Be Disciplined: Liberating by Confining

December 7, 2017

“Daddy, I want an Oompa Loompa! I want you to get me an Oompa Loompa right away! I want an Oompa Loompa now.”

This is my favorite line from the original movie version of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The spoiled and impetuous Veruca Salt has just met an Oompa Loompa, a living, breathing human-like being, and tells her father that she must have one…now! He promises to get her one right away.

Veruca lacks discipline. It’s all about the here and now. Instant desires must be instantly filled. Conversely, discipline is all about delaying today’s wants for tomorrow’s needs.

Discipline is probably the most important tool needed to achieve one’s goals. Simply put, discipline liberates by confining; if you do this one thing today, you can do these two things tomorrow.

Discipline is a learned trait. Step by step, it must be grown and nurtured, pruned and refined. Learning to be disciplined has been a great journey in my whistling career. When I was most disciplined, I won; when I slacked off, resting on my laurels, I lost.

Discipline manifests itself in many ways, but practice is the most obvious. People often ask me if I have to practice. It used to startle me, but now I understand why people ask, and I respond straight-away, “Of course…at least two hours a day when preparing for a performance or competition.” (That people ask the question is another indication that whistlers have much work to do to demonstrate that our lips are actual instruments and whistling is art).

The beauty of whistling is that it is lightweight and portable. Have lips and air, will practice–driving in the car, walking down the street, in the parking garage, at home beside the piano, sequestered in the basement away from beleaguered spouses and sleeping children, you name it. I dedicate hundreds of hours to mastering my pieces. I break them down part by part, first to get the notes, then to arrange the piece for whistle. Using different techniques and sounds, I try to breathe life into the pieces in a way that reflects my personality.

Why am I disciplined? Over the years, I’ve learned that if you have big dreams, you need to be incredibly disciplined to achieve them. For me, discipline is the fruit of a positive feedback loop. Discipline begets achievement, which begets pleasure, which encourages more discipline, because pleasure (winning and accolades) is desirable.

Less-disciplined people are stuck in a negative feedback loop. Short-term thinking yields problems, which require solving, which distract from their long-term goals, which set them back even further financially and emotionally, which yields more pleasure-centric short-term behavior, and so on.

These are obvious simplifications of complex behaviors, as everyone’s situation is unique. Depending on where you are on the discipline spectrum will determine how much effort it will take to become more disciplined. For folks looking to make progress in this area, I’m a big fan of baby steps. In my day job, one of my management philosophies is to ’embrace incrementalism.’ While bold strokes can be effective at work and in life, small, consistent steps are more likely to bring about change and get you to your goal. (This approach is similar to the juxtaposition of heroic behavior versus the development of simple gifts that my book is about.)

Also, finding people (or dogs) who inspire you can be helpful on the journey of improved discipline. For example, I’ve long been motivated by champion cyclists, since I am an avid road biker. Professional cycling is arguably the most demanding sport in the world. Look at the Tour de France: 2,200 miles in three weeks, at speeds averaging twenty-five to twenty-eight miles per hour. Incomprehensible–if you’re not into biking trust me, this is astounding. But they are able to do it because of the discipline of training, illegal doping notwithstanding. To come close to the Yellow Jersey, they train like fiends–fifty to 100-mile rides at incredible speeds, six days a week, for months on end, year after year.

Such commitment to excellence and achievement boggles my mind and spurs me on to do my best, to find patterns and rhythms that will enable me to grow as a musician, and to fine-tune my art in ways that differentiate me in competitions and delight audiences at performances.

Another example of discipline that has intrigued me for nearly thirty years is the steely discipline of a friend’s dog. My dear friend Pete Brown used to have a dog named Breef (Pete is a lawyer). Pete trained Breef to accept a biscuit in his mouth, but not chew it until allowed to do so. I saw it with my own eyes and was amazed. Breef is long gone, but his example of remarkable discipline lives one. Over the years I often thought, if Breef can do it, so can I.

Sometimes people ask me how disciplined I am. On a scale from one to ten, I give myself a seven and a half. This is an improvement from my high school days, but compared to some hyper-discipline friends, I still have a ways to go. One buddy is a serious swimmer. He’s up at 4:14 every morning to get to the pool in time for his workout, to ensure he can be in the office by 7:30. We talked recently, and he was on his thirtieth straight day of this intense routine–impressive. An that discipline has helped him become a successful businessman, husband, and father. It  permeates every aspect of his life and enables him to do his best and gets him closer to his full potential.

I also do a crazy thing that helps me develop and strengthen my discipline. I’m a dessert lover who gives up all dessert every other year…for a full year. Yes, all dessert: cakes, cookies, ice cream, candy bars, you name it. I started this in 1999, and have found the bi-annual fast to be an amazing tool for improving my overall discipline. Discipline, I’ve found, is a state of being that applies to a range of circumstances–when I wake up, what I eat, how often I practice whistling, my exercise regime, frequency of prayer, and a hundred other things.

You may be wondering how this meshes with my goal to make the most of every day, which calls for eating more ice cream, among other delightful things. It’s all about balance and trade-offs. In general, I eat too much dessert, so this is a radical way to help regulate my consumption. Of course, moderation would be best, and I’m working on that. In the meantime, though, I find that the sweet-free fast makes me more disciplined overall and, importantly, helps me to embrace the concept of delayed gratification, which, I believe, was critical to my whistling success in particular and my long-term happiness in general.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Veruca Salt.

(Find this and other stories in my new book Find Your Whistle: Simple Gifts Touch Hearts & Change Lives.)