On Discipline and Superpowers

I’ve often maintained that personal discipline is the closest thing to superpowers most of us will ever have. I’m certain this will continue to be true for generations on this side of some upcoming cinema-worthy pharmaceutical breakthrough in genetic manipulation that enables human flight, invisibility, crying black death tears that kill everyone around you, etc.

Clearly, the thing to do to become awesome at anything, in this day and age, is to get disciplined — a statement which pretty much defines the phrase “easier said than done.” Discipline makes skill. And skill is a hot commodity.

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Very Hardworking Person!

Like a superpower, discipline derives the heft of its “super”-ness from the inversely proportional relationship between its frequency and desirability. In other words, for those of you who haven’t spent the last four years having scientific terminology drilled into your brains by engineering school: lots of people want it, not as many have it. It is a rare art form lauded by practically all, striven for by relatively few, and regularly practiced by an even smaller fraction of the population.

We must look beyond the have-want ratio to support my claims, though, because by this logic, we could equate being good-looking with superpowers, and that’s frankly lame and shallow, particularly to those of us who may have extensive, bitter body image issues, which fortunately for you is a soapbox for another essay.

The fact is, discipline equips your ordinary Clark Kent to do just about anything he puts his mind to. That’s basically the equivalent of being Superman! Without the flying, enhanced strength, x-ray vision, talking to animals, or pretty much anything on this list, of course.

What Do I Mean By Discipline, Though?

I should clarify that I’m referring to a process and a character quality that can be defined by a number of basic criteria, none of which are particularly surprising, two of which I intend to highlight here.

For starters, it’s characterized by hard, mundane work — the kind that tends to go unnoticed and unacknowledged. Most people are familiar by now with the 10,000-Hour Rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, which essentially states that to get noticeably good at something, one must clock in 10,000 hours or more. It goes without saying that one will not spend the majority of those 10,000 hours in situations where they are showered with adulation. Nor will those 10,000 hours be a consistent log of amazing, lightning-fast leaps in progress.

(Of note: this point is where the superpower analogy almost completely breaks down, since we’re replacing instantaneous origin-story elements like radioactive spiders and electronic steroid machines with, like, actual labor. Sorry, kids. Sorry, me.)

Over and Over and Over and Over and Over

There’s also an aspect of repetition. Key terms like “agenda” and “planner” and “schedule” and “no life…dramatic pause…for now” come to mind.

Instead of being motivated by fleeting bursts of euphoric whimsy, the disciplined individual will be found consistently toiling away, regardless of emotional condition. This is in stark contrast to the lifestyle I am more accustomed to, wherein I will medicate a bad day with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream regardless of constant vague commitments to “eat more healthy.”

Theirs is the “work out for two and a half hours starting at 5 am every other day/practice arpeggios for ninety hours a week” life that so many of us simultaneously loathe and admire. The results are easily quantifiable: Olympic gold medals, flawless instrumental recitals, and so forth. Less apparent is the ritualized lifestyle turning difficult procedures into professional habit cycles, complete with failing and starting over ad infinitum.

Getting There

The obvious conclusion is that discipline is something worth getting, and being disciplined is something worth being. It’s hard, like diamond anything, and rare, like a $20,000 Pikachu Illustrator card, and desirable, like both of those things, I guess.

The less obvious implication comes in the form of a question, a sublime Catch-22 — how do you start the cycle of pushing yourself to push yourself if you aren’t good at, well, pushing yourself?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m doing my best to think really hard about it. Because that totally counts for something, right?

Let’s just say I’m holding out for my electronic steroid machine.

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