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Discipline is Destiny - Ryan Holiday

Highlights from the book Discipline is Destiny by Ryan Holiday. My own translations have been embedded into the Miki

Book Highlights

“Virtue” can seem old-fashioned. Yet virtue—arete—translates to something very simple and very timeless: Excellence. Moral. Physical. Mental.

In the ancient world, virtue was comprised of four key components. Courage. Temperance. Justice. Wisdom.

Aristotle described virtue as a kind of craft, something to pursue just as one pursues the mastery of any profession or skill. “We become builders by building and we become harpists by playing the harp,” he wrote. “Similarly, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.” Virtue is something we do.

Not once, for Hercules’s crossroads was not a singular event. It’s a daily challenge, one we face not once but constantly, repeatedly. Will we be selfish or selfless? Brave or afraid? Strong or weak? Wise or stupid? Will we cultivate a good habit or a bad one? Courage or cowardice? The bliss of ignorance or the challenge of a new idea?

Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself. Publilius Syrus

Freedom, as Eisenhower famously said, is actually only the “opportunity for self-discipline.”

Temperance is not deprivation but command of oneself physically, mentally, spiritually—demanding the best of oneself, even when no one is looking, even when allowed less. It takes courage to live this way—not just because it’s hard, but because it sets you apart.

When you love the work, you don’t cheat it or the demands it asks of you.

Still, there must have been so many days when he wasn’t feeling it. When he wanted to quit. When he doubted himself. When it felt like he could barely move. When he was frustrated and tired of his own high standards. Gehrig was not superhuman—he had the same voice in his head that all of us do. He just cultivated the strength—made a habit—of not listening to it. Because once you start compromising, well, now you’re compromised . . . > Lou Gherig owned the baseball record for most games played in a row. He played through sickness, injury, and aging. He showed up and performed at a high enough level to keep his professional baseball job for 17 seasons and 2,130 games, until an uncurable disease stopped him. > He was human like us all, but he would not accept less than the best of himself, he would not compromise for any reason. Self-compromise is a slippery slope, and once you start accepting compromise, it’s easier to do it again next time, and then you can’t stop…

The obligation of a champion is to act like a champion . . . while working as hard as somebody with something to prove.

He knew that getting comfortable was the enemy, and that success is an endless series of invitations to get comfortable. It’s easy to be disciplined when you have nothing. What about when you have everything? What about when you’re so talented that you can get away with not giving everything?

Swim. Lift weights. Train in jujitsu. Take long walks. You can choose the means, but the method is a must: You must be active. Get your daily win. Treat the body rigorously, as Seneca tells us, so that it may not be disobedient to the mind. Because as you’re building muscle, you’re also building willpower. More important, you’re building this willpower and strength while most people are not.

At the core of this idea of self-mastery is an instinctive reaction against anything that masters us. Who can be free when they have lost, as one addiction specialist put it, “the freedom to abstain”?

Maybe with time you can go back to recreational usage—of whatever it is—yet even to do that, you’re first going to have to quit the habituation. It’s not the sex or the likes or the drink. It’s the need. And it’s this need that is the source of suffering.

Whatever the bad habit is, whatever seems to be ruling your life—socially acceptable or not—you have to quit. Whether it’s cold turkey or with help, you’ve got to get off the stuff—whatever it is.

“The more a man is,” the editor Maxwell Perkins had inscribed on his mantel, “the less he wants.” When you strip away the unnecessary and the excessive, what’s left is you.

The less you desire, the richer you are, the freer you are, the more powerful you are.

The general ensures troop discipline by keeping their own quarters spartan and spotless.

Edison lived in his laboratory and never missed a day—like Gehrig, even when he was sick, when he was tired, or when visited by tragedy or disaster.

No strategy will succeed—however brilliant—if it ignores logistics.

Whether you’re a carpenter or an athlete, an investor or an infantry officer, greatness is in the details. Details require self-discipline. Even if nobody else notices . . . or cares.

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,” it begins. And then because of the shoe, the horse was lost and because of the horse, the rider and because of the rider, the message and because of the message the battle and because of the battle, the kingdom. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.

They like to say in the military that slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Do it right and it goes quickly. Try to go too quickly and it won’t go right.

