Discipline Equals Freedom

Discipline Equals Freedom

Tattoos have always fascinated me. But getting one myself? Never. Because in the end, you’re stuck with whatever stupid shit you were so convinced about in your youth. To me, in order to have a tattoo, you’d first have to find something so true, so unchangeable, that you want to have it with you for the rest of your life. But recently, I am starting to become more and more convinced that I might have found such a life-defining phrase that will always hold true. It reads: Discipline equals freedom. 

Some of you may recognize this phrase. I haven’t coined it myself, but it is straight up taken from a former Navy Seal Commander named Jocko Willink (listen to the interview with him here – can definitely recommend). However, I would like to add my own thoughts to this short phrase – because in my opinion, it holds a very important truth for living a happy life. First of all, let’s get a short summary taken from Tim Ferriss’ Book “Tools of Titans” (emphasis mine):

I interpret this to mean, among other things, that you can use positive constraints to increase perceived free will and results. Freeform days might seem idyllic, but they are paralyzing due to continual paradox of choice (e.g., “What should I do now?”) and decision fatigue (e.g., “What should I have for breakfast?”). In contrast, something as simple as pre-scheduled workouts acts as scaffolding around which you can more effectively plan and execute your day. This gives you a greater sense of agency and feeling of freedom. Jocko adds, “It also means that if you want freedom in life—be that financial freedom, more free time, or even freedom from sickness and poor health—you can only achieve these things through discipline.”

I’ve written plentiful about the paradox of choice and decision fatigue (on which you can read up here). The inspiration for this post comes from a very real situation: I’ve been traveling for the past two weeks in the Dominican Republic and due to not having any plans, but simply living the day as it comes, I’ve felt very tired at times. Tired of making decisions. Tired, because I couldn’t even get the most basic things in (such as exercise, 5-Minute-Journal and meditation). Despite the fact that these only take a combined 15-20 minutes – so there should be plenty of time in a day where you technically have “nothing” to do. Why is that? I didn’t plan for it. I didn’t have the discipline to do it every day, and that caused me lots of time “wasted” by thinking about what to do next. Everything was optional all the sudden, and that is very hard to stomach for a person like me. 

As I may or may not have mentioned before, I am a person that highly relies on its routines (to a degree that it drives other people crazy). I do that for precisely the aforementioned reasons, and have been doing it for a very long time. It has been part of my education. My father is probably the most disciplined person that I know: gets up every day at 6 AM, has the same breakfast, workout at noon, lunch at 1, double espresso at 1:30, dinner at 7, bed at midnight. Every single day – even on the weekends. I don’t know if you’re reading this, dad, but if you do – it’s absolutely fascinating and I admire you for being so incredibly disciplined. By more or less adjusting to these routines, I’ve always had great freedom of choice what I want to do – because I had the energy to consciously make these choices. 

This phenomenon also explains something that I’ve never really had a solid explanation for. In Germany, every young man at the age of 18 or 19 (depending on when you graduated from school) used to be required to do military service. Alternatively, you also had the option to do civil service, such as working in a retirement home, school or social service. A third alternative was to simply be exempt from the service by having health conditions, overweight, vision problems or drug consumption – the latter has been used fairly often. Now, when it would have been my turn to serve in the military, the German government had just abolished it. Everybody around me was happy – one more year to go to university, dabble around while doing work & travel in Australia or doing some social work for a year. And I – I was pissed. I wanted to go to the military. I didn’t want to be a soldier, but I wanted to make the experience – and to a degree still do to this day. I’m by no means a warmonger, nor do I have a particular interest in weapons or killing people. What fascinated me was the ultimate discipline that you’re taught in the military. I believe that this is something everybody should go through at some point, despite the fact that some of the routines are definitely pointless from a rational point of view. The key is to acquire discipline – and that was something I wanted to learn more and more. 

