When I was in middle school, I first started to learn the violin. I had been previously playing the piano for a few years before and my parents decided I should stop, as I wasn’t putting in enough practice time. So, it was a complete surprise to me when, one day, my dad mentioned that he was taking me to violin lessons in the afternoon. No one had asked me if I wanted to learn.
This began a tiresome journey in which I dutifully drew the violin bow back and forth, with my delicate fingers pressing on and off the tough steel violin strings, each and every day, until the end of highschool. Not everyone would describe their experience of learning to create beautiful vibrant music that can touch the soul as a tiresome duty, but for me that’s how I felt. I had not been given the choice to start, and although I consistently expressed my desire to quit, my parents would not allow me to stop. Their justification was simple: (1) it’d look good on college applications being part of a youth orchestra (which I did later join) and (2) the act of persevering was training my self-discipline.
I can’t say I agree with my parent’s methods, but as I look back today, I feel that they instinctively knew that the latter goal of self-discipline was crucial to be successful in life. They had survived the Cultural Revolution in China, where all young teens were sent to the country-side and forced into back-breaking labor 10-12 hours a day with barely any food to eat, and later when reaching adulthood would simply be callously assigned to a life-long job – possibly physically exhausting and with poor pay – by the government. The only escape was through education by scoring high marks on the college wide entrance exams (when schools were later reinstated), and to achieve that goal, would literally require burning the midnight oil studying after a long day of hard labor. Graduating from college meant easier and better paying white-collar jobs, and for a select few, the remote possibility to even go to America – the land of opportunity – to study. Thus to survive, self-discipline was a requirement.
My youth was not so stark in contrast. I did have my own struggles and challenges, but I never had to worry about not having enough food to eat (I was figuring out how to avoid eating certain vegetables), and I didn’t have to worry about being assigned to be a coal miner for life if I didn’t get good grades in school (at most, I’d be yelled at and grounded). Simply put, I was luckier; my parents had already made that sacrifice for me. I only kept playing violin because my parents instructed me to do so, and not because my life depended on it. And because of that difference, I don’t think I truly understood the why behind self-discipline, let alone what it really meant. For me, it was just about gritting your teeth and doing something you have to do that you don’t like, and in life, unfortunately, every once in a while you have to face one of those situations where only “self-discipline”, or rather coerced-discipline, can push you through. Developing that skill was very useful, but if I had the choice, which I would have more and more as I got older, I could always choose to avoid the difficult task by going on a different path…
Recently I’ve been asking myself, “Why is it so difficult to achieve certain goals that I set for myself?” It wasn’t like I haven’t pushed myself before, like during in my violin training, and I was clearly trained to have some self-discipline, as my parents had sought to teach me this important skill when I was younger. Yet, this is probably the 10th New Year’s Resolution of wanting to get back into shape and become more healthy, and by the end of the year I’m always made little to no progress! Sometimes I would be more meticulous and lay out a grand detailed plan after doing quite a bit of research – even with daily food meals or pre-designed sets of exercises – but still, without fail, I failed to reach my health goals. What was I missing?
What I believe I was missing was true self-discipline. True self-discipline, rather than coerced-discipline, can be best explained using an example stemming from this quote: ‘if you want success, figure out the price, then pay it’. Everyone knows what success looks like – whether that means owning a luxurious mansion, having a rock hard toned body, or being a well-renowned CEO of a world-wide influential company – but we don’t look hard enough at the price we need to pay to achieve that success. When I was drawing up my plans to get healthier, my research helped me understand the science behind my plan, and my imagination helped me envision the physical specimen I wanted to be, but I did not intensely focus on the difficult path of day-in and day-out hard work and persistence to achieve my goals. What ultimately ended up happening was I would get stuck at a difficult pain point, where it was too uncomfortable to continue, or other times, my mind would find an excuse to not workout like I was too tired from work; and eventually, I’d stop doing anything at all and then I’d block out that I originally had set a fitness goal in the first place. It was much easier and more comfortable to lay on the couch and watch TV, than it was to put in the hard work to pay that bill. The version of self-discipline that I knew only occurred when someone else forced me to keep paying the price because I had to, but I didn’t have the self-discipline to choose, by myself, to consistently pay the dues required for what I wanted to achieve when it became too difficult.
True self-discipline isn’t magically granted to anyone who wishes, but it takes deliberate practice to improve. Success is not easy, otherwise everyone would have it! I was listening to Joe Rogan’s podcast on YouTube and I stumbled across the amazing story of David Goggins, who exemplified seeking to improve his self-discipline and mental will. This man used to be ~300 pounds and had a dead-beat job as a cockroach pest killer, and today is a Navy SEAL and one of the best ultra-endurance athletes in the world, having run over 200 miles in a 48-hour period nonstop, and having set the world record for pull-ups by completing 4,025 pull-ups in 17 hours. Not only are the physical feats mind-boggling, but there were multiple instances where he describes the agonizing physical pain that he pushed through to complete his goals that was unbelievable and awe-inspiring. His motto is to actively seek to be uncomfortable, because those moments are when we discover ourselves and grow. He believes our potential is limitless, but our mind limits our imagination of what’s possible because we too often languish in the mediocrity that comfort inspires.
To achieve my goals, I am going to have to accept that all success comes with a price, and that price is what I need to seek to pay, and then success will follow. I need to develop the ability to carry through the first tastes of discomfort, when my mind instantly grabs on to any reason why I can’t do it and how much better it would feel to stop, through to the hardest moments of intense pain, when I mentally scream to quit, because only then can I surpass the limits that my mind has habitually set for myself. The constant practice of putting myself in that uncomfortable position and choosing to push forward, like any muscle, will cause my self-discipline to get stronger and stronger. And with each step, my self-discipline will be able to help carry me through more and more difficult obstacles to achieve any success that I dare dream. This deliberate practice of seeking the uncomfortable is the key to growth.
And so, I’ve started a simple routine of waking up early in the morning before work, and running 3 miles non-stop, then pushing myself more from there. My primary focus isn’t the mileage or even the improved physical health, but instead is to seek out that point of maximum pain and desire to quit, to marinate in that feeling, and then to move forward and take as many steps as I need to finish those 3 miles without stopping. I do not regularly run and I absolutely detest waking up early, so it has been hard already. I can tell you now, after a few tries, my mind loves to find excuses to quit. My mind will tell me that my shoelaces don’t look tied tightly enough, or my lower back injury from years ago is acting up and I shouldn’t push too hard, or that I should stop at the end of mile 2 and walk a bit because my body is too tired in the morning. It’ll jump from a convenient excuse, to a logical compromise, to a tantrum, and back again just to get me to stop. I used to always listen and stop, but now I tell myself that I can’t and I won’t. Each time I say no, I make myself that one little choice better. By consistently seeking out that discomfort and making that choice to persevere every time, I know the improvements in my self-discipline will compound, and I will build the confidence in myself to achieve any goal I set my mind to because I know that I am willing and capable to pay any price that’s needed to achieve success.