Excitement > Discipline

Why you should trust excitement more than discipline.

August 1, 2023

It's no secret that extraordinary success in any pursuit requires the investment of countless hours engaging in the practice of that pursuit. However, the question begs to be asked: what fuels this investment? Discipline or excitement? Society generally suggests discipline as the paramount quality, yet, I want to argue for the opposite: one is better of exclusively focussing on excitement.

As privileged young adults, our primary object should be to discover what we love, not merely to amass successes or prove our worth by the standards of others. It's not about discipline; it's about discovery. To do so, we must try a multitude of things. And the best proxy to assist with that is excitement. You likely won't find the thing you love on the first shot, but through self-aware iteration and course-correction you will descend towards the thing you end up loving.

The proposition above runs counter to what many in society believe to be true. The consensus is to go to college, find a job, and then dedicate your life to it. All while developing a degree of discipline allowing you to keep with hard things. Your degree of discipline ensures that you fit in, contribute your part, and adhere to our norms. While some logic in reasoning to it (indeed discipline is a valuable trait that should be cultivated), it betrayals the fundamental notion of what it takes to be extraordinarily successful. The above recipe for life works for the average person with average ambition to do average stuff. And this is okay. But I do believe that every person has the potential to be extraordinary, they are simply not put in the right situation to allow for their unfolding of greatness.

Malcom Gladwell, in his book "Outliers", popularized the "10,000 hour rule", a theory positing that outlier success is achieved through relentless practice. And the verdict is clear: the degree of success is not nearly perfectly correlated with an individual's ability or merit. It's a product of the world one grows up in combined with countless hours spent engaging in the pursuit of that thing. Let's follow this line of thinking by acknowledging that outlier success in one pursuit requires an abnormal amount of time dedicated to that pursuit. How is one able to dedicate thousands of hours to their craft? Is it discipline? Or something else?

Discipline certainly plays a role in dedicating the requisite hours to a craft. But there is a second component that I believe is more important: excitement. It's the simple inquiry of "how excited are you by the thing you are doing?". The answer to this question serves as a proxy for what some call purpose or calling. You could rephrase this question to "how much do you love the thing you are doing?".

Let me outline the relationship between discipline, excitement, and success. The more discipline is required for you to engage in the thing you want to be successful at, the less excited you likely are about that thing. If you were extraordinarily excited by one thing, it would require very little discipline. Contrarily, if you are not excited at all about a thing, it requires a large degree of discipline to dedicate time towards the pursuit of that thing. As outlier success in a domain requires an outstandingly large amount of time dedicated to doing that thing, your ability to stick with it over a large period of time (>10 years) is the dummy variable deciding whether your efforts cancel out to zero or not. So what is the likely outcome of little excitement and a large degree of discipline over the long-run? Abandonment. One quits. Instead, genuine and intrinsically-driven excitement is what allows you to keep with it. This is what allows you to keep working on a given pursuit for many years without success materialising. Excitement allows you to stick with it.

The point I want to make is simple: excitement beats discipline over the long run. If you want to have outlier success in a pursuit, you are better off inspecting your degree of excitement than training your discipline muscle. Consequentially, this journey is more about finding and less about doing. Just like in the early days of a startup, you are searching for a repeatable business model, not executing on one. You can think about it like a river. If you go with the flow, trusting your excitement, things are easy and you reach your destination in the fastest time possible. Yet, the moment you want to work against the current, things get hard and exhausting. Only to figure out that ultimately, you end up in the same destination. If there's one rule I try to live by it's this: I trust excitement over my ability to be disciplined any day of the week.