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Why Discipline is More Important Than Talent, Skills or Credentials

This post is inspired by the comments from readers on my last post, Counting the Cost of Convenience – Do We Even Bother? The desire for convenience has become an all-encompassing objective in our culture. In the comments thread, we identified the lack of discipline among youth as a major reason why convenience has become so important. After all, undisciplined kids become undisciplined adults. Discipline is that secret ingredient that’s more important than talent, skills and even credentials.

Discipline is a four-letter word in modern America. We talk a good game about it in a theoretical sense, but culturally, we’re repulsed by it. Meanwhile, we worship talent, get by on skills, and chase after credentials with religious intensity. We fancy ourselves as a nation hell-bent on disrupting everything in human existence. What’s old is viewed as useless, and what’s old are centuries old values, like discipline. Kids who never develop it are handicapped for life, but never quite know why they are.

Why Discipline is More Important Than Talent, Skills or Credentials
Why Discipline is More Important Than Talent, Skills or Credentials

So let’s talk about this thing called discipline, and recognize that without it we’re doomed to accomplish nothing. And more important, that you can develop it, even if you’ve never had it before.

Talent Without Discipline is Talent Wasted

People worship talent. They see it as being almost magical. And there’s no question, that when properly applied it’s virtually poetry in motion. The problem with talent is that it’s often easier to see it in other people than in ourselves. For example, celebrity worship is practically a national cult. But it’s also a complete waste of time!

I’ve long believed that we all have talent, but we lack the discipline to turn it into something useful. But talent is really nothing more than ability put into action.

When we look at celebrities and sports stars, we only see the end product. We don’t see the thousands of hours of practice, or the hundreds of failed efforts. We imagine that they were just “born that way”. They just woke up one day, and they were superstars.

Unfortunately, that does occasionally happen, and that’s what feeds the myth. But you probably have talents that you’re not aware of. They’re just waiting for you to apply the right measures of action and discipline. And without action and discipline, those talents will remain well hidden.

Skills Without Discipline Go to Waste

A lot of people have skills, in fact probably most of us do. But few of us are actually any good at what we do. That’s not because we lack innate ability, but because we lack the discipline to build those skills into something more.

I’ve been a big proponent of developing skills over the years, and I’ve had to develop a few late in life out of necessity. And I can say without hesitation that there is no skill that you can acquire or master without discipline. This is especially true when it comes to developing skills that you hope to be compensated for.

Credentials Without Discipline Creates a Marginal Elite

I submit that one of the fundamental problems we face in our culture is the relentless drive to acquire credentials. Kids are conditioned to seek credentials at an early age. This plays out in the form of passing exams, getting the highest grade in the class, and targeting a college education as the ticket to success. Families will even bankrupt themselves to get a college education for their kids.

But at the same time, there are a lot of people who have college degrees and are either unmotivated, or find themselves struggling even years later. If credentials are that important, how can that be?

We can certainly ascribe some of the problem to students taking soft college majors. But an even bigger problem is people thinking that they’ll become a success by virtue of the credentials. The belief in credentials is so strong that many young people don’t realize or accept that, degree or no degree, they may literally have to create their own jobs.

That will take discipline, bolstered by a strong dose of relentless. But if you’re unable to do it, you fall into the category of the marginal elite. Those are people with impressive credentials, but little motivation or ability to achieve anything significant. They’re sometimes unemployed, but very often underemployed. Credentials are increasingly proving to be no career savior.

What is Discipline and How can it be Applied in Your Daily Routine?

Let’s start with a dictionary definition. Among other things, Dictionary.com defines discipline as follows:

”…training to act in accordance with rules; drill: military discipline. activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training: A daily stint at the typewriter is excellent discipline for a writer; the rigor or training effect of experience, adversity, etc.: the harsh discipline of poverty.” (emphasis mine)

So much for the official definition. How can we put discipline into practice? For most, it will mean adopting an entirely different way of doing things. This is especially true of the younger generations, who were raised in a culture that puts a priority on ease, comfort and convenience. And for what it’s worth, a lot of not-so-young people have warmly embraced the same “values”.

Below I offer 10 strategies to make discipline a part of your modus operandi, even if it’s never been a traveling companion up to this point.

