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Relentless Self-Discipline

Mark Twain contemptuously quipped that New Year’s “…is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” While Twain’s assessment was based on unscientific anecdotal evidence, the most recent statistical data backs up his observation. A Forbes survey finds the average resolution lasts 3.7 months and only 6% make it a year.


If you are an optimist, you would be confident of success, whereas a pessimist would expect to fail. Elon Musk on the other hand thinks success has nothing to do with optimism or pessimism, a point he punctuated with a crude expletive when he was asked about his mindset in 2008 when Tesla couldn’t produce more than a couple hundred vehicles and every SpaceX rocket had exploded. For Musk, success requires the relentless self-discipline to never give up. As he vowed, “We’re going to make it happen. As God is my witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”


The findings of Peter Hollins, author of NEURO-Discipline, support the effectiveness of Musk’s determination. Hollins is an expert in the psychology of peak human performance – how to unlock our potential and create a path toward success. Unfortunately, our brains are wired to take the path of least resistance. As Hollins so bluntly puts it, “…our brains are simply programmed to do as little work as possible, seek maximum pleasure, and generally bask in the sun like a house cat…” His prescription for overcoming this tendency is self-discipline -- maddeningly simple to understand, but frustratingly hard to do. “You must give up what you want now for what you want most…”


In a paper, Short-Term Thinking Is a Long-Term Problem, Stelian Nenkov warns “Our brains are wired to think in the moment, [not long-term. So,] investing responsibly [and] saving for retirement… do not come naturally and will require us to suppress our short-term instincts if they are to have a chance at
succeeding.” Ironically, technology has made this more difficult. The copious digitization of information has led to the odd outcome that “Our problem is no longer a lack of information but the overabundance of it,” observes Nenkov. And all the information providers out there are fighting for our attention by
appealing to our “…dream of living in a world where we get everything we want without trying too hard or being scared or making any sacrifice,” warns Hollins. Therefore, he is adamant that “… a massive part of success comes down to self-discipline and self-discipline is at its core made of nothing but the willingness to endure discomfort.”

I learned this principle as a kid from my dad, as a teenager from my track coach, and as a young man from my mentor. Being active is important to me, so one morning I got up and did my exercises. And then I simply repeated it 20,000 times over the next 55 years. What’s interesting is not once in those 20,000 repetitions did I ever feel like doing it. I also applied this principle to investing. Once I learned the key to investment success was diversification and the discipline to hold steady in volatile markets, I repeated that practice every day since, especially in the times when it was most difficult to do. As Hollins explains, “Success in the bigger picture belongs to those who have mastered the ability to tolerate a degree of distress and uncertainty… there are no shortcuts, no easy life hacks, no
quick tricks.”

We live in an uncertain world, and we are predisposed to laziness and fear. Basically, we have two strikes against us before we even step-up to the plate in the morning. If we want better health, better finances, and better relationships (the three most popular New Year’s resolutions), we must do things that are uncomfortable. It’s not easy to “…master your mind and defy the odds,” says former Navy Seal David Goggins. “It's a lot more than mind over matter. It takes relentless self-discipline to schedule suffering into your day, every day.”

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