The urge to acquire this discipline stems from a time earlier in my life, when I was living in the United States. Before going there, I was a below-average athlete. I’d get bad grades in physical education classes, couldn’t throw a ball properly, was fairly chubby and so on. By the time I got back, I was an above-average athlete, and I’ve been getting more athletic ever since. This is something I’m proud of, and something I was able to achieve through discipline. When I started playing Lacrosse in high school, we’d meet up every single day after school to do sprint training or weightlifting for 60 to 90 minutes. It was tough, man. Especially because our conditioning coach was a US Marine on vacation. I loved and hated every minute of it, but it did do two things: transform me into a great athlete and lay the base layer for all the routines that I have now. The routines that allow me to seize control over my life. 

Control Is Key

In his book “So Good That They Can’t Ignore You”, Cal Newport states that the “passion hypothesis” is simply wrong. The passion hypothesis? This hypothesis is the old mantra that “one should do what he or she is passionate about.” However, when you ask most people what they’re passionate about, the answers you will get are “traveling”, “1. FC Köln”, “reading” or “doing good in the world”. How many of these people actually work in a field related to these fields? Barely any of them, and yet most of them are very content with what they do. Clearly, there must be something else that creates happiness in work. This something is what I like to call “control”: the ability to determine what you do in your job. This ability does not just include the fact that you are free do to whatever you want to do, but also that you have the prerequisites, the abilities necessary to actually do it. For example, in my current job, I could create the greatest language course content ever – I just do not have the ability to do that and therefore, working on this matter makes me unhappy as I cannot control what I’m doing. On the other hand, when I’m working with my colleagues on solving productivity problems, I feel 100% in control and am super happy. 

Control is important. Now, how do you get it? Cal Newport argues that you first have to build up “career capital” in order to achieve control about your job. “Career capital” is defined as a rare and valuable asset that you have acquired over time. In my case, for instance, it’s the ability to understand other people’s problems and to find a solution by thinking outside the box and using my programming skills. But career capital doesn’t come out of nowhere, it doesn’t come from attending a two-day seminar (although I’ve been told that the Tony Robbins seminars might be a different case here – would love to try that some time). Career capital comes from deliberate practice: constantly challenging yourself, constantly facing the things that you aren’t good at yet. And deliberate practice has one very important ingredient: discipline. 

“In order to be great, you have to practice the basics consistently well.”

Deliberate practice also relates to another mantra of mine: “in order to be great, you have to practice the basics consistently well”. In Lacrosse, you have to hit the gym and the wall often and regularly to become a better player – no need for acquiring fancy tricks, but (at least in Germany) having great stick skills and athletic ability goes a long way. In language learning, you don’t need to understand the most complicated grammatical concepts – however, you should be VERY familiar with the important vocabulary, sentence structure and your ability to learn from mistakes. In nutrition, doing one week of green smoothies doesn’t really get you anywhere when you normally eat what I’m eating right now (I just had two Krispy Kreme donuts and will definitely have a double cheeseburger with fries for lunch – I’m sitting in a civilized western enclave in the middle of the chaos that Santo Domingo is). And finally, doing a two day meditation retreat will not make your mind stronger in the long term – but doing it every day for ten minutes certainly will. 

All of this requires discipline. Sometimes it’s raining and you’d much rather stay at home than going to the wall. Sometimes, you’re hungover and really don’t wanna learn vocabulary. Sometimes, that donut just looks to appealing. But with discipline, you will be able to push through – the reward will well be worth it. 

We’ve learned that discipline allows for two things: greater control of your day by minimizing decisions, and greater control of your life due to building of career capital. This allows us to create the first part of a not so mathematical equation: discipline = control. We’ve also learned that if you have control over what you do, it gives you the freedom to decide what you do. Therefore: control = freedom. Applying the law of transitivity, we then come to the conclusion that indeed discipline = freedom. 

Discipline leads to a healther, happier and healthier life. This is why it should be part of all our lives. And this is why I would like to constantly remind myself of it. A tattoo would be a great way to do just that. 

This post was written in the Krispy Kreme store of the Agora mall in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. 


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