To master anything, one must first master themselves–one’s emotions, one’s thoughts, one’s actions. Eisenhower famously said that freedom is really the opportunity to practice self-discipline. Cicero called the virtue of temperance the polish of life. Without boundaries and restraint, we risk not only failing to meet our full potential and jeopardizing what we have achieved, but we ensure misery and shame. In a world of temptation and excess, this ancient idea is more urgent than ever.
In Discipline is Destiny, Holiday draws on the stories of historical figures we can emulate as pillars of self-discipline, including Lou Gehrig, Queen Elizabeth II, boxer Floyd Patterson, Marcus Aurelius and writer Toni Morrison, as well as the cautionary tales of Napoleon, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Babe Ruth. Through these engaging examples, Holiday teaches readers the power of self-discipline and balance, and cautions against the perils of extravagance and hedonism.
At the heart of Stoicism are four simple virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. Everything else, the Stoics believed, flows from them. Discipline is Destiny will guide readers down the path to self-mastery, upon which all the other virtues depend. Discipline is predictive. You cannot succeed without it. And if you lose it, you cannot help but bring yourself failure and unhappiness.
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Part I The Exterior (The Body)
Our body is our glory, our hazard and our care.
We begin with the self-the physical form. In St Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, we're told to keep under the body, and bring it into subjection, so that we will not be made a castaway. The Roman tradition, according to the Stoics, was about "endurance, a frugal diet, and a modest use of other material possessions." They wore functional clothes and shoes, ate off functional plates, drank moderately out of functional glasses, and committed earnestly to the rituals of ancient life. Do we pity this? Or admire it for its simplicity and dignity? In a world of abundance, each of us must wrestle with our desires, our urges, as well as the timeless battle to strengthen ourselves for the vicissitudes of life. This is not about six-pack abs or the avoidance of all that feels good, but instead about developing the fortitude required for the path we have chosen. It's about being able to go the distance, and steering clear of the blind alleys and mirages along the way. If we don't dominate ourselves physically, who and what does dominate? Outside forces. Laziness. Adversity. Entropy. Atrophy. We do the work, today and always, because it's what we're here for. And we know that while it might seem easy to take it easy and more pleasurable to indulge our pleasure centers, in the long run, it is a far more painful route.
Ruling Over the Body . . .
He played through fevers and migraines. He played through crippling back pain; pulled muscles; sprained ankles; and once, the day after being hit in the head by an eighty-mile-per-hour fastball, he suited up and played in Babe Ruth's hat, because the swelling made it impossible to put on his own.
For 2,130 consecutive games, Lou Gehrig played first base for the New York Yankees, a streak of physical stamina that stood for the next five-and-a-half decades. It was a feat of human endurance so long immortalized that it's easy to miss how incredible it actually was. The Major League Baseball regular season in those days was 152 games. Gehrig's Yankees went deep in the postseason, nearly every year, reaching the World Series a remarkable seven times. For seventeen years, Gehrig played from April to October, without rest, at the highest level imaginable. In the off-season, players barnstormed and played in exhibition games, sometimes traveling as far away as Japan to do so. During his time with the Yankees, Gehrig played some 350 doubleheaders and traveled at least two hundred thousand miles across the country, mostly by train and bus.
Yet he never missed a game.
Not because he was never injured or sick, but because he was an Iron Horse of a man who refused to quit, who pushed through pain and physical limits that others would have used as an excuse. At some point, Gehrig's hands were X-rayed, and stunned doctors found at least seventeen healed fractures. Over the course of his career, he'd broken nearly every one of his fingers-and it not only hadn't slowed him down, but he'd failed to say a word about it.
In another sense, he's almost unfairly famous for the streak, which overshadows the stats he accumulated along the way. His career batting average was an unbelievable .340, which he topped only when it counted, hitting .361 in his postseason career. (In two different World Series, he batted over .500.) He hit 495 home runs, including twenty-three grand slams-a record that stood for more than seven decades. In 1934, he became just the third player ever to win the MLB Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs (runs batted in). He's sixth all time with 1,995 RBIs, making him, effectively, one of the greatest teammates in the history of the game. He was a two-time MVP, seven-time All-Star, six-time World Series Champion, Hall of Famer, and the first player ever to have his number retired.
