The first time I recall thinking about the relationship between discipline and freedom was when learning scales as a primary school age piano student. The simple idea that the routine and disciplined monotony installed competency that couldn’t be fast-tracked, was potent.
Some years later I was standing in front of a packed auditorium of Japanese high school students attempting to argue (in Japanese) that the ‘training’ justification for the strict code associated with secondary schooling (such as wearing ridiculously uncomfortable high-collar uniforms) was pointless. I am embarrassed at my teenage naivety. Even though I learned an extraordinary amount about cultural differences, while at school in Gifu, at the time that didn’t extend to appreciating the richness of an economic society that celebrated the common good ahead of individual achievement.
Last week I joined a small group of people invited by my squiggly mate Steve to watch Man on Wire, the true story of Phillipe Petit’s, incredible performance – 45 minutes running, laughing, lying, dancing and kneeling on a wire strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in NYC. Standout achievements like this are frequently the combination of unusual ambition and unreasonableness, married with relentless discipline. Certainly in Phillipe’s case, the lifetime of practise and mental toughness was the foundation for what could have looked like frivolous adventuresomeness.
The social freedoms that have changed our western world over the last 40 years have failed to deliver inner freedom. Our ideological commitment to removing restrictions and allowing people ‘choice’ has disappointed those who imagined we would be happier and more content as a result. Instead we work longer, break-up more often, suicide more frequently, and strive more for greater freedom.
Perhaps it’s time to recapture discipline as a foundation for freedom.
In business, some disciplines are imposed. There are things that just have to be done. The disciplines that set people apart are typically unseen and discretionary. Physical; diet and exercise. Intellectual; what I take in, and what I produce, how I make decisions. Emotional; commitments to attitudes, restraints, and inner reflection.
Life is a marathon. Inner and outer worlds tend to align. Achieving our dreams in the outer world will only happen if we are disciplined in our inner world. We might aspire to dance unencumbered on a wire, but if we haven’t put in a lifetime of backyard practice, the ‘courage to transfer our weight from the building onto the wire’ will desert us. And that looks ugly.
There are no shortcuts.