I’ve been in the midst of some heady books this summer, and I’ve been thinking about everything from boredom, genetic engineering and free time to piano practice and self-discipline.
(In case you’re a book nerd as well, I’ve been absolutely devouring everything Yuval Harari has written, in addition to “Hacking Darwin”, “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think”, and others. If nothing else, please go and read “Sapiens”.)
Today I want to talk about self-discipline. Our modern society takes a blasé approach to this skill, encouraging us to “treat ourselves” and “just do what’s fun” and “don’t worry about it”. It’s hard not to cave in the face of such advice. Life is short – I should have fun! I do deserve a treat!
I’m not saying that fun and treats aren’t great. They are. But their rewards are often fleeting. Self-discipline is hard but yields long-term rewards.
Let’s bring this down to earth. Yuval Harari talks about how he meditates for two hours a day, and once a year goes on a 30 to 60-day meditation retreat (his meditation style is vipassana). He’s also a busy university professor and author. Meditating for 10 minutes a day consistently feels like a Herculean effort, let alone 2 hours. It’s an impressive feat of self-discipline.
Yet he says this meditation practice is hugely rewarding. It allows him to observe his mind and the myriad ways he’s unable to control his thoughts. This allows him to know himself better, which he considers a critical skill in a world where companies want to know you better than you know yourself.
It also builds self-discipline, which spreads into other areas of his life. The kinds of books he writes require intense, single-minded focus and attention. Researching and thinking about history (and the future) is not a light mental load.
I might look at his two-hour meditation practice and call it a huge waste of time. Or something I’d be incapable of doing, busy as I am. But for him, those two hours are extremely well-spent as they drastically improve the quality of his life in every way – including in his ability to think and write.
Here’s the thing. I’m not suggesting you pick up a 2-hour-a-day meditation practice. As he suggests, there are other ways to build the skill of self-discipline and understanding your own mind. For some it might be really long walks outside. Henry David Thoreau went for 4+ hour long daily walks in order to think. For others, it might be an artistic practice, such as – wait for it – practicing the piano.
Practicing piano should be fun, right? My answer tends to start with, “Yes, but…”
Getting to know yourself is fun, right? Focusing on the feeling of the breath on the nose should be easy, right?
And then it’s not. And then we, with our conditioning and familiarity to all things easy, put it aside and say, this must not be for me. And flit to something else. Something more fun. A treat.
Have you ever tried vipassana meditation? I’ve started a practice about two dozen times in the last decade. I have always failed. And I’m not the kind of person who gives up easily. It’s really hard.
Introspection is really hard, too. You confront the worst things about yourself – one of the worst being that you’re totally average, ordinary and inconsequential. 65% of Americans think they’re more intelligent than average. 75% of Americans say they eat healthy. 93% of Americans think they’re better at driving than average.
(It’s not that Americans are particularly ego-centric, it’s just that these are the studies I found).
This is called “illusory superiority”. It’s a cognitive bias where we overestimate our own skills and abilities. We believe we’re special, we’re smart, we’re better looking than others, and so on.
To really observe yourself and realize the many ways you’re mundane, petty and mean-spirited is a real bummer. But humbling. It makes you a better person. Realizing how you can be petty helps you become more profound. Realizing that you’re kind of a jerk can make you kinder. But the process of realization can be painful.
Piano practice is hard too, especially as a beginner. I’ve been playing piano since I was in the single-digits, and I’ve accrued enough skills to be decent at it. I still have so far to go, but I’m not stuck on “Mary Had a Little Lamb” anymore. This makes a 2-hour daily practice something I can stomach. As a meditation newbie, I can only look at a 2-hour vipassana session and laugh – “yeah right”. First I have to gain enough ground to not give up after a few weeks, just like I always do. Maybe this means 5-minute sessions and a series of small wins. Maybe this means giving it an immovable designation in my daily schedule. And maybe with time, I won’t feel like I suck at it anymore. And, since I don’t feel like I suck, I’ll gain some momentum to continue and maybe even start practicing more. Maybe even 2 hours one day (but probably not).