Always and forever, the reward is the work. It is a joy itself. It is torture and also heaven—sweaty, wonderful salvation. And that’s how you manage to do prodigious amounts of it—not grudgingly, but lovingly.[*]

Success breeds softness. It also breeds fear: We become addicted to our creature comforts. And then we become afraid of losing them. Seneca was no Cato day to day, but he knew from his practice, that he could be if he had to.

The fact of the matter is that someday, life will have serious discomfort in store for us. Are we going to dread that? Or just be ready?

In the Persian Gulf in the 1990s, future four star admiral James Stavridis had just been given command of a ship for the first time.

“Watching our physical health,” he would write later, specifically referring to sleep, “is an act of character and can enormously help with our ability to perform.”

Imagine how much more brilliant Hemingway’s mornings could have been, were they not so frequently hungover ones.

We say “I’m not a morning person,” but that is almost certainly because we have been an irresponsible or undisciplined evening person. The best way to master the morning is to have mastered it the night before.

Ernest Shackleton’s arctic expedition

How did he not only survive but emerge unbroken, undaunted, from this experience? His family motto tells us: Fortitudine vincimus. By endurance we conquer. Fittingly, this was the name of his ship as well: the Endurance.

In addiction circles, they use the acronym HALT—Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired—as a helpful warning rubric for the signs and triggers for a relapse. We have to be careful, we have to be in control, or we risk losing it all.

The idea that you don’t get to do everything you want, that some things are nonnegotiable, that the flip side of privilege is duty, and that power must be complemented by restraint—not everyone gets that.

A leader can’t make decisions on impulse. They must lead from somewhere more rational, more controlled than that. That’s not to say they won’t ever be tempted, that they won’t have impulses. It’s that they are disciplined enough not to act on them. Not until they’ve been put up to the test, put under or in front of the light.

Everything we say yes to means saying no to something else. No one can be two places at once. No one can give all their focus to more than one thing. But the power of this reality can also work for you: Every no can also be a yes, a yes to what really matters. To rebuff one opportunity means to cultivate another.

It feels like you’re free because you’re choosing, but if the answer is always yes, that’s not much of a choice.

Doing the work? The work is getting through life sober. Go on a trip? Go to therapy! Struggle with it. Heal a little bit each day, get a little better each day.

Temperance, C. S. Lewis reminds us, is about “going to the right length and no further.”

Musonius Rufus reminds us, that “by the standard of pleasure, nothing is more pleasant than self-control and . . . nothing is more painful than lack of self-control.”

Seek yourself, not distraction. Be happy, not hedonistic. Let the mind rule, not the body. Conquer pleasure, make yourself superior to pain.

Remember always: As wrong as they are, as annoying as it is, it takes two for a real conflict to happen. As the Stoics said, when we are offended, when we fight, we are complicit. We have chosen to engage. We have traded self-control for self-indulgence. We’ve allowed our cooler head to turn hot—even though we know hot heads rarely make good decisions.

They want you to get upset. Because if you’re going to stop and reply to every attack, as Lincoln said, you might as well admit defeat right now. You’ll never get anything done. You’ll certainly never be happy. And they’ll have won.

Someone else’s lack of self-control is not a justification for abandoning our own.

Nearly every regret, every mistake, every embarrassing moment—whether it be personal or professional or historical—have one thing in common: Somebody lost control of their emotions. Somebody got carried away. Somebody was scared, or defensive. Somebody wasn’t thinking beyond the next few seconds.

When you see someone about to give themselves over to a fit of passion, see if you can’t help them redirect that energy.

Robert Greene puts it perfectly: “Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less.”

Better to be thought foolish or simple than to make a fool of yourself—to prove that you don’t actually have anything to say. Regret what you didn’t say, not the other way around.

When you talk, it should matter. When you say something, it should mean something.

Let them wish you talked more. Let them wonder what you’re thinking. Let the words you speak carry extra weight precisely because they are rare.

What do we need? The truth: not much! Some food and water. Work that we can challenge ourselves with. A calm mind in the midst of adversity. Sleep. A solid routine. A cause we are committed to. Something we’re getting better at. Everything else is extra.

When your choices turn you into someone who has to worry about money, then you are not rich . . . no matter how much you make.