While the streak started in earnest in June 1925, when Gehrig replaced Wally Pipp, a Yankees legend, in reality, his Herculean endurance could be seen at an early age. Born to German immigrants in New York in 1903, Gehrig was the only one of four children to survive infancy. He entered the world a whopping fourteen pounds, and his mother's German cooking seems to have plumped him up from there. It was the teasing of school kids that first hardened the determination of the young boy, sending him to his father's turnverein, a German gymnastics club where Gehrig began to develop the powerful lower body that later drove in so many runs. Not naturally coordinated, a boyhood friend once joked that Gehrig's body often "behaved as if it were drunk."
He wasn't born an athlete. He made himself one in the gym.
Life as a poor immigrant was not easy. Gehrig's father was a drinker, and a bit of a layabout. It's more than ironic to read of his father's chronic excuses and sick days. This example shamed Gehrig, inspiring him to turn dependability and toughness into nonnegotiable assets (in a bit of foreshadowing, he never missed a day of school). Thankfully, his mother not only doted on him, she provided an incredible example of a quiet, indefatigable work ethic as well. She worked as a cook. She worked as a laundress. She worked as a baker. She worked as a cleaning lady, hoping to provide her son a ticket to a better life.
But the poverty, the poverty was always there. "No one who went to school with Lou," a classmate recalled, "can forget the cold winter days and Lou coming to school wearing [a] khaki shirt, khaki pants and heavy brown shoes, but no overcoat, nor any hat." He was a poor boy, a fate no one would choose, but it did shape him.
There is a story about Cleanthes, the Stoic philosopher, who, as he walked through Athens on a cold day, had his thin cloak blown open by a gust of wind. Observers were stunned to find he had little else on underneath, despite the frigid temperatures. Slowly, they burst into applause at the sheer endurance of it. So it went with Gehrig, who, even as his Yankees salary made him one of the highest-paid athletes in America, was rarely seen in a hat or even a vest in New York winters. Only later, when he married a kind and loving woman, could he be convinced to put on a coat-for her sake.
Most kids like to play sports. Lou Gehrig saw in the game a higher calling. Baseball was a profession that demanded control of, as well as care for, the body-since it was both the obstacle and the vehicle for success.
Gehrig did both.
He worked harder than anyone. "Fitness was almost a religion to him," one teammate would say of him. "I am a slave to baseball," Gehrig said. A willing slave, a slave who loved the job and remained forever grateful at just the opportunity to play.
This kind of dedication pays dividends. When Gehrig stepped up to the plate, he was communing with something divine. He stood, serenely, in a heavy wool uniform that no player today could perform in. He would sway, trading weight between his feet, settling into his batting stance. When he swung at a pitch, it was his enormous legs that did the work-sending the ball off his bat, deep, deep, out of the ballpark.
Some batters have a sweet spot; Gehrig could hit anywhere, off anyone. And when he did? He ran. For a guy who was teased for having "piano legs," it's pretty remarkable that Gehrig stole home plate more than a dozen times in his career. He wasn't all power. He was speed too. Hustle. Finesse.
There were players with more talent, with more personality, with more brilliance; but nobody outworked him, nobody cared more about conditioning, and nobody loved the game more.
When you love the work, you don't cheat it or the demands it asks of you. You respect even the most trivial aspects of the pursuit-he never threw his bat, or even flipped it. One of the only times he ever got in trouble with management was when they found out he was playing stickball in the streets of his old neighborhood with local kids, sometimes even after Yankees games. He just couldn't pass up the opportunity to play . . .
Still, there must have been so many days when he wasn't feeling it. When he wanted to quit. When he doubted himself. When it felt like he could barely move. When he was frustrated and tired of his own high standards. Gehrig was not superhuman-he had the same voice in his head that all of us do. He just cultivated the strength-made a habit-of not listening to it. Because once you start compromising, well, now you're compromised . . .
