When I was in the Army many years ago we would have all kinds of competitions. Many focused on military drills and skills, such as shooting, but there were also When I was in the Army many years ago we would have all kinds of competitions. Many focused on military drills and skills, such as shooting, but there were also a lot of sports competitions, one of which was an annual snowshoe race. You read that correctly; we would actually run in snowshoes. Not particularly fast, but run we did.
The team coach was a highly proficient sergeant and an excellent snowshoe runner himself. On the first day of training one year, he gathered all the team members together and told them he would divulge the “secret” of snowshoe racing. You would have thought he was about to reveal a great truth. In a way he was: “You start by putting one foot forward, then the other, then the other, then the other again… and you keep on doing that until you get to the finish line or collapse trying.”
Now, you have to admit that’s a pretty open “secret,” but it contains it contains a basic truth. Most things we undertake are really not that difficult or complex. However, they do take discipline and persistence. These are traits that the military seeks and reinforces in its recruits and members. You can’t accomplish a task unless you set your mind to it. Moreover, most worthwhile undertakings will entail a certain degree of difficulty and challenge, or could even be subject to the competition and aggressive intentions of others.
This story highlights another aspect of discipline and persistence that are often forgotten or not even acknowledged. I wish I could remember who it was, but another former military colleague once said that discipline is really mostly voluntary. This goes against the common understanding of discipline as something that is imposed. However, the origins of the word are the same as disciple. In other words, to practice and master a discipline, once must first submit to a teacher and his teachings. That is what a disciple is: someone who willingly follows a teacher who knows more and is more skilled a field than the disciple.
When you combine the fact of voluntary discipleship with persistence and the rigour of a systematic approach to knowledge and skill development, you get a potent mix that ensures the maximum chances of success. A key part of discipline and persistence is to actually follow the steps and technique laid out in systematic procedures.
When I was writing my first book, Brilliant Manoeuvres, a few years ago I did some research into the best approaches for productive and effective writing. I came across a book for academics titled How to Write a Lot, by Paul Silvia. You’d think there would have been a lot of technical insights about outlining and getting organized and other assorted methodological pointers.
The author pointed out instead that all of those things could actually get in the way of productivity. How? By becoming excuses to procrastinate. It turns out that the “secret” to productive writing is to sit down and write. Sounds a lot like the advice that sergeant gave about “effective” snowshoeing. There is never going to be a good moment to start writing. Inspiration and creativity come with practice and work, not by sitting there and thinking or worse, hoping and wishing. I applied the same discipline and persistence I learned in the army (for snowshoeing and other more life-defining undertakings). That’s how I produced my first book.
I could also talk about other factors in discipline, such as the unattainable search for perfection and waiting for the “right conditions” or the “right timing.” The reality is that there is never a right time or the right conditions to do anything. What we need is a systematic method (also known as rigour), the discipline to actually apply it, and the persistence to continue despite setbacks, mistakes, opposition, and the occasional discouragement.
I speak to a lot of entrepreneurs, business owners, and executives. Most have gotten to where they are through hard work, discipline, and persistence. But there is always more opportunity and need for discipline and persistence, as well as rigour. Every business and individual gets to a point of questioning and renewal in order to grow or break through to the next level. This takes just as much discipline and persistence as it took to get to the present level.
Richard Martin is a The Force Multiplier. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.
© 2015 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.