Note: The following are excerpts from Discipline Is Destiny: The Power of Self-Control by Ryan Holiday. Passages marked 'MV' are my comments for context, clarity, or readability.
In the winter of 1931, Martha Graham was hopelessly bogged down in a dance series she had choreographed called Ceremonials, inspired by Mayan and Aztec cultures. A notorious perfectionist, she despaired of ever completing the dance. Worried, self-critical, consumed by guilt that she had wasted her Guggenheim Fellowship, Graham was convinced she could not meet the expectations of her rising reputation, much less the vision she had in her own head. “The winter is lost,” she whimpered in self-pity. “The whole winter’s work is lost. I’ve destroyed my year. This work is no good.” Even though her dancers loved it, even though they had committed body and soul to it, all she could see was what needed to be changed. All she could see were the ways it wasn’t perfect. And it trapped her in a kind of creative prison.
It’s the tragic fate of greats across many different fields. Their success is built on their incredibly high standards—often higher than anyone, including the audience or the market, could demand—but this virtue is also a terrible vice, not just preventing them from enjoying what they have achieved, but making it increasingly impossible to ship the next thing. Because it’s never good enough. Because there’s always more they can do. Because it doesn’t measure up to what they did last time.
Da Vinci was like this, becoming almost serially incapable of finishing his paintings. Steve Jobs got stuck releasing the Macintosh before he was fired from Apple. A biographer of the novelist Ralph Ellison speaks of a perfectionism that was so “clogging” the man’s arteries that, in one case, Ellison produced forty drafts of a short statement about one of his own books—a book he had lived and breathed for decades and should have been able to hammer out in forty minutes. The tragic result was that Ellison never published a follow-up to his masterpiece, Invisible Man, despite writing some nineteen inches of futile manuscript pages over the years. What was it? Was it humility? An obsession with getting the little things right? No, those are the reassuring excuses we make for what is often a kind of narcissism and obsession. We’re convinced everyone cares so much about what we’re doing that we get stuck. We tell ourselves it’s self-discipline when in fact, it’s self-consciousness.
As they say, another way to spell “perfectionism” is p-a-r-a-l-y-s-i-s. An obsession with getting it perfect misses the forest for the trees, because ultimately the biggest miss of all is failing to get your shot off. What you don’t ship, what you’re too afraid or strict to release, to try, is, by definition, a failure. It doesn’t matter the cause, whether it was from procrastination or perfectionism, the result is the same. You didn’t do it. The Stoics remind us: We can’t abandon a pursuit because we despair of perfecting it. Not trying because you’re not sure you can win, you’re not sure whether everyone will love it, there’s a word for that too: cowardice. We have to be brave enough to soldier on. To give it a shot. To take our turn. To step into the arena, even though we might well lose. We have to be strong enough to do this too.
Of course, you’ll want to keep tinkering, keep tweaking, keep running the problems over in your mind. But you need to be able to stop yourself, to say, finally, this is done. And if you can’t do that on your own, if you have trouble with the last mile on your projects, or if you know you can fall prey to perfectionism, then do you have the self-discipline to find partners who can cut you off and balance you out? Martha was certainly successful enough to surround herself with sycophants and yes-men, but she didn’t. She understood she needed moderating influences—wise advisors and trusted patrons—if she was to produce great work. As great as Ralph Ellison and da Vinci were, as in command of their genius as they both were, they struggled with this.
MV: Below is a quote I have paraphrased from Dr. Michael Sugrue's course on philosophy, which aptly summarises the character of Marcus Aurelius:
"Lord Acton, the great English Philosopher and Historian, once said: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And that's generally true. The difficulty with that generalization is Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius was an absolute ruler who, as the ruler of the Roman Empire, had absolute power over the life and death of everyone in the known world. Almost all of the Roman emperors lived scandalous lives and disgraced themselves. They were much more concerned with indulging their sensual appetites, satisfying their passions, and flying into rages. Marcus Aurelius is the standing exception and the exception to Lord Acton's generalization. In Marcus' case, power didn't corrupt. Absolute power did not corrupt absolutely. Instead, absolute power allowed us to see what the man underneath the body is really like. It allowed us to find out what Marcus Aurelius' soul was like. Imagine a man for whom all the restraints of law, custom, and political order are taken away. He could have whatever he wanted. If a man behaves well under those circumstances, you know something about the soul underneath because no external constraints make him act as he does. Marcus Aurelius is the one example of an absolute ruler who behaved himself in such a way as to not disgrace himself."
MV: Back to the excerpts from Discipline is Destiny.
Because through Hadrian’s strange succession plan, Marcus had inherited a stepbrother whose role was uncertain. What should an emperor do with this potential rival? An ancient Stoic master had warned a previous emperor to dispatch any other male heirs, saying one “cannot have too many Caesars.” Marcus thought and thought and came upon a solution unmatched in all of history for its generosity and selflessness, literally a walking contradiction of the dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely: He named his stepbrother co-emperor. Given absolute power . . . the first thing he did was give half of it away.
