“You won, said my boss. Well done!”
He handed me a certificate for a countrywide physiotherapy examination in which I’d achieved the best mark, along with a prize.
I was overjoyed and not a little surprised.
You see, it was only a few years before that I’d almost flunked my course.
Picking up my first year results, I knew enough to worry.
My worst fears were confirmed in a report card outlining failures on crucial components of my training, including a four-week hospital work placement.
After meeting with my tutors, I was told, rather unceremoniously, that maybe I wasn’t cut out for the academic rigours of the degree.
Although it was easy to assign blame, I knew I needed to take responsibility.
The last year had been hedonistic, as I enjoyed my new-found freedom, making friends and partying while generally neglecting the reason I went to university.
Against the advice of my tutors, however, I elected to retake my failed modules, remaining at university over the holidays to catch up.
If anything, the tutors’ doubts concerning my abilities only made me more determined to prove them wrong…
The importance of discipline
During that summer I was a machine, hitting the books like a demon.
Living alone in my student accommodation, while my friends were away on fun holidays, there were zero distractions.
I attended the gym daily and improved my diet, losing the excess weight I’d gained from an unhealthy lifestyle.
I was in full monk-mode, fuelled by a desire to show my true capabilities.
My transformation from failed student to prize-winning graduate was no accident.
You see before that I’d been completely unstructured in my approach, led astray by my emotions and short term desires, much to my detriment.
Getting drunk, eating crap and over-socialising isn’t the best formula for high performance. Who would have thought?!
Removing these external influences and honing in on the essentials was essential, allowing me not only to restore confidence in my abilities, but also uncover a vital lesson about the power of discipline.
As Jocko Willink says,
“Discipline = Freedom”
What discipline means to me
Even after this experience, there are times I slip back into warm embrace of laziness, with annoyingly predictable results. But now I always know how to get back on track:
1. Have a clear goal
It’s hard to be disciplined if you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Rather than creating an outcome-driven target like earning a million dollars, make your aim more character and identity-driven.
For example, I’m working on viewing myself as a writer, rather than obsessing over a distant external goal like becoming a bestselling author.
This puts the task firmly back in my locus of control as I can focus on the process instead of some arbitrary outcome.
In my case that involves writing for at least one hour every day, a daily action which re-inforces my desired self-image.
The same principle applies across any discipline.
If you want to lose weight, start viewing yourself as a healthy person, who possesses the discipline to exercise regularly.
3. Do things even when you don’t want to do them
This is key.
So often we’re manipulated by short term desires and dopamine hits.
Society is constructed to cater to our emotional whims and immediate drives.
We seldom feel in the mood to invest in our long term health, wealth and happiness with productive habits and behaviours, especially when those actions are new or difficult.
Running in the rain might not be fun, but it strengthens your identity as an exerciser, who steps up whatever the weather.
String enough of these mini character examinations together and while other people choose the easy option, you gain internal credibility.
It means that even when you’re having an off day, you’re still able to put in another rep, making a modicum of progress, however small.
These mini-advancements aren’t glamourous, but it’s the grind of putting in the dirty work which eventually generates tangible results.
I remember reading somewhere that high performance is all about dealing with boredom.
You see, success always takes longer than we imagine.
While infomercials sell the dream of overnight success, in reality, it doesn’t exist.
Any worthwhile achievement takes years of persistence and patient practice, a journey which many abandon preemptively, before searching for the next shiny object promising the path the riches.
Discipline is about repeating your core activities and non-negotiables ad-infinitum, powering though psychic monotony and physical fatigue.
Although you won’t experience linear growth, compound interest eventually kicks in, yielding observable improvements.
Reflecting on my terrible first-year physiotherapy performance, I’m glad I experienced the setback.
It taught me that there’s no use casting blame or playing the victim.
Any success in life, personal or professional, requires discipline.
Since learning this hard way and course correcting, I subsequently enjoyed working in professional sport and living abroad in places like Vietnam and China.
So start examining where you’re defaulting to easy options and the potential opportunities you’re missing.
Then get to work.