline you will have lots and lots of friends although you may be lazy.If you are discipline you may not be lazy because discipline goes with hardwork and obeying,so if they say do this you will obey.That is why discipline is better than hardwork.