The 6 questions and 1 imperative of self-discipline

Time waits for no one. It’s annoying like that. (sketch by Tai Rayana)

I often think about self-discipline. How to achieve it, hone it, and prevent it from degenerating into an iron rigidness. How to reap its benefits. I spend and have spent so much time thinking about how to have more of it that I rarely, if ever, asked myself WHY do I want more self-discipline. Why do I want to control my moods, emotion, and disinclination?

As soon as this question dawned on the horizon of my thoughts, I realised I had the answer — it wasn’t outlined and defined, but it was corporeal enough to serve as a foundation.

I want a well-honed self-discipline because it frees me to do the things I want to do.

In other words, I feel good after doing certain things (writing, exercising, meditating, focused work) and not nearly as good after some others (over-exercising, over-eating, being “busy”). After the former, I feel empowered and after the latter, deflated.

I almost wish the reasons went a little deeper, felt a little more profound, but it really is as simple as feeling better after some activities, and worse after others. So, naturally, I want to spend more time “feeling better”. It’s safe to say that we all do, even though our approaches are wildly different.

Time itself is an interesting, and tricky, concept. We all have it, without having a clue as to how much exactly. The best we can ever do is vaguely guess at what’s left. If I’m young, I have more left and, if I’m old and sick, less. It’s a probabilistic estimation, based on the average human life span. It serves us well enough, especially in developed countries, but it does not accommodate for happenstance — it just might happen that I die tomorrow. The world, as a whole, won’t be much affected, but I, on the whole, will be affected through and through.

The time we have is in some ways like a monetary currency. Each one of us chooses to exchange a certain amount of what we have — minutes, hours, days, years — for something else. Sometimes, the choice is forced upon us by violence or sickness, while most of the time we are free to make the choice — what we do depends, by and large, on what we purposefully choose to do.

This time-currency has a massive catch to it though. Unlike all other currencies, time is finite. There’s no more to be had. Whatever you may choose to do, you may not have more time. This is why rich old people would give all their wealth for just one more day.

But, a day more than we’ve been given is a day we’ll never get. And that, more than anything else, makes self-discipline necessary. It helps us make our time worthwhile so that, when the end comes, we are without regrets.

The self-discipline of a professional boxer

Recently, I ran into a podcast that featured Edward Latimore III, a professional boxer who believes in self-discipline almost more than in anything else.

His voice was, at first, surprising. Seeing the name Edward Latimore III, I didn’t expect the supple, expressive voice of a black man to saturate the silence. I expected a white man’s voice. But, as things go, I was wrong.

Edward Latimore III (from throneboxing.com)

He spoke using weighted, thoughtful words of a man who had applied his brain at least as many times as he had applied his fists. He spoke of emotion, relationships, and self-discipline as the governing aspects of a life lived well. By all accounts, he seemed to be living up to his beliefs. A professional heavyweight boxer who, by a stereotypical definition, should not be able to string together intelligible words also majors in engineering, devours books, writes books, teaches, and coaches.

But that’s not how his story began.

The story, in his own words, begins with him having done more or less nothing for years in his early 20ies besides having a girlfriend, eating at her place, and complaining about the uselessness of higher education to her mother who, ironically, was a professor. It doesn’t take much to imagine how unfruitful those conversations must have been. Until, one day, the mother decided to drop the argument.

“Fine,” I imagine her saying, “think what you want to think. But, tell me, what have you done in the last 4 years besides eating my food?”

This simple question should have been easy to reason around. It’s easy to portray almost any lifespan as either useful or prevented from usefulness by some quasi-reasonable set of circumstances.

Ed looked back at his life and saw she was right. He had no trade, no education, no job, no hobby, no prospects. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, nor when he’d do it. Because of her simple question he, not unlike many of us, realized he hadn’t done anything new, challenging, nor scary in a long time.

The first question of self-discipline: do you ignore the truth, or do you face it?

So he signed up for boxing, which he makes sound an obvious and expected choice in his situation. It had seemed to him that a good way to make something of his life was to drop it into the boxing ring and see what it does with itself.