“Fuck-you money” is a chimera. You never get it. Nobody does. Poor people have poor-people problems and rich people have rich-people problems because people always have problems. You’re always going to be subject to the necessity of self-discipline. Or at least, you’ll never be immune from the consequence of ignoring it.

Will you choose to take this journey? Will you continue on even when you’ve reached further than you ever thought you could go? Or will you stop there? Are you going to keep practicing? Or have you decided that this is good enough? That you’re good enough? Will you remain as you are? Or become what you’re capable of? Because once you stop getting better, there’s only one direction to go .

Plutarch reminded leaders that they were unlikely to warrant much in the way of worship from their subjects if they were too often seen around the fire, munching on beans. He was talking about the kind of distance and reserve that Queen Elizabeth and Angela Merkel and George Washington all practiced.

Boundaries are about drawing some lines around yourself—healthy borders between what you’ll share and what you won’t, what you’ll accept and what you won’t, how you treat others and how you expect to be treated, what is your responsibility and what isn’t.

“Your best is good enough.” Not perfect. Your best. Leave the rest to the scoreboard, to the judges, to the gods, to fate, to the critics.

If we fall into excess, if we lapse on our standards, what then? If we are careless and lazy, sloppy and weak, if we stop attending to our improvement, the great Epictetus tells us we will stop making progress and we will live and die as ordinary, disappointing people.

“Even if you attain the wisdom of Cleanthes or Zeno,” one of his tutors wrote to him, “yet against your will you must put on the purple cloak, not the philosopher’s woolen cape.”

And Antoninus was a hero. He earned that worship, not in one brave moment on the battlefield, but through the extraordinary, ordinary discipline he demanded of himself day to day. Marcus, observing, witnessed it and was inspired by it, and committed his life to it.

“I am prepared to forgive everybody’s mistakes,” Cato the Elder said, “except my own.” Ben Franklin, many generations later, would put forth an even better rule: “Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices.” Or as Marcus Aurelius put it, Tolerant with others, strict with yourself.

Why can’t they get such simple things right? Why can’t they just do it like we showed them the first time? Why can’t they just be like us? Because they are not us! And even if they were, is it fair to expect something of them that they never signed up for?

This is the higher plane: When our self-discipline can be complemented by compassion, by kindness, understanding, love.

As it is written in the Bhagavad Gita, “The path that a great man follows becomes a guide to the world.”

“The nearer a man is to a calm mind,” he wrote of such moments of crisis, “the closer he is to strength.” A real man doesn’t give way to rage or panic, he reminded himself, willing himself to be like Antoninus. “Such a person has strength, courage and endurance,” he would say, “unlike the angry and complaining.”

Being a “leader” is something you earn. You get elevated to that plane by your self-discipline. By moments of sacrifice like this, when you take the hit or the responsibility on behalf of someone else.

We have to show, not tell: first in line for danger, last in line for rewards. First in line for duty, last in line for recognition. To lead, you have to bleed. Figuratively speaking. But sometimes also literally.

You don’t win everything, every time—not in war, in life, or in business. A person who doesn’t know how to disengage, to cut their losses, or to extricate themselves is a vulnerable person. A person who does not know how to lose will still lose . . . only more painfully so.

Self-discipline has never been about punishment or deprivation. It is about becoming the best, the best that you are capable of becoming.

Such is the paradox of success. Precisely when we think we’ve earned the right to relax our discipline is exactly when we need it most. The payoff for all our efforts? So much more temptation. So many more distractions. So many more opportunities. The only solution? Even more self-mastery!

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, almost certainly in the depths of some personal crisis of faith, reminds himself to “Love the discipline you know, and let it support you.”

Self-discipline is pointless without courage, and, of course, the defining characteristic of courage is self-discipline—steeling yourself for what must be done.

If I get to the office at eight thirty, I could be done writing by eleven. Just a couple hours is all it takes. Just a couple crappy pages a day, as one old writing rule puts it.

The discipline of writing is about showing up.

Aware of my tendency to do things compulsively, I don’t drink or smoke or take recreational drugs of any kind.

If books came naturally, without effort? Everyone would write them.

And for [books], you can plug in whatever it is that you do. It’s good that it’s hard. It’s good that it can be discouraging. It’s good that it breaks your heart, kicks your ass, messes with your head. But it can also be done with balance, with sustainability, and, most of all, with temperance.