Our world is one that is characterized by options. Across every aspect whether large or small, we have a plethora of choices. What type of car would you like to purchase? Which post-secondary school do you want to attend? Which of the 83 bubble tea shops in the area would you like to go to today?
Don’t get me wrong - many of these options are great for us to have (can you imagine back in the day when everyone drove the same Ford Model T in Black?). But with all these decisions to make, it becomes critical that we develop a framework of how to decide which options to choose, and more importantly how to know when to stop thinking about or trying alternatives.
And nowhere is this more important than choosing what to do with your time.
Bruce Lee one famously said that
“I don’t fear the man that has practiced ten thousand kicks once. I fear the man that has practiced one kick ten thousand times”
I’m not suggesting that we stubbornly stick with a choice simply because we’ve made it (ie sunk cost philosophy), nor am I suggesting that we should never consider alternatives and should never sample other options. I am, however, suggesting that there is much value in sticking with something for some measure of time so that you can achieve some level of mastery of the thing before moving on.
The cost of long term recall
The primary problem of constantly cycling through alternatives is that our brain’s long term recall is much more expensive than short term. This means that we benefit from recalling something that has recently been accessed, and we pay a heavy price for pulling up something that we haven’t accessed recently.
Further, moving things from short term to long term takes energy for the brain to do. In his book Why we sleep, Matthew Walker describes the process and energy required for our brains to actively move things from short term to long term storage, as well as the lossiness of it (if we don’t sleep enough, our brains will simply drop things out of short term and “lose” it; and let’s be honest, most of us don’t sleep enough).
As a result, when we cycle through alternatives instead of focusing on one at a time, we constantly incur the cost of long term recall and short term loss.
Our unconscious mind
When we dedicate ourselves to a consistent effort, we allow our unconscious mind to do its work forming connections and relationships between things that our conscious mind is unaware of. It is these connections that form the basis of excellence and mastery. It is these connections that allow our body to finely tune itself to accomplish the task at hand, regardless of whether it is a physical, mental, or emotional task.
By allowing our unconscious mind to do its work, we create a virtuous cycle; as the mind creates more connections, our dedicated conscious mind works more effectively and efficiently, which in turn accelerates the rate at which our unconscious mind is able to create even more connections.
As our unconscious mind creates enough connections to get us out of firehose drinking phase (you know, the phase where you feel like absolutely everything is new and you need extreme focus to get even the smallest thing right), it is able to not only form connections within the given effort but with adjacent efforts as well. This means for example that as we focus on learning how to read music, our unconscious minds will begin drawing relationships and parallels to learning languages, to mathematics, to logic, and to critical thinking.
This is why learning something new, such as snowboarding, riding a bike, or how to cook is most effectively done when we spend a straight week learning and practicing rather than spreading those five days out over a year-long period. Anyone who has tried to learn to ski by going once a year will instinctively understand this!
Dedication or discipline?
A natural question that arises is whether the learning is accelerated by dedication to the thing itself, or by the discipline needed to stick with it. It is true that discipline and dedication are closely related, but what is the actual causality of the relationship? We are often told that disciplined people are able to be dedicated to their craft because of the myriad benefits of discipline. While there may be some truth to that, I believe the reverse is a much stronger causal relationship.
Dedication breeds discipline.
When we are dedicated to an effort, that dedication begins to grow and touch other areas of our brains. It drives passion, it produces drive, it ignites creativity, but most importantly it creates the opportunity for discipline. When we approach our dedication in a thoughtful and organized manner, we create the space for disciplined habits to form.
It is this space that separates super successful people from the rest.
These people are able to apply discipline and thoughtful, meticulous thinking onto their pursuits and as a result are able to create sustained, systematic progress and improvement, which in turn breeds a deeper passion and dedication to their pursuit.
Discipline then becomes the accelerant to our pursuits. It allows us to be in better control of our choices, our decisions, and our growth path. It allows us to methodically plan out a sustained trajectory for learning. It aids us in overcoming the inevitable hurdles that will come our way.
This virtuous cycle is one that has manifested itself throughout the ages in all of the prominent contributions of our species. Every leap humanity has taken, every new frontier that we’ve crossed, and every new disruptive discovery have all had immense hurdles for us to overcome. And every one of these hurdles has been overcome because of the dedication and discipline of our forefathers before us.
My sons, dedication is one of the most powerful forces humanity has at our disposal. It has the power to transform lives, to build new worlds, and to repair broken relationships. It is my deepest desire for both of you that you learn to harness its power for your own lives, and that you surround yourselves with like minded people that will push you further and challenge you deeply. May yours be lives filled with a range of pursuits each characterized by dedication, passion, and discipline.