"I have the will to play," he said. "Baseball is hard work and the strain is tremendous. Sure, it's pleasurable, but it's tough." You'd think that everyone has that will to play, but of course, that's not true. Some of us get by on natural talent, hoping never to be tested. Others are dedicated up to a point, but they'll quit if it gets too hard. That was true then, as it is now, even at the elite level. A manager in Gehrig's time described it as an "age of alibis"-everyone was ready with an excuse. There was always a reason why they couldn't give their best, didn't have to hold the line, were showing up to camp less than prepared.
As a rookie, Joe DiMaggio once asked Gehrig who he thought was going to pitch for the opposing team, hoping perhaps, to hear it was someone easy to hit. "Never worry about that, Joe," Gehrig explained. "Just remember they always save the best for the Yankees." And by extension, he expected every member of the Yankees to bring their best with them too. That was the deal: To whom much is given, much is expected. The obligation of a champion is to act like a champion . . . while working as hard as somebody with something to prove.
Gehrig wasn't a drinker. He didn't chase girls or thrills or drive fast cars. He was no "good-time Charlie," he'd often say. At the same time, he made it clear, "I'm not a preacher and I'm not a saint." His biographer, Paul Gallico, who grew up in New York City only a few years ahead of Gehrig wrote that the man's "clean living did not grow out of a smugness and prudery, a desire for personal sanctification. He had a stubborn, pushing ambition. He wanted something. He chose the most sensible and efficient route to getting it."
One doesn't take care of the body because to abuse it is a sin, but because if we abuse the temple, we insult our chances of success as much as any god. Gehrig was fully ready to admit that his discipline meant he missed out on a few pleasures. He also knew that those who live the fast or the easy life miss something too-they fail to fully realize their own potential. Discipline isn't deprivation . . . it brings rewards.
Still, Gehrig could have easily gone in a different direction. In the midst of an early career slump while playing in the minor leagues, Gehrig went out one night with some teammates and got so drunk that he was still boozed up at first pitch the next day. Somehow, he didn't just manage to play, but he played better than he had in months. He found, miraculously, that the nerves, the overthinking, had disappeared with a few nips from a bottle between innings.
It was a seasoned coach who noticed and sat Gehrig down. He'd seen this before. He knew the short-term benefits of the shortcut. He understood the need for release and for pleasure too. But he explained the long-term costs, and he spelled out the future Gehrig could expect if he didn't develop more sustainable coping mechanisms. That was the end of it, we're told, and "not because of any prissy notions of righteousness that it was evil or wrong to take a drink but because he had a driving, non-stop ambition to become a great and successful ball player. Anything that interfered with that ambition was poison to him."
It meant something to him to be a ballplayer, to be a Yankee, to be a first-generation American, to be someone who kids looked up to.
Gehrig, as it happened, continued to live with his parents for his first ten seasons, often taking the subway to the stadium. More than financially comfortable, he later owned a small house in New Rochelle. To Gehrig, money was at best a tool, at worst a temptation. As the Yankees reigned over the game, the team was treated to an upgraded dugout, with padded seats replacing the old Spartan bench. Gehrig was spotted by the team's manager tearing off a section. "I get tired of sitting on cushions," he said of the posh life of an athlete in his prime. "Cushions in my car, cushions on the chairs at home-every place I got they have cushions."
He knew that getting comfortable was the enemy, and that success is an endless series of invitations to get comfortable. It's easy to be disciplined when you have nothing. What about when you have everything? What about when you're so talented that you can get away with not giving everything?
The thing about Lou Gehrig is that he chose to be in control. This wasn't discipline enforced from above or by the team. His temperance was an interior force, emanating from deep within his soul. He chose it, despite the sacrifices, despite the fact that others allowed themselves to forgo such penance and got away with it. Despite the fact that it usually wasn't recognized-not until long after he was gone anyway.
Did you know that immediately after Ruth's legendary "called" home run that Lou Gehrig hit one too? Without any dramatic gestures either. Actually, it was his second of the game. Or that they have the same number of league batting titles? Or that Ruth struck out almost twice as many times as Gehrig? Lou not only kept his body in check in a way that Ruth didn't (Ruth ballooned to 240 pounds), but Gehrig checked his ego too. He was, a reporter would write, "unspoiled, without the remotest vestige of ego, vanity or conceit." The team always came first. Before even his own health. Let the headlines go to whomever wanted them.