The Real Reason Motivation Sucks and Discipline Matters

I’ll start with a quote from Jocko Willink, the master of discipline. The following is taken from this candid podcast he did on the Tim Ferriss show.

Accomplishing your goals is not about motivation, it’s about discipline. – Motivation is fickle, motivation comes and goes. – Motivation is unreliable and when you’re counting on motivation to get your goals accomplished, you’re likely going to fall short. Don’t count on motivation, count on discipline! You know what you have to do, go make yourself do it.

Jocko has valid reasons for not trusting motivation. He points out that trivial factors, like hunger or fatigue, can affect it. If you depend on motivation to accomplish your goals, you won’t get very far. I experienced this when I decided that I’d like to get better at talking to girls. Nothing breeds talent like action, so I committed myself to consistently going out and talking to as many women as possible. 90% of the time I was a nervous wreck on the way to the club. I was scared of getting rejected and the social pressure. If all I had was motivation I would have failed. Thankfully, I was tapped into discipline, which got me to the club whether I felt like it or not. Now the prospect is magnitudes less scary and I can go out and talk to 20 or 30 girls in a night without thinking.

I’m sure you have a similar story. The desire to master a skill, look cool, become a better person, get laid more, make more money, whatever. Typically it’s motivation that gets us started but that motivation tends to disappear. When it’s 20 degrees and snowing, it’s not motivation that gets you to the gym, it’s discipline. Some more Jocko.

Everybody wants some kind of magic pill or some life hack, or something that eliminates the need to do the work. Well I will tell you what.. You need to do the work. – You have to make it happen yourself. It’s not going to happen on its own. Find the discipline, be the discipline and accomplish the goals.

We are the masters of our own fate. I’m reminded of another book that has shaped my life, The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson. This remarkably well-reviewed book can be summarized in a sentence, success is the result of daily practice and incremental growth compounded over time. Success comes when you,

  1. Do something every day,
  2. Get incrementally better (in very small, 0.001% increments)
  3. Never quit

Becoming world-class might take ten or twenty years. Between the start and finish there’s going to be hundreds of days when you don’t feel like practicing. When motivation fails, you can use discipline to get in the hours.

Discipline and Life

I don’t think that discipline only relates to the accomplishment of goals, it pervades all aspects of life. For instance, you can apply discipline to spend less money or treat every person with respect. Disciplining yourself to do the right thing and be the bigger man is powerful. It’s the stuff that good leaders are made of. I’ll end this article by mentioning one of Jocko’s favorite quotes,

Discipline, now in mug form

Discipline equals freedom.

I interpret the quote in the following way. When you discipline yourself to do the hardest thing, whether’s that’s pushing your comfort zone or practicing every day, you enjoy the freedom to perform at the highest level.

What are your goals, what are you motivated to do? Are you depending on motivation? Have you anticipated all of the times that motivation will fail you, when you’ll need discipline instead?

These are good questions to ask. They’re universal too. It doesn’t matter if you’d like to surf twenty foot monsters or write a novel, sometimes there will be motivation, sometimes there will be none. The only thing you can really count on is discipline.

Interested in Jocko? Learn more here or by checking out his podcast.

Jocko Willink: Navy SEAL & Leader of Men

Throughout this article I will reference this interview that Jocko Willink did with Tim Ferriss. Whenever I bring in a quote I will indicate the time that it occurred in the podcast, I.e. (38:14). 

Jocko Willink is a musclebound former Navy SEAL but he speaks like a college professor. I found out about him through a Tim Ferriss podcast. I was expecting good war stories but Jocko offered so much more. I found his greatest idea to be this,

Discipline equals freedom.

This is the title of his upcoming book, but also a mantra to live by. For instance, between reading, writing, shooting YouTube videos, going out to meet women and studying German, I have 8 to 12 hours of work a day. If I have the discipline to get everything done on time, I have the freedom to relax, watch Netflix or drink some beer. Without discipline I end up losing the freedom to relax.

Appreciate Life When it’s Good

Jocko (left) as a Navy SEAL

When asked what advice he would give a younger version of himself (2:27:30), Jocko said,

I’m in Ramadi. Looking back now, I would say, relish that moment. Which I did… But I would say relish that moment.

For Jocko, leading SEALs into combat was the highlight of a lifetime. We have different highlights in our lives but the message is the same: appreciate life as it’s unfolding. If life is good, enjoy it! The universe loves to throw curve balls and circumstances can quickly change. This brings up another important point.

Acknowledge Your Dark Side and the Worst of Humanity

Without acknowledging the worst of humanity, we cannot appreciate the best

The Holocaust is an example of an event where regular people did horrible things. After World War II psychologists were struck by the normalcy of many of the perpetrators. Average citizens ended up as camp guards who were capable of repeated cruel action. To a greater or lesser extent all people have this dark side, to deny it is to deny reality. A better option is to acknowledge what we’re capable of. The person who accepts their dark side has control. A person who doesn’t accept it is open to domination.

Jocko advocates understanding your dark side and understanding the depths of hell which humanity creates. His podcast focuses on (among other things) war and genocide. This can be depressing (especially this episode, holy shit..) However, Jocko believes that in order to appreciate the beauty of humanity one must acknowledge the ugly.

I’ve found that this Yin and Yang idea holds true in a variety of circumstances. Sometimes I’ll talk to a couple of dozen girls and end up feeling unattractive and undesirable (AKA like a piece of shit). These nights suck but they pave the way for future nights where I’m on fire. Working out is breaking down the muscle so that it can grow stronger. In poker, losing money on a pot teaches you to become numb to loss. We can see this same idea manifest in all sorts of disciplines.

*Jordan Peterson also talks about embracing your dark side in this video.

Leadership in the Military

To be effective one must lead by example & listen

Soldiers do not follow every order to a T because someone of a higher rank gave the order. Men follow orders when the leader sets a strong example and lets soldiers participate in planning. If the leader (boss) creates a plan and orders soldiers to carry it out, once they run into a snag then they’ll be less likely to adapt on the fly.

Jocko also gives the example of soldiers in Vietnam who, when tasked with a pointless mission, would walk 100 meters outside the wire, camp for 2 hours then return. Jocko states that (1:50:40),

If I’m going to get you to do stuff, I need to lead you. I can’t just order you to do it.

When Tim Ferriss asks what makes a good leader (54:30), Jocko replies,

The immediate answer that comes to mind is humility. You’ve got to be humble and you’ve got to be coachable. When I was running training we would fire a couple of leaders from every SEAL team because they couldn’t lead. And 99.9% of the time it wasn’t a question of their ability, it was a question of their ability to listen.

Learning More About Jocko

Jocko is a prolific character. He’s done several podcasts with Tim Ferriss, including the one I used for quotes throughout this article. In a different podcast he answers questions submitted by listeners. Joe Rogan has also done two podcasts with Jocko, available here and here. My favorite episode of his podcast is an interview he did with Mike Thornton, I cried multiple times listening to it. Finally, he co-authored the New York Times bestseller: Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.