He who lives without discipline dies without honor

If we are to be the master of our destiny, we need self-discipline, self-control, willpower, or self-mastery. Although it’s known by many names, I’ll call it WILLPOWER in most of this article. We are born to rule or be ruled. If we do not rule ourselves, we will be ruled by our emotions, bad habits, or others. All the other creatures we share the planet with act as they were programmed to. Only man has the potential to act as he wills. Although we have that potential, many of us fail to live up to it. We can be heard to sigh, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

However, not everyone wants to improve. Some people say life is short, so they want to be free to do whatever they please, free to smoke pot, free to party every night, free to hang out until the wee hours of the morning, free to chase after sex. Did they say free? Since when is enslavement to bad habits freedom? How can you achieve freedom if you fail to follow your highest aspirations? Only if you conscientiously apply willpower can you reach your dreams. So, he who lives without discipline dies without honor. When we gain honor it remains with us forever, but when we chase after passing fancies, they fade away, leaving us diminished, leaving us less than what we could have been.

All right, so we agree willpower is necessary, but how do we strengthen it? It’s like a muscle: use it or lose it. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. Start with baby steps (for a hilarious example of self-improvement by taking baby steps, be sure to rent the video What About Bob with Bill Murray). During each day we make countless choices. We choose between doing the right thing or succumbing to temptation. We choose between the easy way and the better, but more difficult way. Be aware of your choices, and no matter how small the decision, do the right or better thing. Each time you do so, you strengthen your will.

You can also deliberately do what you’d rather not. For example, when I was about 12 years old, I discovered I didn’t like butter pecan ice-cream. So every time I had ice-cream, I purposely ordered that flavor, just to strengthen my will. Even silly, trifling actions, such as one’s choice of ice-cream can become an exercise in willpower. Practice doing the right, better, or hard thing every day and self-control will become habitual. Eventually, you’ll be using willpower without thinking about it. Today, baby steps, tomorrow, self-mastery!

Suppose I were to place a 15-foot long by 2-foot wide plank, 6 inches above the ground and offer you $500 to walk across it, would you do so? Sure, why not? You’d certainly have the willpower to do so. But what if the plank were at a construction site and ten stories high? Would you walk across it on a windless day for one million dollars? If not, what happened to your willpower? Well, it was overwhelmed by your imagination. You imagined that you may fall and get killed! If there is a conflict between imagination and willpower, imagination always wins. So, if you’re stuck, you’re going to have to change the images you imagine. In this case, tell a construction worker that if he teaches you how to walk the plank without fear, you’ll pay him $10,000. Do this and you both will have a lot of motivation and the will to succeed. So, if you do get stuck because of an overactive imagination, think things through and look for a solution.

Another hurdle for willpower to overcome is the extra effort that is needed when doing something unpleasant. This can be overcome by focusing on the long-term benefits instead of the short-term discomfort. For example, I love going to the airport. The reason for this is that I do not focus on driving in the rush hour, parking at Park-and-Fly, waiting in the check-in line, waiting for my flight, waiting to board, waiting to arrive, and waiting to get off. Instead, I focus on the pleasure and excitement that awaits me at my destination. Don’t you do the same when you are waiting in line at a concert, theatre, or amusement park ride? Instead of complaining, you’re probably cheerfully chatting with a friend as you look forward to the pleasure you will experience. Treat every unpleasant task the same way. Anticipate the future pleasure!

We know what is best for us. We know what we should do, but it’s not what we know, but what we DO that counts. “What a person wills,” writes Robert Lindner, “and not what they know determines their worth or unworth, power or impotence, happiness or unhappiness.” Well, now that we know a little more, let’s DO a little more; let’s DO what’s right, what’s better, and what’s more difficult!