Picture this: Large. Prominent. Inescapable. A billboard. On it three words:
Discipline equals Freedom.
This is Jocko‘s billboard. These are the words he chose to broadcast when asked by Tim Ferris what he’d put on a billboard anywhere. (The episode of the Tim Ferris show is worth a listen).
I found this statement intriguing.
How can discipline give me freedom? Doesn’t discipline limit my freedom?
I instinctively agreed, but couldn’t make sense of why?
How does disciple equal freedom? What’s the mechanics of the process?
What follows is my take on how. In aswering this question I turn to three books I read recently, which all touch on the topic and helped me answer the question for myself.
First some background
Jocko is a retired US Navy SEAL commander who now offers leadership solutions through practical training with his company Echelon Front. Him and his cofounder Leif, who is also a retired Navy SEAL and was in Jocko’s unit in Iraq, wrote a book on leadership called “Extreme Ownership – How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.”
In the book they share valuable aspects of leadership and explain them using both stories from their deployment in Iraq and experiences with the companies they consult. My five main takes from the book were on the importance of:
- being quick to obey and slow to complain
- taking full responsibility for everything you do and for those in your command
- communicating clearly up and down the chain of command
- discipline in both the mundane and complex
- integrity and humility in leadership
These things matter because there are lives at stake. There’s no half-assing as a Navy SEAL. Nonchalance will get you killed.
However, the discipline they practiced was not only to keep them safe. It gave them a greater freedom. Jocko writes:
Discipline — strict order, regimen, and control — might appear to be the opposite of total freedom — the power to act, speak, or think without any restrictions. But, in fact, discipline is the pathway to freedom.”
Discipline in groups
Ok. So we’ve got a military background and now a corporate environment. Could this mean that discipline equals freedom only in cooperative endeavors?
No. It’s just that discipline is a requirement for these groups to funciton at all. Requiring the discipline still doesn’t explain why it makes the unit or department more free.
Basically, it’s that discipline grows trust. Any group of people working together have to be able to trust each other. At least on a basic competency level, if not on a personal level. Being able to trust that decisions are binding and delegated work is done, gives each person the freedom to focus and do their best work.
The alternative is anything but freedom. There must be an enforcing body with total control and oversight that is micromanaging every move. This is oppressive to everyone doing the work and binds the “leaders” to their policing role – preventing them from doing far more valuable tasks.
Discipline in Space
Let’s go to space.
The most disciplined field I know besides the military is space exploration. This only became clear to me after reading Chris Hadfield’s “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” It’s the best book I read last year.
In it he describes an astronaut as:
someone who’s able to make good decisions quickly, with incomplete information, when the consequences really matter.
Not so different to a soldiers job, is it?
Hadfield was the first Canadian astronaut in space and practiced impressive discipline all his life to get there. He is incredibly competent in many fields, yet writes in a very relatable and refreshing style.
The most valuable take from the book was how his ambition and discipline as an astronaut translated into and proved valuable in everyday life. And the most valuable aspect of that take was his maintaining a discipline of contentment.
In an astronaut’s career there are many things outside your control and you are never promised the success of actually going to space. All you can do is prepare. It is easy to get fixated on what you want and bitter when life doesn’t hand it to you. This is where a little bit of discipline can go a long way.
Alright. This isn’t freedom strictly speaking, but maybe we’ve got the wrong idea of freedom.
Freedom in “Skull-Sized Kingdoms”
Our own present culture has harnessed […] forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.
This kind of freedom has much to recommend it.
But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.
The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacriﬁce for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.
-David Foster Wallace, “This is Water” (emphasis mine)
This is an excerpt form what has been called the best commencement speech of all time.
There are different kind’s of freedom. I think that is what Jocko is trying to say with his poster and Hadfield in his book. Discipline leads to the precious and fulfilling freedom – not the empty one descibed in the first half of this quote.
As much as we talk about freedom being a universal good and great aspiration, it can go in both ways. The lonely and self-centred freedom of entitlement and disregard can only be countered by practicing kindness, humility, and gratitude.
Freedom is a resource. We all have it. The freedom to speak, and move, and purchase what we want. However, these freedoms are worthless unless made us of.
Like a gift certificate or 100$ bill – it remains useless until used. We all have freedom, but don’t all make good use of it.
Discipline is the tool with which we harvest the freedom given to us.
We all have 24 hours in a day. Useless unless used. With discipline we can get up early and make the most of them.
Same goes for most things in life. Being disciplined let’s us make the most of what we do have and be content not having what we can’t.
That’s my take on how discipline equals freedom.
Would love to hear yours. Let me know on Twitter.
: When I say we here, I imply most of the western world. Sadly, not everyone has this basic freedom. All the more important is the question then, what we do with the freedom we have.