1. Create a Mission Statement

This is literally a written statement, where you lay out where you want to go in life, and how you plan to get there. This is an important step. It should be a formal document, the kind that will command both your attention and your respect. It should be displayed someplace where you’ll see it easily. And you should review it each and every day.

If you’re not familiar with mission statements, or how to prepare one, you can find tutorials online.

Be serious about this, and about creating a compelling mission for your life. You’re not just creating a document here, you’re creating a new forward direction. And once you’ve created the statement, pledge to yourself and everyone you know that you’ll follow it until completed.

A mission statement without consistent action applied is just a piece of paper with a bunch of fancy words on it.

2. Squash Any Idea of “Just Getting By”

If you’ve ever wondered why I chose the name “Out Of Your Rut” for this blog, know that it wasn’t an accident. Most people aren’t where they want to be in life, or even close. That is, they’re stuck in a rut.

If that happens to describe you, please don’t be insulted. It’s a very common situation. But you are going to have to admit to yourself that that’s exactly where you are. There’s no shame in admitting to it, but there is if you just sit in it, and accept it as some sort of fate. Just getting by isn’t living life – it’s just getting by. You’re better than that. We all are. I’ve learned that firsthand.

The only way out of a rut is to climb out of it. If you’re sitting around waiting for someone to save you, or some stroke of blind luck, you’re wasting your time. That only happens on TV, which is another compelling reason to stop watching it. In real life, you’re going to have to work your way out of it

Grasp the reality that you will never get out of your rut – whatever that rut is – without discipline. It really is the “secret sauce” in doing everything that we’re talking about here.

3. Develop the Ability to Avoid Distractions

If you’re going to get anywhere in life, you’re going to have to avoid the distractions that are all around us all the time. There’s even creative distraction. That’s the subconscious – and sometimes conscious – effort that we make to busy ourselves with nonessential activities, with the express purpose of keeping us from doing what we know we need to do. As a writer, I wrestle with this all the time. But I know that it’s a battle that I have to win – every day.

That takes discipline. You have to identify the time and energy wasters in your life, and do your best to either eliminate them, or at least limit their impact on your life. That may mean breaking yourself of the TV habit (are you sensing a pattern here?), limiting your time on social media, getting control of a sports addiction, or whatever else it is that’s eating up your time.

You will have to develop the ability to focus on what’s most important. Discipline is the only way to make that happen.

4. Develop a Basic Routine that Moves You in the Direction of Your Goals

Everything we’ve discussed so far is really moving us to this point. If you want to change anything about your life, you will have to change your habits. And that’s where discipline comes into the picture. Without it, nothing changes.

We’ve all heard the saying The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. That’s not a cute exaggeration. But it’s a saying we’ve heard so often that it’s easy to ignore. But don’t.

While we all like to think of life and success in terms of gigantic accomplishments, the reality is that such victories come from a series of very dedicated but very small steps. Put another way, you are what you do every day. To put an even finer point on it, you will become what you do every day.

That’s all about habits. Good ones will move you to a better place. Bad ones will keep you exactly where you are right now – if you’re lucky. They also have great potential to lead you into a deeper ditch. You have to be very deliberate about choosing which path you’ll be on.

Unfortunately, creating and adopting good habits is never easy. That’s where discipline comes into the picture. If you don’t have it, those good habits never get created. It’s all about adopting the right daily and weekly routine.

5. Condition Yourself to Get Busy

You have a good idea? Here’s a revelation: good ideas are a dime a dozen. The only ideas that have worth are the ones that are accompanied by action. It’s a daily struggle. Everyone has that problem, to one degree or another. Some people are just better at managing it.

As a self-employed, home-based blogger and freelance blog writer, I had to learn this discipline. Each day in my life is a blank canvas. Absent the rigors and requirements of a job and a boss, I have to self-motivate.

There’s no magic formula to this. What I’ve learned as a writer is that I have to sit down and get busy. What a revelation, right? But the simplest revelations are usually the most impactful. Each day, I have to discipline myself to sit down and write. It never changes.

Anyone who writes for a living, or makes their living in any creative capacity at all, is familiar with this dilemma. Whatever it is that you want to do, you have to develop the discipline to simply sit down and get to work. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it’s the only way forward.

