I remember clearly the day I first saw someone play an acoustic guitar with finesse. As I listened, my soul was refreshed and awakened to a new desire. With all the dedication a six-year-old boy can muster, I resolved to play guitar well enough to move people. It pulled me in. There was no declaration of purpose based on my talent or willpower. I fell in love with the instrument. It hooked me. Over the following two decades, this love of music would teach me much about the place of hard work and talent.
The Easy Button
Talent is a gift. It is bestowed on us and sometimes discovered by accident. It is like the Staples Easy Button. I wish all life were as effortless as pushing a button, but an easy life produces laziness.
Long division was my nemesis. I could add or subtract two numbers, but these forever-long rows of numbers and decimal points stymied me. I always buried one thoughtless mistake in a pile of brilliant calculations. It felt like a miracle when I made it to high school. Without a natural talent for math, there was no “Easy Button” to push. The only way out was to grind through the next day, then the next.
“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”
— Tim Notke
All my children seemed to learn without trying until they hit advanced topics in high school. Then we realized how few study skills they had acquired. Talent had been enough, but they needed to add hard work to their natural capacity for learning. Had they been given less raw academic talent, perhaps they would have hit a wall like I did with long division and developed the skills that would have helped them in their critical junior and senior years.
Without self-discipline, we will inevitably lose momentum when the grind of daily life wears us down. I am not a fan of the cult of grit. It seems to imply that the solution to any struggle we confront is the application of more willpower. But when we rely on willpower alone, we exhaust it quickly. Our energy is scarce, and we must do everything to find intrinsic rewards in our work. Use brute force to complete tasks only when necessary.
Self-discipline does not emerge overnight. We must practice good habits, define goals, and cultivate a strong mindset.
Set clear goals: Set clear goals: Lack of clarity defeats us from the outset. Our energy is dissipated without creating value because it lacks direction. With short-term and long-term goals broken into manageable steps, you have a roadmap to follow that will keep you productive.
Make a plan: A plan turns dreams into results. When you set a timeline and milestones, you will stay on track and measure your progress.
Rely on routines: Healthy routines and habits power daily progress toward your goals. Consistency builds self-discipline. By showing up on a schedule, you become focused and organized.
Prioritize tasks: Decide your next step in order of importance and urgency. Clear your urgent and inescapable responsibilities quickly, then focus on your most important tasks. Avoid procrastination by tackling challenging tasks when your willpower is at its peak.
Eliminate distractions: What interferes with your focus and productivity? If your phone and computer notifications intrude into your most valuable work, turn them off. If you are trying to work where others can interrupt you, consider creating a dedicated workspace and establishing clear boundaries.
Exercise self-control: We often trade tomorrow’s successes for immediate gratification. When you want to escape, remember the rewards that come with persistence. Resist temptations that don’t align with your goals.
Develop healthy habits: Without regular exercise, proper nutrition, and adequate sleep, no one can sustain the energy and willpower they need to succeed.
Stay motivated: Remember why you started. Seek out positive influences who can support you when you feel discouraged.
Track your progress: Keep an eye on your progress toward your goals. Celebrate small wins and adjust your plan as needed to stay on course.
Cultivate patience and resilience: Becoming a disciplined person takes time and persistence. Embrace setbacks as learning opportunities and keep working toward your goal.
Talent Plus Discipline
Each of us has a unique combination of innate gifts, experiences, and inclinations. Together, these factors produce talent. Use your “Easy Button” talents in concert with self-discipline to unleash a synergistic force.
I was fifteen when I first had access to an acoustic guitar. Though my fingers hurt and music theory was a mystery, the glistening strings, ebony fingerboard, and silver frets were irresistible. Soon I was practicing every hour after school, buying books about guitar chords and music theory, and learning to play every song I loved.
Some of my friends were also guitar players, but soon I advanced beyond most of them. The combination of my deep love for the instrument, natural talent, and at least four hours of daily practice paid off. I did not stick with that level of discipline long enough to pursue music professionally, but my progress was above average among my peers.
Combining natural talent and discipline produces outsized results.
Are You Over-Relying on Discipline?
If you feel exhausted and discouraged, don’t push yourself too hard. Work can leave us empty, but we can fill our lives by cultivating interests that fascinate and absorb us. Joy in one area of life leaks into the rest. Exercise creativity in the areas of life over which you have direct control.
You may discover that draining work can provide an intrinsic reward when you approach it with creativity. Even if you must continue to rely on discipline to provide for your necessities, your private life will become fuller, and you will discover new ways to impact the world for good.
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