Are you a creature of habit?
There’s this motivational book written by Charles Duhigg called, ‘The Power of Habit’ and it contains interesting data and anecdotes about people and their habits. I found the concept of having keystone habits – that singular must-have habit that makes all our other good habits (and hence, our life) fall into place – to be quite useful. I observed that whenever I was able to read a book early in the morning, the rest of the day I felt I had already accomplished something of value despite not doing that much yet. But we’ll talk about the fallacy caused by the keystone habit concept on another article.
On this article, I’d like to share personal stories of my most disciplined self. I’m not a very disciplined person – most of the time, when I’m trying to develop a good habit, my compliance starts falling off a cliff once I no longer see significant results. And that’s not great. What would happen to Taylor Swift if she stopped writing songs regularly? Would we even taste of the 10-minute version of All Too Well if she happened to betray her own discipline towards being an artist? Perhaps not.
But I’m not too mad at myself for failing to have the required discipline sometimes. I remember being so hard on myself, especially when I was still a student, when I wasn’t able to read something ‘important’ on a given day – that I had spent the day with an idle mind, no intellectual progress achieved. Nowadays though, I realize that we don’t have to force ourselves to be awesome every single day. The stress is just too much. The self-inflicted pressure to perform becomes unnecessary. I recently wrote on one of my articles about discipline, that “You can wait on inspiration all you want, but discipline is what will really help you get through days where you simply don’t have it.” And I truly believe this. As a result, I felt it would be logical for me to share five stories of discipline I wish I could recall every day. See below for more.
1. When I failed Trigonometry… and when it almost happened again in Differential Equations
Engineering school is set up in such a way where they weed out students who are not so good at Math in the early years. I almost got weeded out, myself. This is not to rip any of my old instructors, but it’s safe to say that some teachers cared more about their job than others. There were teachers who were likeable – they were the ones who explained the course in a nutshell on the first day, probably handed out a syllabus, and gave enough time to prepare for quizzes. Also, they were the ones who actually knew how to explain their lesson, instead of those who just wrote down a problem on the whiteboard and waited half an hour for any of us to take a crack at it, before writing down the correct solution. On every year level, there were at least one or two of the latter kind of professor.
I failed Trigonometry during the first semester of my freshman year, and the weeks leading up to my second semester, I had a mountain of self-doubt to climb and a voice inside my head saying, “you’ll never be an engineer.” That was when the juice started kicking in – I became so locked in that second semester that I’d spend several hours at night just studying Trigonometry. Most of my classmates in the first semester were already off on their next level of Maths, and I became more of an outsider – stuck inside irregular student limbo. These circumstances only fueled me more – I wanted to prove that I still belonged in Engineering school. And the biggest key for me was turning my self-doubt into self-evaluation. Where do I lack? Why is this type of problem difficult to solve for me? What am I missing?
A good look in the mirror was needed, sugarcoating was a forgotten concept.
Going through my failure in Trigonometry only helped me get through Differential Equations, arguably the hardest subject in Engineering school. I failed the first two quizzes horribly – barely notching 10% in either. Trigonometry almost happened again during Differential Equations, but this time, I already had an idea of the amount of discipline it took. Discipline got me through it, and eventually led to my degree.
2. The daily runs to lose a quarter of my body weight
Starting a daily running routine takes commitment. Looking back on my old running routine, it wasn’t so much the internal challenges that adversely affected my sticking to a regular schedule – but it was the environment. There had to be no rain pouring down, there had to be not too many people on the basketball court (because the pickup games distracted me) and the ambient temperature had to be just right.
Or maybe I was just making an excuse for myself not to get up at 5 in the morning?
I was quite successful at doing so, when I was 15 and when it was summer. I had the BMI of 28 or 29, I ate more snacks than there were actual full meals in a day, and I hardly got off the couch. One summer day, I decided that it was time to put a stop to this notion that I was just the fat kid. I didn’t want to be put in that box anymore. Like in Trigonometry, there was a tipping point where inspiration happens, and discipline just takes over from there. I needed to make sure I made 10 laps of the park a day – this was the contract I made with myself that summer. And if I achieved that, I knew I’d be closer to my goal of being just a kid with no more adjective describing my size.
Ten laps, six days a week – sometimes no breakfast, hardly a bite at dinner, one snack a day – this happened for two months. I’d lost over 30 pounds that summer, which was roughly a quarter of my body weight. Some days, I didn’t have the motivation. But the contract I made to myself kept reminding me – and if I’d break it, would I even bother making future self-contracts anymore? There were sleepy days, there were days I should have rested my wobbly knees, but discipline won over them all.