Let’s circle back around to self-discipline. I observe this skill falling apart in our culture, and I’m sure you do too. My acquaintance with the dream but “no time to pursue it”…but with enough time to watch several hours of Netflix each day. Another acquaintance who wishes they read more books, while checking their phone every 5 minutes. Someone who says, “I wish I could play piano,” maybe even buys one, and then spends all their time reading about practicing (and watching videos), instead of actually practicing. The armchair philosopher, all talk, no action.
(Am I telling you not to watch this video or read this post? Maybe.)
I’m not against Netflix, or phones, or YouTube videos. But these very things are designed to steal our attention. It takes self-discipline to put them away.
It takes self-discipline to practice piano, just as it builds self-discipline to practice piano. Doing so creates a positive feedback loop.
In my life, my piano practice has been erratic. I’ve let my piano collect dust in the past. I’ve gone through intense bursts of creative energy.
Few activities in my life have been so beneficial, though, as a regular practice. I’m noticing this acutely lately, since a few months ago I started practicing around 10 hours per week again. And I’m not talking about the “fun stuff” – the times when I noodle around, write or jam on songs from the radio. This is 10 hours of working on exam pieces. And still, I’ll need to ramp up this time as my exam date draws closer.
It’s hard to practice this much. I work like anyone else, and I’m home with my small child much of the time. It means getting up early, and it also means not just flopping on the couch when that small child goes to bed.
And that’s just the self-discipline involved in getting to the piano in the first place.
Once you’re at the piano, there are many moments where you must exercise self-discipline. To go back and play that passage again, and again, and again, and again – instead of saying, “ahh, good enough,” and moving on. There’s learning a piece of music for the first time – making sure you get those weird finger patterns right, pushing through the inertia of the unknown. There’s being at the mid-point with a piece – the newness has worn off, but you’re still not very good at it. To not throw away a piece at this stage requires self-discipline in spades.
And yes, playing piano is fun and rewarding. Usually when you’ve become good at something, or when you’ve achieved a “finished product”, like an artist who completes a painting. But also the practicing itself, though difficult, can often be fun. Getting into a state of flow can be exhilarating. Often, when I’m done a practice session at 8:30pm, I’m energized, not depleted – even though I felt depleted going into that session. It’s just like a good workout.
And sometimes practice sessions are a grind. But I can’t think of a single time I’ve regretted the grind when I’m done with it.
This self-discipline spills off the bench, and into my life. And I’m always surprised by it. It’s no coincidence that I’ve been devouring heavier reads this summer. The mental training of my 2-hour practice habit has allowed me much more patience in my free time – patience to pour over and deliberate difficult, but fascinating, ideas.
It makes eating healthy easier. No thanks, I don’t need the cookie. The mantra of this era is to indulge your whims, but isn’t a life where one exercises restraint just as worthy, maybe even more so? Exercising restraint with food now gives me a better chance of having energy to play with my grandkids and continue being productive into my golden years. Exercising restraint in what I say to others allows me to have high-quality relationships forever. Exercising restraint with my wallet allows me to save and invest. Exercising restraint with parties allows me to be fresh for my morning practice. Exercising restraint on the amount I work allows me life to be more balanced. I’m a much happier person when I’m not just giving into my fleeting whims and impulses.
People who worship impulsivity look at this restraint and call it deprivation. They call it a life not lived to the fullest. I’ve been this person, I’ve memorized those lines.
But I now think the opposite is true. Self-discipline doesn’t lead to deprivation. It leads to abundance. An abundance of energy. An abundance of joy. Saying no to the cookie might give me a fleeting pang, but it gives me a long-term feeling of confidence. It gives me a feeling of strength, being able to say no to what most people don’t say no to. That strength becomes my identity. Inner strength, integrity and confidence make me happier than any cookie could.