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I've been meaning to do this post for a while now, but summer stuff kept getting in the way.  On June 14, Joe Haldeman made a post on one of the requirements for his Master's Degree in Creative Writing, which he earned from the University of Oklahoma in 1961.  He said his professors required the students to write 1,000 words a day, and to carry the latest week's worth of writing with them at all times so if they ran into a professor who wanted to talk about the writing, they had it ready.  Haldeman wrote, "The head of the program, a distant shirtsleeve relative name of Foster-Harris, said that if you could write a thousand words a day for two years, maybe you couldn't be a writer. But you would be so god-damned stubborn you'd probably be a success at something else."

What got to me about the post was the 1,000 word a day requirement of all the students.  It was an institutionalized expectation of discipline, which seems to me not to be a word I hear in education much, but I still do hear among the successful writers I know.

What also struck me about the post is how rare discipline is among the students I know at the high school, the college and at workshops I attend.  The applied, scheduled regimen of effort feels almost outmoded among educational theorists.  Now, it seems, all our efforts are to in some way trick the students into doing the work that used to be a standard expectation.  Educators hardly ever talk about "discipline" to improve.  They talk about "relevancy" and "summative assessments," which is not about applied effort, but about one-shot measurements.

In my creative writing classes, I ask the students to do 1,000 words a week in journals.  By the time I get to the end of the class, it's unusual to have 50% of them still hitting that requirement.  The goal of the assignment, of course, is to get them to write daily.  Of the 50% who are still hitting the 1,000 words, it's clear for many of them that the 1,000 words were all written in one session, even though I go to great lengths to convince them that the daily writing will be much more beneficial than a one-time shot once a week, even when I explain to them the whole concept of "discipline" in the arts.  Great pianists do not practice just one day out of seven (even if they played for twelve hours on that one day), nor do great dancers put on their dancing shoes once a week or great artists only draw on a weekend day.  They all put in the daily or near daily time.

The benefits of discipline are so obvious, too, that I'd think a sensible person would recognize that the best way to get really good at something would be to spend a lot of consistent time doing it, but so many wannabe whatevers ignore the examples around them.

As an illustration, a high school sophomore in one of my classes is a horrible English student (won't do the assignments, ignores instruction, is frequently distracted), but he carries his guitar with him every where he goes.  I've listened to him play at lunch.  He's really good!  So I talked to him about it.  He's only been playing a year, but he's played every day during that year.  I've watched him in class (when he was supposed to be reading), working out fingerings and chord progressions on the imaginary frets on his desk.  If he's not sitting in class, he's playing his guitar.  It should be no wonder that he's good, but I've heard other students who also want to play talking enviously of his "talent."  As far as I can tell, the only talent my student has is the desire within him that has translated into discipline.

(I probably have a whole other post within me about my dissatisfaction with our current philosophy that all students should be able to jump the same low bar in all academic areas rather than actually getting good at anything.  In my poor English student's life, language arts aren't a priority.  He gets by with low "C" work.  Would it be better for him right now to drop the guitar and spend more time on English?  Maybe, but maybe not.  Where's the greater good for him?  Remember what Haldeman's teacher said.  My guitar player might not go on to a career in music, but  he ". . .  would be so god-damned stubborn [he'd] probably be a success at something else.")

Whew, long parenthetical.

At any rate, my whole point is that discipline seems underrated as a key to success and improvement.  I'm a better writer because I write everyday.  "Discipline" might not mean every day for some other folks, but it certainly means sustained effort over time.  

Outside of my writer friends, I don't see discipline all that often.  It's a rare commodity.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 22nd, 2010 09:50 pm (UTC)
We talk a lot about discipline at my horse trainer's. It's often used to relate to a specific mental quality in a horse under training, usually comprised of focus, attention upon human, response to correction, cooperation with training when asked to do something new, and recall when asked to do something in a riding session. The horse with discipline doesn't tend to be skittery and skittish under saddle. Things may attract their attention briefly away from the rider, but they're not looking for evasions to take them away from the work (key point). They anticipate each step of a grooming routine and (for example, when hoof picking), have the anticipated foot unweighted and ready to be lifted by the humans. Some will even lift the foot to the human hand.

When I start tacking up my horse, she lowers her head, arches her neck and rounds her back to prepare for the saddle and the rest of her tack. That's one example of discipline.

So in this context, the best thing a horseman can say of a horse or a fellow trainer is that "he/she has discipline and a good mind." Discipline isn't absent from horse folks, for certain.