3. Three hours of guitar practice a day
This was a very important lesson to me, because it taught me that not all forms of discipline work out for the best. Three hours of guitar practice a day sounds a lot, but it’s not. There are pre-teens who practice the violin for twice as many hours – and not all of them turn out great. Some never become professional musicians, while some don’t even play the violin anymore.
What am I trying to say here?
The message here is, it doesn’t matter how many disciplined hours of practice you put it in – if your approach, your purpose, your foundation, are all out of whack – then you will never go far. My self-teaching of the guitar was an illustration of the need for a good teacher, a coach. Someone who could give me constant feedback and who wasn’t afraid to point out my weaknesses. Just because you put in 10,000 hours (as Malcolm Gladwell would suggest you do), doesn’t mean you will get the results you want. You might think because self-taught legends – Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Frusciante, etc. – never needed a coach, and so the same rule should apply to you. But superstars are rare. You need to come to terms with the fact that you might not be one of the rare ones. It’s far easier to accept the fact that you are ordinary – that way, you will seek the guidance and help of others in order to actually improve.
And hey, the 10,000-hour rule? That was just a convenient rounded-off number. Check out the masterwork by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool called “Peak” where the authors debunk the 10,000-hour myth. But the subject of deliberate practice should be left for another article, at another time – let’s get to my last two personal examples.
4. Manually updating the team rosters of an outdated video game
Why bother playing an outdated video game with horrible graphics and third-rate gameplay?
Because I want to, and it gives me nostalgia. I’m not alone in playing old video games – retro gaming is a thing, and console emulators exist for a reason. But as for the old basketball video game, NBA Live 06, no emulator is needed as an executable file exists somewhere on the Internet which has allowed me to play the game since its creation 16 years ago.
Upon installation, the game’s characters are outdated – more than half of the players of each NBA team is retired. And what do I do in order to keep my gaming relevant? I change up the characters of the game, I format each team in such a way that the players become the players of today. And this process is more painstaking than it sounds. First, I look up the current NBA rosters. Next, I use a bunch of tools on the fan website which enables me to modify the database files. And then, I manually change the contents of those spreadsheets so as to reflect the current information on the rosters. I do this for 12-15 players on each of the 30 NBA teams. One team takes me 1-2 hours to complete, to update the characters into today’s players. And all, so I can play a game that’s ‘relevant’ or as close to life as possible.
Is this discipline? Or just being stubborn? I could just play a more current version of the game if I wanted to.
5. Writing my novel ‘Green Light,’ a Great Gatsby knock-off
I didn’t know I had what it took to write a full-length novel and put it out in the world. One day, I made an assumption that all types of story plots must already exist – due to an endless supply of novels, TV shows, and films that have already been produced – and there was no point creating a new plot from scratch. That’s when I decided that I was going to write a story that followed almost exactly the same plotline as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby, heralded by many as the greatest American novel to have ever existed. With such a good plot already in place, could I possibly go wrong?
I wrote Green Light in a little over a month, promising to myself that I’d write one chapter a day, which was 2,500 – 3,500 words. I took my time, but I had to schedule these blocks of time since I had a full-time job to attend to. There were days that were absolutely a revelation to me – I could finish two chapters in a breeze, and I got deep into my characters. But there were definitely days where I was devoid of any ideas.
Yes, Green Light is a complete Great Gatsby knockoff – and I’m not afraid to admit that. What it is to me, one year later, is a remnant of a time where I showed discipline despite knowing that I wasn’t going to produce something that held real value in the world. It was more of a test of discipline to myself, whether I was willing to subject myself to a regular schedule of putting words into imaginary pieces of paper on a screen, wondering if other people would even bother taking the time to read them.
In conclusion: not all forms of discipline work out for the best
You may be surprised to realize that this article did not exactly unfold as you had expected it to. Did you hope to find stories where I hustled for eight days a week, hardly getting any sleep, until I accomplished something of value? Sorry to keep your hopes up.
The stories of discipline I’ve shared here are reminders that discipline won’t always just do the trick. There are several factors affecting your success, and sometimes, it’s just not about you. You need the help of other people to succeed. You need to be lucky, sometimes. But most importantly – you need to take a calculated risk. Hard work will sometimes not pay off, and in those cases, you just have to live with the outcome and move on.