Confession: I’m a bit of a goal junkie. Once I’ve set my sights on something, I’m unlikely to let it go.
Over the years, as I’ve succeeded in working through various personal and professional goals, I’ve had a number of people remark that I must be “very disciplined” to have accomplished them. While I find this flattering, I also find it kind of funny, because I don’t consider myself disciplined at all.
To me, discipline is about doing things in a precise way, with exact timing and in accordance with a strict regimen. It’s about doing things when and how they ought to be done, whether or not you feel like it at the time.
I work hard, but I prefer to do it on my own terms. If I am making headway on a complex project, for example, I may opt to push through and get closure on it, even if that means I’ll be late to my next meeting. I am simply not willing to abandon an important work in progress in order to adhere to a set time frame.
So you might call me determined or willful, passionate, or even a little obsessive, but I’m certainly not disciplined.
I don’t worry too much about that, though, because I know there are many different ways to succeed, and over time, I’ve discovered the ones that work best for me.
Unfortunately, when it comes to finding our own personal routes to success, many of us get detoured or stuck by preconceived notions of what our journeys will require.
If you’re convinced that reaching your goals is going to require “discipline,” and that doesn’t happen to be your strong suit, it’s easy to get discouraged and to overlook the gifts you do have — your own unique resources, strengths, and style.
Of course, if you do have discipline, you’d be crazy not to celebrate that. Take my friend and colleague Ken Zylstra. He is one of the most disciplined guys I know, and he makes that trait work for him admirably.
This year, while we were both training for the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race, Ken was a machine. He had his training down to an exact science, his routes precisely plotted, his nutrition perfectly calculated. His focus and dedication were incredible.
One day shortly before the race, a bunch of us were hanging out together. Ken had an eight-hour training ride scheduled, but due to some family obligations, the day got away from him. I assumed he’d bag the ride or cut it short. But at 4:30 p.m., there was Ken, suited up to head out on his ride. And sure enough, it was well after midnight when he came back, his headlamp flashing in the dark.
I would never do that. If it had been me, I’d have figured out some other time to get my training in, or adjusted my training plan to get similar results.
For Ken, you see, discipline works great, and for me, fluidity and creativity work better. This doesn’t mean I go after my goals in a halfhearted way. On the contrary, I am tenaciously committed to my desired outcomes, just more inclined to adapt and adjust my approach so that it involves more of what I find energizing and enjoyable, and less of what I don’t.
The key, I think, is for each of us to identify those natural traits that make us great — whether discipline, willingness, flexibility, patience, enthusiasm, or creativity — and to focus on leveraging those things, rather than on what might be holding us back.
Psychologists have found that what makes people truly satisfied and fulfilled is not so much the achievement of any particular outcome or station in life, but rather the experience of being fully engaged in pursuits that require every bit of their attention and skill.
This experience of “flow,” as positive-psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described it, requires that we be “completely involved in an activity for its own sake” and that we apply every bit of our ability to the task at hand.
Note that it does not necessarily require that we apply any one particular ability, but rather that we wholeheartedly invest those strengths we possess.
Even the most daunting job, the most intimidating challenge, can become engaging when we commit ourselves to giving it the very best of our abilities and attention — and, perhaps more important, our conscious intention.
So, next time you’re looking at a big, ambitious goal, consider setting aside your assumptions about how much hard work it’s going to take, and instead ask what strengths you can bring to the challenge at hand. Step into your own flow experience, and see where it leads you.