6. Make it a Habit to Do What You Say You’ll Do

”But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” – Matthew 5:37

One of the biggest flaws in our culture right now is that people have become adept at saying a lot of things that sound good and noble. But what they do is usually something very different. In one of the biggest perversions of our time, people believe that their worth is defined by what they say. Nothing could be further from the truth. To say one thing, and either mean something else, or do something completely different, points to a lack of direction.

If you make a declaration that you’re going to do something, do it and don’t blab on about it all day.

If you’re not committed to doing something, don’t even bother declaring it.

One of the best ways to avoid over-committing yourself to something you probably won’t do is to develop the power to say NO. Too often, people merely infer that they’re going to do something that they have no intention of going through with. It sounds good and kind when uttered, but it creates hard feelings and distrust when the reality of the lack of commitment is revealed.

Leave the doubletalk to others. Become a person who does what you say.

7. Make Liberal Use of To-do Lists

This is another one of those simple strategies, but it’s powerful beyond belief. To simply say “I’m going to do this or that” is blowing hot air through your vocal cords. Whatever you need to do, commit it to writing. You can find resources online that will help you to create effective to-do lists .

Figure out what works best for you, and implement it. You should have daily, weekly, and monthly lists. They’ll serve as a guidepost as to what you need to do each day. It’s a way of creating an agenda that wouldn’t otherwise exist. As you complete each task, cross it off, and move on to the next one.

Once again, as a self-employed, home-based, freelancer, to-do lists are nothing less than fundamental to my occupational existence.

8. Procure the Ability to Focus on What’s MOST Important

As a follow up on the to-do list concept, you need to prioritize your projects. That means giving absolute priority to the projects that are most important. Those are usually the ones that will bring in the biggest slice of your income.

To do this, you’ll have to learn and master the power of focus. That’s not easy to do in a world that’s dripping with distractions. This is another example of why discipline is so very important, and why there’s absolutely no substitute for it.

Prioritizing isn’t a talent or skill, and it’s certainly not a credential. It’s a mechanical skill that comes about through applied discipline. At a minimum, it should enable you to complete the most important tasks each day. Whatever isn’t finished, can be rolled over into tomorrow. And you’ll still be moving forward, even if you didn’t complete every task on your list.

9. Train Yourself to “Do the Dreaded Deed First”

Never run away from a task or a goal because it’s hard. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Yet it’s practically human nature to save the most difficult tasks until later. Then later often become so late, that we push that task out even further. I suspect that there’s a subtle hope that if we push it out far enough, it’ll somehow go away. That may be true, but if it does, it may remove an important opportunity from your life.

If the task is sufficiently important that you’re dreading it, then it’s even more important that you complete it. Two things will happen if you get into this habit:

  1. You’ll feel a sense of relief at the completed difficult task, and that will energize you to virtually blow through everything else that you need to do, and
  2. You’ll empower yourself to face the next difficult task with greater confidence.

This one will really take discipline. But the only way that you’re going to accomplish anything meaningful will be to clear those high hurdles, and to do it on a regular basis. You’ll never do that by running away from them. Charge forward and tear the obstacles apart instead. You’ll like yourself better after the fact.

Disclaimer: I still struggle with this one. I’m better at it some days than others. But I take comfort in that I’m a lot better than I used to be. Small steps, remember?

10. Do It Now

Whatever direction you’re contemplating going in, do it now. Like today. At least do something today that moves you in that direction. Delay is another word for someday, which is another word for never. That’s a path to nowhere.

This gets back to talking, and not doing. Talking about what you will do is an opiate that only lasts a day or two. The only thing that will truly satisfy the desire or the need is to actually take a step in the direction of the goal.

Wherever you want to go, whatever you want to do, whoever you want to become, do it now.

Most of us have been conditioned to be cautious and hesitant. That’s exactly why this one will take serious discipline to implement. It starts by taking a series of steps now, and then developing action into a habit.

That doesn’t mean charging into the darkness. You should carefully evaluate what it is you want to do. But if you decide you want to do it, then do it.

Become a doer not a talker. The world has too many of the latter and not enough of the former. You can standout just by becoming a doer.

If you’re one of the unfortunate souls who has grown up in the world without discipline of the past 30 years or so, you can change that. You can adopt self-discipline. And you must if you want to do anything meaningful with your life. Discipline is more important than talent, skills and credentials. No one’s going to tell you that, so you have to figure it out on your own.

( Photo by Nick Turner – A Blue Million Miles )

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