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9. Discipline Over Inspiration

I recently saw a Facebook post in which a violin player asked some fellow violin players where they get the inspiration to keep practicing all the time. The response the violinist got was more interesting than the question; she was told to become more disciplined with her violin practicing, not to rely on inspiration, as it was too fickle to be counted on to accomplish anything.

Personally I found this argument fascinating. American culture as a whole, I think, leans more toward figuring out our passions and interests than learning discipline, so it was an unusual bit of advice to find on my News Feed. It got me thinking about what causes a handful of people to excel and most people to struggle with bills all their lives, and why there’s no direct correlation between how hard you work and how much money you make (which is to say, working smarter is more important than working harder).

Make no mistake, I think people should pick a career path that they find engaging and interesting if at all possible, and that it’s better to have a strong work ethic than to be lazy. But I know plenty of passionate people and plenty of hard-working people, and not all of them are leading successful careers and lifestyles. Clearly there’s some other ingredient in there that results in success, and I think the ability to perform disciplined practice (which is not quite the same as a good work ethic) is what most of us lack.

The reason is that no matter what career path you choose, no matter what your dream is, I would be willing to bet you that once you start pursuing it, you’ll find that there’s some aspect of it that you aren’t thrilled about. Lots of authors, for example, love the process of writing books, but when it comes to marketing and selling that book they’re hopeless. My dad is a pharmaceutical salesman, and as much as he may like selling products to doctor’s offices, he’s never found company expense reports especially thrilling. Photographers may enjoy taking and editing pictures and hate the difficult process of coordinating events with lots of people, software developers may love building the views of an app that the user will interact with, but don’t particularly enjoy working with databases (or vice versa), the list goes on.

But none of that means that you should quit pursuing your dream. You won’t always be in the same mood every day anyway, and some parts of the career you love are sure to be more enjoyable than other parts, so you should not allow the randomness of inspiration to deter you. Besides, I tend to find that when I’m actually working on software, I’m not thinking “this is helping me pursue my dream,” I’m thinking “how can I make this post reference the user model so when they post it and then delete their account, the post is also deleted?” or some such thing. I’m thinking about the work when I’m working, not the dream the work will lead me to, and I suspect most people are the same way.

Rather than look at each individual moment of your life to dictate what you want to spend your time doing, take a step back and look at the big picture. What kind of life do you want to lead? Would you rather have a career that you hate and be around people who make you miserable so you’re praying for weekends and holidays like everyone else, or would you rather have a career you love and be around people who support and encourage you every day, so you lead a life that you don’t need to escape from?

If, like me, you would prefer the latter, the fastest track to get there is to try and spend some time every day working toward your future rather than keeping all of your focus on the present, and that sometimes requires foregoing present-day pleasure to create yourself a happier future. You should absolutely enjoy the present sometimes (or what kind of soulless life will you be living anyway?), but if we don’t create a future for ourselves, we often wind up not having one. My advice, if you’ll take it, is to control your present and your future, not leave them to the whims of chance or inspiration. That’s what will set you apart in whatever field you wish to pursue.

Dan RiceComment