Book Review: Discipline is Destiny by Ryan Holiday

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I bought this book at an airport and read it cover-to-cover on the 10 hour flight. It was a much needed kick in the ass.


Rich, empowered, unshackled, blessed beyond expectation - why are we so unhappy?

Forget the good life. It's a lie. The Strenuous Life is the best life.

From the stoics to Merkel and the Queen, "Discipline is Destiny" offers proof in the lives of people who have lived according to that maxim. The book explains how temperance, as one of the four cardinal virtues, saves us from ourselves and from dependency, the "treadmill moving faster and faster but going nowhere". It guides us to self-mastery as an "instinctive reaction against anything that masters us" like addiction, fear, ambition, and impulsive behavior in general.


Ambition without temperance is just an addiction

This reminded me of something I had read years ago.

In this article, Paul Graham explains that the most important predictor of success is determination. He claims that determination has three components: willfulness, discipline, and ambition. Graham writes:

Being strong-willed is not enough, however. You also have to be hard on yourself. Someone who was strong-willed but self-indulgent would not be called determined. Determination implies your willfulness is balanced by discipline.

That word balance is a significant one. The more willful you are, the more disciplined you have to be. The stronger your will, the less anyone will be able to argue with you except yourself. And someone has to argue with you, because everyone has base impulses, and if you have more will than discipline you'll just give into them and end up on a local maximum like drug addiction.

I often think about this. It is so obvious but I had never read about the relationship between ambition and discipline before or since - until “Discipline is Destiny” came along. Here are some related quotes:

Ambition without temperance is just an addiction.
Of all the addictions in the world, the hardest to control is ambition - because society rewards it. We look up to the successful. We ignore how miserable most of them are and how miserable they tend to make everyone around them.
When your choices turn you into someone who has to worry about money, you are not rich - no matter how much money you will make
The whole world had not been big enough to contain Alexander [the Great], but in the end, a coffin was sufficient

The compounding power of consistency

The idea I found most interesting is that the compounding power of consistency beats sheer brilliance. This is often neglected in stories of successful people - how much of it was just due to constantly showing up well prepared.

It is easier to show up and “merely do the work” if we do not focus too much on the desired outcome and trust the process instead.

Decide who you want to be - and then do that work. Recognition will be extra
The one thing that all fools have in common is that they are always getting ready to live. They tell themselves that they just need to get some things in place first. You have to be smarter than that.
The graveyard of great potential is filled with people who just needed to do something else first
If your standards are so high that you give up when you fall short of them, you don’t have standards but excuses

Patience can be the hardest form of discipline

Sometimes, doing nothing is the best option. This is particularly true when it's difficult to hold back an emotional reaction that might make the situation worse. It is better to deal with our anger on paper - and then to keep it to ourselves. Like Lincoln’s most important letter never sent.

Paper is more patient than people
Who can be free when they have lost the freedom to abstain?

Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself

Have you ever heard of earned crankiness?

But crankiness is just one way to alienate those around us. It is even worse to make others feel bad by measuring them against expectations that we chose for ourselves voluntarily.

With power comes license to say and do what you want. It requires discipline not to do that
It is not fair to expect of other people something that they never signed up for
Be humble enough to remember that it is called self-discipline for a reason
You’ll burn yourself out if you can’t get to a place where you live and let live

The solution is to be less harsh and more understanding.

Be a strong, inspiring example and let that be enough
Our discipline can be contagious. And if it isn’t, how strong is it, really?


I have identified at least three examples from "Discipline is Destiny" that have had a negative impact on my life:

When I feel strong and healthy, I don’t watch my diet. Usually that brings me back to “normal”, a less energized state, within a week. This is not a big problem on its own. However, I have always been prone to bad throat infections that seem to get triggered by this behavior.

After reading the book, I started tracking two things in a daily journal: my alcohol consumption and a score of 1-10 that tracks how my throat is doing. I also started to see a doctor about my condition.

It is an act of self-discipline to be a good friend to the self

I was always ambitious about my goals but never good at managing the load. In the past, I would push myself too hard and end up getting sick for at least a week. Now, if my score is less than a 7, I take a break. I sleep a lot, I eat well. I continue to work but only do reading and writing. It requires discipline - sometimes, the hardest choice is to rest - but it works.

It is not fair to expect of other people something that they never signed up for

Lastly, I have noticed early signs of "earned crankiness" in myself. I am not able to "live and let live" and have unfair expectations towards others. I find it hard to deal with low ambition and cannot understand how some people don't see the opportunities in front of them. As a result, I get irritated and others notice.

I know this behavior hurts me in the long run because most people don't enjoy being around someone in that state of mind. There are plenty of fun people who don't make you feel bad. As a first step, I have started tracking occurrences of unrequested critique and emotional reactions in my journal. This has already significantly reduced those events.

April 23