Marcus Aurelius and his stepbrother could not have been more different either. Lucius Verus was not nearly so strict with himself. He was not known to have ever picked up a philosophy book. Did Marcus believe himself to be superior? From his Meditations, all we hear him express is gratitude “that I had the kind of brother I did. One whose character challenged me to improve my own. One whose love and affection enriched my life.” It was said that the true majesty of Marcus Aurelius was that his exactingness was directed only at himself. He did not “go around expecting Plato’s Republic.” People were people, he understood they were not perfect. He found a way to work with flawed people, putting them to service for the good of the empire, searching them for virtues that he celebrated and accepting their vices, which he knew were not in his control.
“We are so far from possessing anything of our own,” Marcus said to the Senate of his family’s so-called wealth, “that even the house in which we live is yours.” One of the only direct commands we hear of him giving the Senate was that they be merciful to some of his political enemies who had attempted a coup. The majority of Marcus Aurelius’s commands were instead to himself. Robin Waterfield, his translator, observes that 300 of the 488 entries in Meditations are rules Marcus gave himself. He got up early. He journaled. He kept himself active. He was not blessed with good health, but he never complained, never used it as an excuse, never let it slow him down more than absolutely necessary. Despite his wealth and power, he lived humbly—maintaining that difficult balance of restraint within abundance, spending most of his reign not in glamorous palaces of marble but in the simple tent of a soldier at the front. And when he fell short or screwed up? He tried to pick himself up and get back to it. To do his best always, even when it was very hard.
In the depths of the Antonine Plague, as Rome’s treasury was depleted, Marcus held a two-month sale on the lawn of the imperial palace, selling off his jewels and art collection, his wife’s silks and everything else they could live without. Were there other ways he could have solved the empire’s financial problems? Of course. He could have raised taxes. He could have looted the provinces. He could have relied on “prescription”—to seize the estates and property of Rome’s oligarchs. He also could have just kicked the can down the road, leaving the issue to his successors. Nearly every emperor before and after him would take these easy ways out, never thinking twice about it. Marcus took the hit instead. Because that’s what great leaders do: They do the right thing, even when—especially when—it costs them. When he was criticized, he shrugged it off. He had no time for sycophants or slanderers. Like Antoninus, when he was shown to be incorrect, he admitted error and changed his mind. It was a busy, ceaseless life, but he found stillness inside it, managing even to study philosophy from the cot in his tent, far from his library. He worked hard to be present, to “concentrate every minute like a Roman,” winnowing his thoughts and tuning out distraction, doing what was in front of him with both the tenderness and the tenacity he had learned from his hero. Whatever it was, he did his best—whether he was celebrated or despised for it.
"You don’t have to turn this into something,” he reminded himself when someone did something wrong or said something untrue about him. When he lusted after something, he stopped himself, turning those desires to stone before they burned through him and he did something he’d regret. He tried to make beautiful choices, tried to look for the best in people, tried to put himself in their shoes, tried to lead by serving. It was the pride of Marcus’s life that he not only didn’t need to ask anyone for favors but that anytime anyone asked him for something—money, advice, a hand—he could be generous. Amid plenty, amid intrigue, Marcus kept and was kept by, this beautiful motto: “Unrestrained moderation.” It is one thing to be a king, it is another to be a philosopher-king, and another thing entirely to be a good philosopher-king. To be a kingly person, independent of your title. Enfranchised, indifferent to what makes no difference, self-contained, self-motivated, devoted, hitting every right note at the right time in the right way. The kind of character that Marcus Aurelius cultivated was such that it brought distinction to his position, rather than the position bringing honor to his person.
To remain oneself in a world that pushes for conformity takes courage. It takes courage as well as temperance to be restrained in a world of excess, where we attack and mock those who don’t indulge in the pleasures we have rationalized and the passions we have excused in ourselves. Did he lose his temper from time to time? Of course. Few leaders can claim otherwise. But the ancient historians provide us no evidence that Marcus was ever vindictive, petty, cruel, or out of control. His reign was free of scandals, of shameful acts, of corruption. Isn’t that a pretty low bar? Not when you compare it to the sickening and brutal list of crimes and disasters put together by his predecessors and successors, right on down to today, where it seems that the hardest thing to find in the world is an honest and decent person in a position of significant leadership. Although Marcus was of good character, he knew that character was something that needs to be constantly worked on, constantly improved. He understood the second we stop trying to get better is the moment we start gradually getting worse. After the passing of Antoninus, he maintained his lifelong study of philosophy, humbly gathering up his tablets and going to school even as an old man. He never wanted to stop learning, never wanted to stop getting better.
