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:
- What do you want to be the best at, merely good enough and what will you ignore altogether?
- 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.