The importance of grit, rules, and discipline

By Francisco Dao , written on May 21, 2013

From The News Desk

I know a girl who, despite a flimsy record of personal achievement, has made a living out of being optimistic. People are so desperate to hear feel-good messages they pay her money to be told, “You’re special and you can do it!” Of course, this girl isn’t alone. The entire self improvement industry and what appears to be half of my Facebook newsfeed consist of similar proclamations of “follow your dreams!”

More than just annoying, these messages are flat out wrong and in most cases counterproductive. They teach people to be impulsive and focus solely on the desired outcome while ignoring the path to get there. In study after study, it’s been shown that discipline and impulse control are the primary traits of successful people and the best predictor of future achievement. In contrast, unwarranted, overinflated self esteem is often a sign of future failure. Compared to discipline, even legitimate measures of intelligence have very little bearing as predictors of success.

For example, a study by James Heckman of the University of Chicago found that GED “graduates” were intellectually equal to regular high school graduates but their future paths looked nothing alike. Across a wide range of measurements including income, divorce rates, and drug use, Heckman found that the post high school profiles of GED recipients exactly matched those of high school dropouts, not graduates. Intelligence was irrelevant. It was the discipline of doing the work that counted; earning a diploma without putting in the effort was worthless.

Further debunking the “just dream it” crowd is the work of NYU professor Gabriele Oettingen. Oettingen found that optimists engage in a goal setting strategy known as “indulging” in which they imagine their achievements and everything they think will go along with it. Unfortunately for the optimists, and counter to the promises of the people selling you these loads of “visioneering” bullshit, Oettingen’s research showed that while this technique feels great while you’re playing make-believe, it has no correlation to actual achievement.

Successful people, Oettingen found, focused on what was required to overcome the obstacles that stood between them and their desired outcomes. They concentrated on the implementation instead of the dream and created rigid rules and plans to help them reach their goals.

Contrary to the research supporting discipline and rules, self empowerment people hate rules. Everywhere you turn they sell the message that “rules are meant to be broken” and “rules stand in the way of dreams.”  But it is the ability to set and adhere to rules that produces lasting results. Most people try to overcome unpleasant tasks and decisions via willpower. For example, when someone on a diet is offered a slice of cheesecake he engages in a mental struggle with himself trying to resist. But studies have shown that willpower behaves like a muscle and effectively gets tired. Resisting the coconut shrimp appetizers and prime rib makes it that much harder to say no to dessert.

Disciplined people solve this problem by creating non-negotiable rules for themselves. Instead of relying on the diminishing strength of their willpower every time they’re offered a temptation, they simply set the rule that they don’t eat cheesecake, or whatever it is, and there is no internal debate. By setting rules in all parts of their lives, disciplined people create a structure of habits that reinforce what’s important to them and help them overcome obstacles.

Chess grandmaster and author Jonathan Rowson summed it up best when explaining why many people dream of becoming grandmasters yet so few succeed. Rowson writes, “When it comes to ambition, it is crucial to distinguish between “wanting” something and “choosing” it. Decide that you want to become world champion and you will inevitably fail to put in the hard work...If, however, you choose to become world champion, then you will reveal your choice through your behavior and your determination. Every action says, “This is who I am.””

So the next time someone tells you they have a secret shortcut to your dreams or they can empower you to new heights because their book, blog, or bootcamp will reinforce how special you are, you would be well advised to run away quickly. Success doesn’t come from feel-good messages and overinflated self esteem. It comes from grit, rules, and discipline.

NOTE: Many of my thoughts in this post were derived from Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, which I strongly recommend.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]