Discipline is Destiny by Ryan Holiday

Published: 2022-10-09

Impressions

Discipline is Destiny brilliantly illustrates a depressingly "bro-culture" idea: discipline. This characterization stems from the hustle culture accounts on Instagram or finance bros on Twitter explaining their 4 AM morning routines, cold showers, and 35-minute meditation sessions. This overexposure to a powerful concept has therefore watered down a powerful idea, the idea that you, and only you, control your life. This book brings the idea back into reality.

Through 54 short chapters, Ryan Holiday gives rules, ideas, and principles to live a disciplined life. By studying some of the most disciplined people who have breathed life on this Earth, the reader can't help but think, What if I start to be more disciplined today, right now? What if I actually did "attack the dawn?'' How different would my career be if I really did do the hard things first? What if I just showed up every day for the next 5 years? 10 years? What would my life look like if I got rid of that thing that controls me? What happens if I actually use discipline to shape my destiny?

Takeaways

Treat the body rigorously - Lou Gehrig was no "good-time Charlie." He wasn't a drinker and didn't chase thrills or girls. "The obligation of a champion," Holiday writes, "is to act like a champion...while working as hard as somebody with something to prove." It wasn't about his "image" or wanting to be "above reproach." Gehrig knew his body was a machine, and it was how he made his money. He wasn't going to abuse it, and neither should we.

Someone would write about him that he didn't drink, "not because of any prissy notions of righteousness that it was evil or wrong to take a drink but because he had a driving, non-stop ambition to become a great and successful ball player. Anything that interfered with that ambition was poison to him." Muhammad Ali would say later, "When a man can control his life, his physical needs, his lower self, he elevates himself"

Musonius Rufus, speaking on a similar note, writes, "Obviously the philosopher's mind should be well prepared for physical activity, because often the virtues make use of this as a necessary instrument for the affairs of life. We use the training common to both when we discipline ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, meager rations, hard beds, avoidance of the pleasures and patience under suffering. For by these things...the body is strengthened and becomes capable of enduring hardships, study and ready for any task."

You train your body and mind in moments that you can control, so you can control your body and mind in moments that you don't.

Work before the light and do the hard thing first - Toni Morrison, speaking on the virtues of waking up early to work, said, "Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It's not being in the light, it's being there before it arrives. "

Half of this battle is going to bed early and making sure you get enough sleep. Holiday writes, "The best way to master the morning is to have mastered it the night before."

"Just as days are made of mornings," he also wrote, "lives are made of days. To procrastinate at any time, day or night, young or old, to push it until later, is a loser's game."

Be your own master - One day in 1949, Richard Feynman felt an increased urge to reach for the flask. It was a craving for a drop of alcohol, separate from the reward of celebrating the results of hard work. Right then and there, he gave up drinking. Because as Holiday writes, "Nothing, he felt, should have that kind of power over him."

A core idea of self-discipline is to be extremely wary of anything that has mastery of you. These can be vices like caffeine, alcohol, or drugs. But they can also be virtues like success, working out, and so on. The desire isn't the issue. It's the need.

Work clean, think clean - Robert Moses liked to work on a large table because it made him more effective and encouraged a better workflow. He believed in processing, or what David Allen's GTD method called an "inbox." When something came in, you dealt with it. And since a table has no drawers, his biographer Robert Caro would write in The Power Broker, "there was no place to hide papers; there was no escape from a nagging problem or a difficult-to-answer letter except to get rid of it in one way or another." Holiday says, "The space where great work is done is holy. We must respect it." As Gustave Flaubert says, "Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work."

Just show up. Once you do, enjoy the work - Thomas Edison said, "The genius hung around his laboratory day and night. If anything happens, he's there to catch it; if he wasn't, it might happen just the same, only it would never be his." Showing up when it's easy...is easy. But doing it when it's hard is when it really counts. Showing up when you're tired. Doing the work on the project for the 5th year in a row when it feels like you'll never get it done. Those are the days when greatness is born.

John Steinbeck called these "dawdly days." Holiday explains, "Those days when everything seems out of whack, when you're just not feeling it, when the distractions won't stop." Showing up on those days "is the first step to greatness."

And once you show up...get to work."I come from a part of the world where people did work rather than just talk about it," Joyce Carol Oates said. "And so if you feel that you just can't write, or you're too tired, or this, or that, and the other, just stop thinking about it and go to work."

Encouraging his readers just to show up and work regardless of the arbitrary outcomes, Holiday would write, "Decide what you want to be, and then do that work." If you love the work, you don't care what the outcomes are, the prizes you get, or the money you make. You do it because it's what you love to do.

Sweat the small stuff - No big project has succeeded by ignoring the small stuff. "It is the loose ends," Zelda Fitzgerald said, "with which men hang themselves." There's an old saying about a horse, for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. And then, because of the shoe, the horse was lost. Because of the horse, the rider was lost and because of the rider, the message, and because of the message, the battle, and because of the battle, the kingdom...

Don't overdo it - Discipline isn't only resisting the temptation to give up; it's also resisting the temptation to go too far. Working out too much, getting injured, and not working out at all usually take someone to the same place. John Steinbeck referred to those who fell prey to their desires to accomplish a lot and called this the "indiscipline of overwork."

Keep the main thing the main thing - "Anyone who has not groomed his life in general towards some definite end cannot possibly arrange his individual actions properly." -- Michel de Montaigne.