What was he after? What was this destiny he sought? It was, of course, an impossible ideal, but the work of his life was movement toward the place where he would be “never swayed by pleasure or pain, purposeful when in action, free from dishonesty or dissimulation, and never dependent on action or inaction from anyone else.” Or, as he described it elsewhere, “self-reliance and indisputable immunity to the dice rolls of fortune.”
Cato the Younger was just as strict as his great-grandfather. He was indifferent to wealth. He wore ordinary clothing, and walked around Rome barefoot and bareheaded. In the army, he slept on the ground with his troops. He never lied. He never went easy on himself. It came to be an expression in Rome: We can’t all be Catos. No one illustrated the impossibility of Cato’s standards like Cato’s own brother, Caepio. He loved luxury and favored perfumes and kept company that Cato never would have allowed himself. And yet Cato was humble enough in his own temperance to remember that it’s called self-discipline for a reason. While we hold ourselves to the highest standards—and hope that our good behavior is contagious—we cannot expect everyone else to be like us. It’s not fair, nor is it possible. Perhaps it was a rule articulated by Cato’s great-grandfather that helped Cato love and support his brother despite their different approaches to life. “I am prepared to forgive everybody’s mistakes,” Cato the Elder said, “except my own.” Ben Franklin, many generations later, would put forth an even better rule: “Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices.” Or as Marcus Aurelius put it, Tolerant with others, strict with yourself.
The only person you get to be truly hard on is you. It will take every ounce of your self-control to enforce that—not because it’s hard to be hard on yourself, but because it’s so hard to let people get away with things you’d never allow in yourself. To let them do things you know are bad for them, to let them slack off when you see so much more in them. But you have to. Because their life is not in your control. Because you’ll burn yourself out if you can’t get to a place where you live and let live. Credit them for trying. Credit them for context. Forgive. Forget. Help them get better, if they’re open to the help. Not everyone has trained like you have. Not everyone has the knowledge you have. Not everyone has the willpower or the commitment you have. Not everyone signed up for this kind of life either! Which is why you need to be tolerant, even generous with people. Anything else is unfair. It’s also counterproductive.
Be a strong, inspiring example and let that be enough . . . and even then try to be empathetic. In the run-up to the Gulf War, Colin Powell kept the fact that he was sleeping in his office a complete secret from his staff. The burden fell on his shoulders, not theirs, and he did not want them to feel like they had to try—even if they could—to match him sacrifice for sacrifice. One of Lincoln’s secretaries would marvel at the way the president “never asked perfection of anyone, he did not even insist, for others, upon the high standards he set for himself.” While good discipline is contagious, we can also be strong enough to accept that we are the only one who must live with such a severe case of it. Discipline is our destiny. From Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius learned that just trying to escape our own faults is hard enough work to keep us busy for a lifetime. None of us are so perfect that we can afford to spend much time questioning other people’s courage, nitpicking their habits, trying to push them to reach their potential. Not when we have so much further to go ourselves. Understanding this should not just make us less harsh, but also more understanding.
Better to follow the model of Cato and Marcus Aurelius. Cato didn’t lord himself over his brother, he loved him. With his stepbrother, Lucius Verus, Marcus didn’t hold his nose. He found things to love and appreciate in him—things that Marcus didn’t have himself. And of his weaknesses? Marcus used his brother’s vices to improve himself. Both were made better by being in each other’s lives, both were enriched by the common ground and affection they found in each other. This is the higher plane: When our self-discipline can be complemented by compassion, by kindness, understanding, love. The fruit of temperance should not be loneliness and isolation. That would be a bitter fruit, indeed. Superiority is not a weapon you wield on other people. In fact, we have a word for that kind of intemperance: egotism.
Other people will choose to live differently. They may attack us for our choices—out of insecurity or ignorance. They may well be rewarded for things we find abhorrent or ill-disciplined. And? That’s for them to deal with, and for us to ignore. The journey we are on here is one of self-actualization. We leave other people’s mistakes to their makers, we don’t try to make everyone like us. Imagine if we were successful—not only would the world be boring, but there would be so many fewer people to learn from! The better we get at this, the kinder we should become, and the more willing to look the other way. We’re on our own journey and, yes, it is a strict and difficult one. But we understand that others are on their own path, doing the best they can, making the most of what they have been given. It’s not our place to judge. It is our place to cheer them on and accept them.
Two words should be taken to heart and obeyed when exerting ourselves for good and restraining ourselves from evil—words that will ensure a blameless and untroubled life: persist and resist. — Epictetus
You may lose battles, but never lose a minute to sloth. — Napoleon
Those who think that they can live a high spiritual life whose bodies are filled with idleness and luxuries are mistaken. — Leo Tolstoy
It doesn’t matter what you bear, it matters how you bear it. — Seneca
Love the discipline you know, and let it support you. — Marcus Aurelius