And what it did was grow. He became stronger, better, faster, more disciplined.

He also noticed there were things he was slow at improving: his sloppy footwork, or the slow jab. He could have tried to compensate by anger and rage, like so many fighters, and yet he chose to patiently work on every weakness until it was less of a weakness. As he shares in the interview, he sought complete control or, at least, an ever greater degree of control. To master something so thoroughly, a jab or a right hook, so that he can slow down or speed up at will, even under pressure. Here I can easily relate: I was once a swimmer and I remember how easy it was to forget technique and crumble when the body began to scream with pain. It takes incredible self-discipline to remember your training, and to keep it together: in the pool, in the boxing ring, or in everyday life.

The second question of self-discipline: do you understand that a fight is won or lost in training more so than on the fight day itself?

Latimore’s intricate story wove together boxing, study, self-improvement, relationships, acceptance of change, and acceptance of outcomes into a narrative so solid and realistic that it moved me to watch his fights. To witness, at last, what a philosopher can do in the ring.

The Fight

Latimore’s opponent is Trey Lippe Morrison — the son of the former WBO heavyweight champion Tommy David Morrison. Standing at 6 foot 1 and weighing 219 pounds, he is both shorter, lighter, and older than Trey. Both men are undefeated, with 12 and 13 wins respectively. The fight seems much more than just a fight. Who’ll have to add a stain of loss to his pristine record? Almost all fighters experience defeat at some point in their careers.

Who’s time is up?

The bell goes off and the fight begins. Both men approach the center of the ring, with Latimore trying to nullify the benefits of Trey’s reach by getting in close, into a clinch position. Jabs, hooks, and uppercuts fly. Some land, on both sides, before a heavy hook catches Latimore early in the fight. His left leg crumbles beneath him and he falls to the floor.

Morrison catches Latimore with a right hook.
The third question of self-discipline: what do you do when you fall?

Almost as quickly as he fell, Latimore gets up. His powerful frame wobbles slightly as his brain tries to center it above shaky legs. For a moment, Latimore looks into the crowd, his lower lip pointed out in unconscious defiance. In the corner, behind the judge, Trey enjoys the moment. He knows he shook his opponent to the core and now moves around the ring, waiting to finish the business. There’s no meanness to him. Just a professional at work.

The fourth question of self-discipline: can you do this?

Latimore does a quick nod, a reflection of his internal deliberation. He moves into his corner and lets the judge do the necessary, if superficial, health checks. Can you walk towards me? Good. Can you raise your arms above your head? Good.

Fight.

Two men move toward each other — one defiant but shaken, the other intense and confident. Fists begin flying. Latimore still bobs and weaves, throws punches, but they’re not the same as before he fell. That’s what getting caught by a professional fist does to you. But, he’s there of his own choice, so he does the work he chose to do.

The fifth question of self-discipline: is what you’re doing your own choice?

Trey loosens a flurry of uppercuts, countered by a good jab from Latimore. Trey returns with a jab of his own and Latimore stumbles. Two more hooks to the chin and he’s sprawled on the floor. Again.

The sixth question of self-discipline: what do you do when you fall again?

This time, Latimore stays on the mat a moment longer, trying to regain clarity on all fours. Behind the judge, Trey does not celebrate. He waits to see whether the fight is over. The judge is doing a theatrical countdown.

Three…

Four…

Latimore lifts his fists up.

Trey moves in fast, with uppercuts that must feel like thunder. Latimore’s left leg gives out again for a moment but he’s able to keep standing. Another right hook connects and he falls into the ropes. Trey punishes every opening.

The judge jumps between the two men. The fight is over. The camera operator focuses on the winner and his triumphant, raised arms. He seems big, bigger than during the fight, as if the technical knockout had somehow engorged his muscles, stretched his bones, and made him look invincible. The massive tribal tattoo on his upper back glistens with sweat.

Morrison celebrates the win.

After losing the fight right there on TV, I had a lot of thinking and reflecting to do.” — Ed Latimore

The imperative of self-discipline: never blame others.

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