So far, the blocks we’ve considered have assumed that there is some (often unconscious) psychological mechanism behind our inability to act with our full will and intention. But what if… you’re just lazy?
“The block of discomfort” should actually be called “the block of the inability to tolerate discomfort,” which most people simply label laziness. “Lazy” is a pretty loaded word, and has some heavy moral implications. It seems to suggest some inbuilt trait or characteristic that prevents people from striving adequately toward their own self-identified goals.
For the purposes of this book, however, we’re going to assume that there’s actually no such thing as laziness. People act against their own interests for many reasons. Fear, low self-esteem, social conditioning, habit, confusion or genuine exhaustion can all cause us to procrastinate, to hold back, to delay acting. But being “lazy” is not a cause so much as an effect. It’s a symptom of a deeper problem: an unfocused, undisciplined will.
If your conscious intention is a muscle, laziness is like being out of shape. It’s not that you absolutely can’t lift that heavy weight; it’s more like your muscles are simply not conditioned enough to do so. With time, practice and diligent effort, you become stronger and it becomes easier to do what you need to do.
When we continually fail to use our conscious intention, it becomes slack and underdeveloped in exactly the same way. We need to consistently push to strengthen it—in the same way that muscles need to work hard, to resist gravity, to push and pull, your willpower needs to push up against adversity, challenge and difficulty. In other words, discomfort.
Laziness is not some personality trait or moral judgment. It’s simply a state of being untrained. This is not something to be ashamed of or discouraged by, in the same way as it’s not bad to be a newbie when it comes to strength training and fitness.
The problem is the story we tell about discomfort, about what it means, and our willingness to endure it. In other words, it’s all about our belief. To keep the exercise analogy going, imagine a person who wants to train for a marathon, from scratch. On the first day of training, they notice a slight stitch in their side and feel a little muscle soreness the next morning. Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if they concluded that running just wasn’t for them and they might as well quit and never try again?
And yet so many of us do the same when it comes to more abstract goals. We assume that discomfort, difficulty, even outright pain and hardship means something is wrong. That we’re on the wrong path, or that if we find it hard now we will always find it hard, and so what’s the point?
Perhaps we can blame the once-popular “follow your bliss” school of thought that seemed to suggest that if you just seek your dreams and listen to your heart, life will be easy and harmonious and flow without a single snag, and you’ll never again have to suffer the humiliation of being an awkward, fumbling beginner.
Sounds nice, but the result of this belief is that you quit the very second you experience a little hurdle in the path. Even worse, you gravitate to only those tasks in life that are likely to challenge you the least—the path of least resistance. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this mindset, though comforting in the short-term, is a one-way ticket to mediocrity.
In essence, it’s not really our innate ability to tolerate discomfort that’s at stake here, but rather our belief about that ability. Have you ever met a person who almost seemed offended that life didn’t cater perfectly to their every whim? Someone who felt entitled to have things go easily for them? Perhaps you yourself are that person. In our industrialized, materialistic society, we can start to see ourselves as consumers rather than creators, always asking what we get out of the deal long before we’ve considered what we’re willing to put in.
Self-discipline can seem unfashionable for some, especially those who would prefer that positive thinking alone be enough to guarantee the perfect life. The truth is probably the opposite: that our success is not about how big we can dream or how wonderful a life we feel we deserve, but how much discomfort and hard work we are willing to endure to get there.
Self-discipline is what keeps you going during those parts of the journey that just plain suck. If you decide that you will only remain engaged in something so long as it’s interesting and pleasurable and easy to do so, you will always check out long before you have the chance to build something truly worthwhile and impressive. You’ll simply flit from one shiny thing to the next, never achieving any real mastery, never developing yourself, never strengthening that muscle called your conscious intention.
You need the ability to deliberately decide that you will persist through difficulty, because the long-term goal is bigger and more important than your short-term discomfort and laziness. Can you see past this uncomfortable moment to the prize at the end?
Again, the trick is not that some people are capable of hard work and others aren’t. Rather, it’s that some people have convinced themselves that they shouldn’t have to work hard, while others have accepted that it’s an unavoidable part of the process, and just get on with it. Combine the belief that success should come easily with any of the blocks we’ve already discovered and you have a recipe for the so-called unexamined life, where all your dreams remain unfulfilled and you never know what you’re really capable of.
Someone sees a friend building his own successful business, and says, “Wow, look at him go! I wish I had his energy. Must be nice.” This is nothing but self-delusion, a fixed mindset and an inability to tolerate the discomfort he sees his successful friend dealing with. Underneath it all, this is a story that unconsciously says, “You are not meant to grow or be better. Success is not for you. Just stay small and unremarkable and never try anything.”
Anytime we resist developing our own self-discipline, we are turning away from the only method that will bridge the gap between where we are now and where we want to be. There is no cheat code, no shortcut, no special way through. There is only hard work, and the courage and grit to decide that you will persevere even if it’s unpleasant at times.
The saying goes, “The successful person has failed more times than the unsuccessful person has even tried.” Think about it: the only difference between you and the successful person may be their higher tolerance for discomfort. There is a person out there, right now, with less inborn talent, privilege and luck than you, but who has nevertheless achieved more, simply because they were willing to fight harder for it.
Desiring instant gratification is a massive block to consciously designing the life you want. We need to be resilient and not flinch away from difficulty and hard work. Discipline simply means: Yes, laziness and fear, I acknowledge you, but I refuse to let you control me. No matter what, I’m going to act with integrity and pursue what’s important.
Nobody can make that decision but you. The good news is, the more you make that decision, the stronger your will becomes and the easier it is to make that choice the next time fear, laziness or temptation comes knocking.