The Building Blocks of Discipline

By Marshall Goldsmith

It’s important to refine our choices in life so that they serve us rather than sabotage us. 

In order to achieve an earned life you need more than mindset: You need to take action. You must create a new framework for you to execute your choices. 

The traditional paradigm for achieving any goal emphasizes discipline and willpower. If we want to succeed, we must (a) religiously follow our plan and (b) resist any distraction that tempts us off plan. 

Discipline supplies the power to say yes every day to doing the hard stuff. Willpower provides the determination to say no to the bad stuff. We often admire anyone who displays these two virtues to accomplish something difficult or extraordinary: the sibling who loses 60 pounds and keeps them off; the neighbor who accomplishes a lifelong dream of fluency in Italian; the addict who kicks the habit. 

But in our own lives, we’re not so admirable or worthy of other people’s amazement. Of all the personal qualities that we overestimate in ourselves—our intelligence, our discretion, our driving skill, our willingness to take criticism, our punctuality, our wit, to name a few—we overestimate our discipline and willpower the most. We’ve got the failed diets and unused gym memberships and uncracked foreign language primers to prove it. 

I stopped overestimating my discipline in my early thirties (admitting this failing was a point of pride for me). Yet I did not extend this insight to the people I was training back then. Time and time again I continued to overestimate their discipline. Before I could open my eyes to this, I needed a client to ask me an obvious question. In 1990 I was doing a series of “Values and Leadership” seminars at Northrop Corporation, the aerospace and defense company now known as Northrop Grumman. After one of the all-day sessions, Kent Kresa, Northrop’s new and plainspoken CEO, who was just beginning the company’s spectacular turnaround from Near-Bankruptcy to Most Admired status, asked me, “Does this stuff actually work?” 

My first impulse, wholly self-justifying, was to say, “Of course.” But no one had ever asked me this question before. 

“I think so,” I said. “But I haven’t done any research to prove it works. So I guess I don’t know. I’ll find out.” 

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

In my training classes, I instruct leaders to follow up regularly with their team to get feedback from their co-workers on how they’re doing with what they learned in the classroom, assuming that they would comply with my instructions. Seeking feedback on our activity is a proven way of regulating and improving our performance in that activity. But I’d never followed up to see whether they actually took my instruction to heart. 

It’s no mystery why I hadn’t questioned the effectiveness of my training program: I was afraid of the answer. It was better to assume the best. 

After Kresa’s probing question, I changed my ways. Northrop’s HR team and I polled the leaders who had participated in the training classes each month to see if they were following up on their learning with their co-workers. After several months, the numbers were encouraging. The more we checked in on the participants, the better they got at seeking feedback on their management skills from their co-workers. 

Our follow-up served as a steady reminder to the participants that they’d spent a day in a class- room with a workbook of strategies they were expected to digest and practice. Combined with the implicit message that management was paying attention, it prodded them to get better at seeking feedback and, as a result, at applying what they learned in class. 

A few months later, I was ready to answer Kresa’s question: “Yes, people get better, but only with follow-up.” 

“Young man,” he said, “I just made your career.” 

He was right.

From that moment, follow-up in all its incarnations became an essential component in my thinking and coaching. Until then, I had been relying on individual motivation and discipline to drive people to follow my instruction. This contradicted centuries of evidence that human beings are very poor at any form of self-regulation. I had been cured by Kent Kresa’s basic question: Does this stuff actually work? 

I learned that follow-up works in altering our behavior, but it was not effective on its own. It had to be combined with several other actions in order to instill the motivation, energy, and self- regulation that we have come to think of as discipline and willpower. 

This new template of actions offers a reinterpretation of discipline and willpower in our life. We tend to think of these two attributes as the essential skills that deliver success. I suggest they are not. Rather, they are the evidence of our success, qualities we only recognize after the fact. 

In a gross oversimplification, we label them as discipline and willpower (or grit, resilience, perseverance, pluck, tenacity, moral fiber, determination, etc.). Concepts so unique and precise should not have that many synonyms. 

The building blocks of “discipline” and “willpower” are much more concrete & comprehensible: 

  • Compliance
  • Accountability 
  • Follow-up
  • Measurement 

These four actions are not surrogates for discipline and willpower: They are replacements. Each of the four actions is situational: Compliance resolves a different problem than accountability or follow-up or measurement. We call on one or the other at different moments as we earn our life. Together they become your template for structuring your pursuit of any goal. You’re probably already practicing them, albeit inconsistently. 

If you want to live an earned life — they work.

Marshall Goldsmith Meme
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