I talk to my students about discipline--but that's in the study strategies class, or in one-on-one special education sessions. I don't know if it's the consistent level of expectation, but one thing that has been said about my sped students in the six years I've been teaching is that they are some of the hardest workers in the school. I push them, unless there's a good reason not to do so. And I try to encourage parents to push the kids as well.

I think there are kids out there who understand the need for discipline. I see enough of them out there every day. Now the majority of kids don't, sadly enough---but I've known a few that I hope to see referred to as top athletes in a few years.
Jun. 22nd, 2010 10:13 pm (UTC)
It should be no wonder that he's good, but I've heard other students who also want to play talking enviously of his "talent."

This is the part that really bothers me. It can be frustrating--as someone who has worked really hard to get to be good at what I do--to have that hard work dismissed in favor of "talent," the assumption that I was born naturally able to do these things. I have heard the same complaint from many of the other disciplined people I know--mostly musicians and writers. (It's even more frustrating because it's intended to be a compliment and so to be frustrated by it seems in poor taste.)
Jun. 22nd, 2010 11:37 pm (UTC)
I agree. I think I have a diatribe from last year about our heroes are champions not because they work hard or study, but because they have a natural talent. I know this bubbled up for me after watching the reboot of Star Trek. I have never liked Kirk as a character and this movie made me loathe him more, because he gets everything without effort, all because if his "innate talents" and I think that's a load of bull. It seemed to me at the time all the heroes and champions I read or watched on TV or in movies had that quality. Success just came to them.

I hate the implication that hard work is worthless.
Jun. 22nd, 2010 11:44 pm (UTC)
Part of the problem is that people dismiss any talented person's success as from the talent -- they refuse to believe that anyone with talent could work hard.
Jun. 23rd, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
Yet there have been articles recently about just how much practice it takes to become the best at something -- isn't it something like 10,000 hours? I think the article was in the New York Times....
Jun. 23rd, 2010 10:54 am (UTC)
Harry Potter and Quidditch is the first painful example that springs to mind. "You should be punished! But you won't be! Because you've got previously-unsuspected, utterly unearned talent!"
Jun. 23rd, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
You're so right!
Jun. 23rd, 2010 04:12 pm (UTC)
Ooh. I didn't think of that one. Thanks for the addition to my arsenal.
Jun. 22nd, 2010 11:33 pm (UTC)
I remember getting 50 to 60 algebra problems every day for homework. At the college, students complain about 10 problems a day. I think the lack of discipline makes educating students harder. I have college level student workers who never had to memorize the addition table or multiplication table so they cannot do math without a calculator. It's sad, it really is.

As for writing, I wish I could do 250 a day again. I did really well on that program.
Jun. 23rd, 2010 11:00 am (UTC)
Without a doubt it's often not my smartest students who succeed, but my harder working ones. It's hard to convey that they all should work hard to my students, for some it's such a foreign thought to their education training.
Jun. 23rd, 2010 02:14 pm (UTC)
Now, it seems, all our efforts are to in some way trick the students into doing the work that used to be a standard expectation.

I agree. An acquaintance who teaches online and in-person for several institutions notes that for the in-person classes, s/he is instructed to give students time to do the assignments in class because they don't have time otherwise. In the one-credit library course I am scheduled to teach this fall, it's been decided not to use a textbook, in large part because last semester the students didn't bother to buy and read it.
Jun. 23rd, 2010 03:56 pm (UTC)
It's the people who have talent but *act* as if they don't who become the superstars.

"I've failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed." Michael Jordan

I don't have superstar talent, but I've become a competitive bowler by 35 years of continual (and therefore disciplined?) effort. Most of my efforts during that time were utter failures. I just got back from a two week trip to Las Vegas where I performed well below average in a relatively weak field. That means it's time to dig in and work harder.

Now if only the Haldeman quote works in reverse. . .
Jun. 23rd, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
If I remember it correctly from On Writing, Stephen King talks a bit about how those who have a talent for something have an almost obsessive drive to do that thing. The guitarist in the entry here has talent, by King's definition of the term, by the fact that he has to play whenever he can. A talented person is good at a particular skill not just because of an innate ability, but also because they have an inordinate urge to do that thing, and do it at every opportunity.

As my high school band teacher would say, practice doesn't make perfect, it makes permanent. Emerson put it slightly different: "That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do. Not because the nature of the thing itself has changed, but our power to do is increased."
Jun. 26th, 2010 08:14 am (UTC)
Great post, Jim. With daily discipline it's possible to do what may seem impossible. It's so easy and so damned difficult at the same time.

--Jack Skillingstead
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )