I’ve heard a lot of accounts from people who take an approach to life that can only be described as ‘disciplined.’ They have resolutions, made once with what must have been conviction and a sincere drive to be better, and followed through by something that more closely resembles a sense of obligation.
I’ve read testimonies from highly successful individuals claiming that part of the secret to their success is their regimen. It is getting up at the crack of dawn — before all the noise of jobs and kids and responsibilities — and doing whatever it is they do, even if they don’t feel like it. Especially if they don’t feel like it. They use this time to brainstorm, to write, to come up with ideas that they can stow away for the future. They can use the time for anything, really, so long as it pertains to their craft and getting better at it.
I understand this logic. I’ve made many a resolution to do [insert random manifestation of creativity] every single day for a year. I’m completely sold on the idea of watching yourself get gradually, incrementally better over the span of time, but what I can’t fully get behind is the way it starts to feel after a while. There’s a dryness to it, a placidness of sorts. A coming to the table with no appetite and sinking unwilling teeth into something tough and flavorless.
How much of our art, I wonder, is produced in moments void of passion?
Now it is often said that passion can’t survive on it’s own. Expecting a career to survive on passion is like expecting a marriage to endure solely on infatuation, or trying to sustain oneself on a diet of candy. We can’t consume only candy and expect to be healthy, but candy is candy for a reason. It is sweet. We like it. It has the connotation of being equal parts enjoyable and unwholesome. And as with candy, we tend to assume that most things in life that are sweet and enjoyable either cannot be sustained, or cannot be trusted to sustain us.
“Passion is great, but it’s icing,” says Steve Pavlina in an article entitled Passion vs. Self-Discipline. “It needs self-discipline to back it up. Self-discipline is quieter though. Passion gets more attention these days because it makes more noise.”
We say we don’t want to do something we love as a job because it will start to look and feel like work rather than pleasure. And I wonder if discipline and regimented routine deteriorate the passion that was once there.
Writing every day guarantees that I have produced something every day, and that at the end of each day I will have something to show for what I claim to be passionate about. If I sat around and waited for passion, it may never come. It could be weeks or months between bouts of inspiration and in that time I have produced nothing.
But is what I produce when I’m simply not in the mood to create even worth the effort? Is it any good? Or is it just forced activity, structured work-time, and will it ultimately turn me bitter against the thing I once loved and sought refuge in?
Is it even possible to turn bitter against something we are truly passionate about, or does that bitterness indicate that there was no true passion to begin with?
Perhaps we simply mistake true discipline for passion. Maybe we falsely equate loving what we do with always being in the mood to do it, when what loving what we do really means is feeling a natural sense of commitment to our craft, as well as a fulfillment from growing deeper in the mastery of it. Maybe true discipline stems from passion, and is sustained and strengthened by passion. And maybe passion isn’t always the intense ravaging fire we imagine it to be. Maybe passion is sometimes just a dull flame that flickers in the darkness, unable at times to illuminate the entire room and be seen, yet still refusing to be snuffed out.
We’ve given the word ‘discipline’ such a dull connotation, a definition void of feeling and emotional investment. When we think discipline, we think of doing something unfavorable because we know rationally it is good for us and will provide a given benefit. We think of not eating candy before dinner. We think of ordering a salad rather than a juicy cheeseburger, especially when everyone around us is having the cheeseburger. We think of limits. We think of restrictions. We think of having to make sacrifices because we can’t have our cake and eat it too. But is discipline inherently unpleasant, or do we just interpret it that way?
Maybe discipline simply means showing up every day because we love something. I love writing. It doesn’t mean that every time I sit down at my computer I have something profound to say. It certainly doesn’t mean I think everything I write is good (far from it) or that I always walk away from my daily writing feeling proud and accomplished and like I’m better than I was yesterday. Sometimes as I close that day’s document I am silently wondering whether I’ve somehow gotten worse.
I guess discipline, for me, would be showing up every day to write because it is the very least I can do for something I want to make a life out of. If I am bold enough to say I want to be a writer, than the least I can do is to write every day. Discipline, for me, is writing every day even though I can’t always connect my current efforts to an accomplished and bright future of having achieved my wildest dreams.
The truth is, the lofty aspirations I’ve set for my career may never manifest themselves in reality. That is as true as it is depressing. I recognize that. But it is the passion — the one that goes hand in hand with the discipline — that allows me not to care whether I “make it.” It is the passion that reminds me I would be content to spend a lifetime investing in my craft and improving it, and it will be worth it to me even if I never get recognized, even if I am never in the right place at the right time to have it take off.
Maybe passion is just knowing, whether you feel like doing something at a given time or not, that you want to spend your life pursuing and exploring and perfecting this craft. And that in the end, even if nothing comes of it but the continued pursuit, even if you never reach the destination you imagined reaching, you still can’t think of any way you would rather have spent your days. Because we need to spend our time with the things we love, and you will know in your heart that you did.
Maybe that is what passion looks like, and maybe it is what discipline looks like too. Not just showing up because you said you would, but having said you would show up because there is a deep love that goes beyond momentary passion, beyond fleeting bouts of inspiration. True discipline isn’t just knowing there is a purpose and going through the motions — no, discipline doesn’t have to be so detached — rather it is feeling that purpose even when it aches to press on.
They say, “no pain no gain,” and this gives us entirely the wrong impression about gain. It’s not about forcing ourselves to suffer because we have been told that practice will make us better. It’s about trudging through the uncertain moments, enduring the silence of no recognition and praise, pressing on through the doubt of having to honestly wonder whether there has been an improvement, or whether we have what it takes, or whether we will ever have the stars align so that we can amount to something.
We trudge through these difficult moments not because we were taught in a theoretical sense that practice will make us perfect. We do it because we can’t not do it. We do it because it would kill us to cut off that channel of expression, even if we don’t think we are any good at it. We do it because sometimes we love something so much that we would rather devote our lives to the pursuit of improvement than to spend another second pretending we’d rather be doing something easier.