It’s both a gift and a curse that I possess an innate ability to be interested in a multitude of things in life. It’s both amazing, that I can entertain myself with the smallest ounce of curiosity, yet it’s also a burden - stealing my concentration and requiring constant self-discipline to stay focused. I am thankful though that I have an affection for so many things in life. The majority of my passions involve movement and physicality, be it; dance, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, climbing or riding some kind of board on concrete, water or snow. As well as physical skills, I’m interested in many intellectual pursuits such as reading, writing, studying and language learning. I also create artistic work in a range of mediums (dance, music, text). I really dislike not knowing how to do something, which in turn pushes me to constantly try and practise new skills. This includes doing my young daughters’ hair each day. I have no real passion for hair per se, but I truly hate the thought of her walking into school looking like a bird’s nest because her dad doesn’t know how to arrange her hair nicely. Because of this, I’m constantly busy with something. Saying ‘I’m bored’ isn’t something I often do, as the comedian Louis CK refutes it – “You live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever inwardly…so you don’t get to say I’m bored.”(1)
The unfortunate downside to all those interests is that it’s a double-edged sword. I have become a ‘jack of all trades’ and regrettably the proverbial – ‘master of none’. My mind is too easily swayed by the constant need for novelty, making it difficult to stay focused on one element long enough to make notable progress. While my enthusiasm rises for my current craft, a new seed emerges in my mind, slowly developing and morphing into a shepherd’s crook, drawing me towards the new skill. At times, I feel a tremendous jealousy towards those around me who have a sole purpose. A singular passion that gets them up each morning and keeps their spirit occupied throughout the day.
Clearly, if I was to focus my time and attention on one aspect of life, I would progress much faster. My full attention and 100% of my energy would go into developing, improving, refining and mastering my craft. Spread across multiple disciplines, my attention rotates on an almost seasonal cycle, devoting a percentage of my time to each, shifting to the next, and eventually returning once again a few months later. Enthusiastically buying up all the equipment needed and diving into researching the best techniques for improving. After a while, the tipping point is reached as my interest in ‘the next thing’ outweighs my persistence in ‘the current one’, which is where my problem lies.
I’ve researched a fair bit about staying focused over the last year or two. A lot of it comes down to two factors; realism and discipline. Being realistic in the sense that I have to understand that I am only human and have a very finite amount of time on my hands, so prioritizing what means most to me, allows me to focus my efforts. That can of course change, and most likely will shift over the length of a lifetime, but the key point, which Jordan Peterson introduced me to, is the necessity of being accurate in my thoughts and speech. Only in doing so, can I truly understand what it is I desire. Taking aim is a fitting analogy, as of course, if I were to have a bow but no target, where do I shoot? Do I even take a shot or am I simply launching arrows into nothingness? Defining a target gives me something to aim at. If I miss, I can simply try again. And this is where discipline steps in.
In order to achieve meaningful progress in any skill, to hit a target or goal, it takes a certain amount of repetition. There aren’t many things in life (possible nothing at all) that can be mastered the first time you do it. Anything of any degree of difficulty requires utilising experiential knowledge of your previous efforts in the past to better both your understanding and your chances of success in the future. Discipline is the route towards achieving that hard to reach goal and the difficulty of the task is proportional to the discipline needed to attain it. Which, in turn, also correlates to the amount of meaning that we can attribute to it. Any immensely difficult undertaking, winning an Olympic medal for example, can be attributed with a greater sense of meaning, as there is clearly an immense amount of discipline required in order to reach it. This is visible throughout history. No great achievements of merit are gifted to half-hearted figures.
The combination of precise aim and tenacious discipline can lead to great things. A simple cocktail that underlies one of the greatest scientific theories to ever be presented; Darwin’s theory of evolution. This may sound misleading, after all no species of animal (besides humans) is actively trying to evolve into something ‘better’. Evolution is counter-intuitively aimless (adaptations occur in all forms) and extremely wasteful (those with adaptations that didn’t help survival, die out and go extinct). Yet, if we view it from the perspectives of genes, they have a (metaphoric) ‘will to survive’. So, with this ‘aim’ and the unwavering ‘discipline’ of continual reproduction, we can trace an epic story of change from singular celled organisms to what we are today. This doesn’t happen instantaneously. It takes time, sometimes an unimaginable length of time. Yet, the fact that the person writing these words that you read now, is long descended from microscopic goop is proof that the right formula over time can lead to unfathomable heights.
Aim + Discipline x Time = Progress.
We can see this in our day-to-day lives also, perhaps even more so during this self-isolation period we’re living through. What are we waking up for each day? If you’re stuck at home during this period, for whatever reason, try and take the opportunity to rinse everything you can out of this moment. Keep active. Physically and mentally. If you’re a workaholic, then yes take a break and take advantage of the gifted time to relax. Be disciplined in your resting and enjoying rare family time without looking at those e-mails you feel you should get on. But in reality, most of us aren’t workaholics. Some people love what they do, some people hate what they do. Most people lay in between these extremes, but also, most people wish for better. So now is the opportunity to build the daily routine, and take the steps towards progress. Stay sharp. Stay focused. Stay on course. As the maxim goes – The disciplined martial artist dedicates themselves to train intensely in uncomfortable situations so that when an uncomfortable situation is forced onto them, they remain in familiar territory.
// Personally, I must tip my hat to both Professor Jordan B. Peterson and retired US Navy Seals commander, Jocko Willink. This post is inspired almost entirely by them. Two extraordinary intellectual contributors, coming from vastly different backgrounds and careers. Sharing their knowledge, experience and wisdom to the world, and in doing so giving a mental framework for people to aspire and improve their lives. In my eyes they both utilise their own philosophy in the ‘true’ sense that the author Ryan Holiday explains as – “an operating system for the difficulties and hardships of life.”(2) To philosophize is to ponder the best course of action in life, and these two individuals, among others, have greatly helped me steer my course. //
1) Louis, Season 2 -Episode 5
2) Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way. P 184