Holiday writes, "If you don't know where you're sailing, the Stoics said, no wind is favorable." He continued, "the secret to success in almost all fields is large, uninterrupted blocks of focused time." To do this, we can borrow a line from E.B. White, who replied after being asked to be a part of some commission, "I must decline for secret reasons."

It sounds simple, but doing it isn't easy. To keep the main thing the main thing requires you not to be a slave to your ego. After you become successful, they want you to appear on every podcast, go to every conference to "network," and be a part of communities, so people know who you are. Your ambition and ego will want you to continue walking down the path of success and fame, but that ambition isn't helpful if it's not taking you anywhere. You must learn to tame ambition and to keep the main thing the main thing.

But that's not enough.

Once you've cleared your plate of only the most essential, you must focus relentlessly on that task. Holiday shares an interesting story about Beethoven after a friend asked if he was even listening. "I was just occupied with such a lovely, deep thought," Beethoven replied, "I couldn't bear to be disturbed." Holiday puts it bluntly: "The muses never bless the unfocused."

Perfectionism is a vice - "I want it to be perfect," says someone who keeps saying they're writing a book, or a blog post, or making anything at all. "It doesn't matter the cause," Holiday writes, "whether it was from procrastination or perfectionism, the result is the same. You didn't do it."

Don't sacrifice completion for perfectionism. A bad book written is more successful than one in your head.

Get better every day - If you're not getting better, you're getting worse. There's a word for this in Japanese, kaizen. It means continual improvement. Holiday asks, "How much progress could you make if you made just a little each day over the course of an entire life?"

Expect much from yourself, little from others - You have to be disciplined. You don't have to force discipline on others. Those people are just annoying, and no one likes them. Don't judge other people for drinking if you don't. Don't make someone feel bad for not running, reading, waking up early, etc.

But that's not an excuse to be soft on yourself. Their life is not in your control, so don't act like it is. Hold yourself to high standards. Cato the Elder said, "I am prepared to forgive everybody's mistakes except my own." Ben Franklin said something similar when he said, "Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices." Holiday writes, "Be a strong, inspiring example and let that be enough." He also shares a story from one of Lincoln's secretaries who would marvel at the way he "never asked perfection of anyone, he did not even insist, for others, upon the high standards he set for himself."

On a similar note, Seneca writes, "Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts." So though you shouldn't hold people to your high standards, you should inspire them to be better just by being you. Not giving some fake speech or showing off your accomplishments, but by your character, your attitude, and your approach to life. Holiday writes, "The fire within us can burn bright enough to warm others. The light within us can illuminate the path for others."

Bring distinction. - Epaminondas, a general in Greece, was appointed to an insulting office in Thebes--taking care of the city's sewers. Instead of being upset, he did the job with diligence. Holiday shares that Epaminondas declared "that it is not the office that brings distinction to the man, it is the man who brings distinction to the office."

Notes

  • We have two choices: to master ourselves or be mastered by something else.
  • We each have a higher and lower self that are constantly battling with each other. The lower self wants to do what's easy. The higher self wants to do what is right. The ancients called this inner battle akrasia.
  • I'm disciplined, or try to be disciplined, because I'm afraid of who I'd be if I wasn't.
  • Lou Gerhig wore his fame lightly, but took the obligations of it seriously.
  • You say you love what you do. Where's your proof? What kind of streak do you have to show for it?
    • This is a great question to encourage keeping a reading/writing/working out/golfing log.
  • "The one thing all fools have in common, is that they're always getting ready to live."
  • Anger isn't bad. It's okay to be angry. You just can't do anything out of that anger.
  • Mos maiorum
    • the unspoken yet also very much spoken way of life of your grandparents.
  • July and August are named after Julius and Augustus Cesear.
  • Be a hero to the valet.
  • Destiny isn't going to be easy. But if it was, would it still be worth anything?

Quotes

  • "We must keep ourselves in check or risk ruin."
  • More than talent, life is about temperament. And temperament.
  • Although they come from very different places, the desire to skip a workout and the impulse to work out too much end up in the same place.
  • No one who is a slave to their urges or to sloth, no one without strength or a good schedule, can greate a good life.
  • The queen, you can be sure, always knows more than she says.
  • Greatness is not just what one does, but also what one refuses to do. It's how one bears the constraints of their world or their profession, it's what we're able to do within limitations–creatively, consciously, calmly.
  • "Remember to conduct yourself in life as if at a banquet. As something being passed around comes to you, reach out your hand and take a moderate helping. Does it pass you by? Don't stop it. It hasn't yet come? Don't burn in desire for it, but wait until it arrives in front og you. Act this way with children, a spouse, toward position, with wealth–one day it will make you worthy of a banquet with the gods."
  • Someone else's lack of self-control is not a justification for abandoning your own.
  • If you have money, spend it...the problem is when people spend money they don't have, to get things they don't need, at a price nowhere near worth the cost.
  • And is "f-you money" really such an admirable goal anyway? To have so much money you don't have to care about anything or anyone? That's not vritue, it's childishness.
  • "The modern stoic knows the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it exactly at the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble." Ryan writes, "The person who wakes up whenever, wakes up and does whatever, orders their day however? This is a person who will never have enough time, who will always be behind."
  • "The nearer a man is to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength." – Marcus Aurelius
  • "It doesn't matter what you bear. It matters how you bear it." – Seneca
  • "If you make a bad bargain, hug it the tighter." (This is something you shouldn’t do, and it illustrates the idea of sunk costs.)