The Connection Between Self-Discipline and Success
I want to bring together a couple of disparate ideas, some spiritual, some scientific, some empirical. By the end of this post I hope to have inspired you to consider meditation as a way of tapping into more fulfillment in your life. What’s covered:
- Instant Gratification
- Success (Happiness / Fulfillment)
- Pre-frontal cortex & reptilian brain
- Meditation practice
- The Spiritual Third Eye (inspiration, clarity of thought, creativity)
- Changing the world
Approximately 40 years of Stanford research found that children with the ability to delay their gratification go on to become more successful later on in life. According to the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, a positive correlation exists between delaying gratification and better life outcomes, including higher SAT scores, better education / degree attainment, lower weight / body mass index (BMI), etc.
Let me define self-discipline as the ability to assess second, third, or even fourth order consequences of any given action. Here is an example:
I want to lose weight. I decide to go to the gym and go on a diet.
In the first order of consequence I feel pain while working out, and I feel lack when I skip dessert. But because I know that as a second level consequence I will have a hot body, I am okay with delaying my gratification, which would otherwise have me sitting on the couch eating marshmallows.
Self-discipline, controlled by the pre-frontal cortex, is the same part of our brain that distinguishes us from our ape cousins. It is involved in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision-making, and moderating social behavior. Without getting into the details of why we evolved past apes, let’s just say some of us have come farther than others (i.e. some people are innately more self-disciplined than others, and thus (innately) more successful in life). This may sound unfortunate to you if you’re bad at self-restraint, but I have some good news: impulse control can be cultivated. And comes with other perks.
If you’re wondering which part of the brain makes us dart for the marshmallow, it’s commonly referred to as the reptilian brain. This part of the brain represents our reactive, instinctual nature. It flips out when something happens that we don’t like, or that threatens us. Often these threats are to our ego nature, like our pride, but they can be physical threats as well (a tiger is chasing me, or I’m running out of money). In the case of an individual with PTSD, the reptilian brain becomes locked in an overactive state, leading to a flurry of anxiety or other cognitive or physical maladies.
I’ve long known that impulse control and self-discipline are helpful to me personally towards manifesting “good things.” What I didn’t know was there was a method by which I could turn down the reptilian brain that makes me do stupid, reactive things, while simultaneously strengthening the pre-frontal cortex, the part of my brain that helps me see second and third order consequences. The method I am referring to is meditation, for myself, Transcendental Meditation (TM) in particular (although I am a student of a few forms of meditation and spiritual practice).
During meditation, the pre-frontal cortex becomes stimulated and therewith the over-active reptilian (impulsive) brain is subdued. Tremendously helpful not only to those with PTSD, meditation is beneficial to new meditators as well. While the meditating does not cause impulsiveness to be erased, those feelings weaken and become less likely to overwhelm the person. In so doing, meditating lowers stress levels, improves cognitive functioning, creative thinking and productivity, and even improves physical health (measurably). This might explain why many world and corporate leaders turn to meditation. Or, perhaps, why an individual with a well-developed pre-frontal cortex might become a world leader.
Of note, this same prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in abstract thinking, making predictions, and in planning, was unusually elaborate in the brain of Albert Einstein, revealing clues to his genius and is perhaps what helped the physicist develop the theory of relativity.
Not coincidentally, in many spiritual traditions, the third eye, also associated with the pre-frontal cortex, is described as our ability to “see beyond;” to see beyond the five senses. From a spiritual perspective, mystics have taught through the ages that our ability to be still / not react with impulse, is how we can draw to ourselves divine inspiration and creativity. Meaning, when we delay grabbing the light of immediate gratification, we can open ourselves up to greater light, to the big picture, or the end state. I can tap into information that is beyond me. This is where innovation comes from, the wellspring from where new creative ideas that change the world come from. More practically, this is how I can see within one month that I am with the wrong partner, vs. sleeping with them and figuring it out in ten. Just. By. Delaying. My. Gratification.
“Meditation more than anything in my life was the biggest ingredient of whatever success I’ve had.” That’s what Ray Dalio, the self-made billionaire founder of Bridgewater Associates — the world’s largest hedge fund — explained in 2012.
Some of the most successful people practice meditation: Oprah Winfrey, Ray Dalio, Arianna Huffington, David Lynch, Russell Simmons, and on, and on.
Therefore, if you want to change the world (or simply be happier, whatever you’re into), you’ll need to see beyond what is in front of you. To see beyond, you’ll need to get in control of your impulses. Can’t control your impulses? Start meditating! The more you strengthen your third-eye/pre-frontal cortex, the more self-disciplined you’ll become and the more you’ll be able to connect to the bigger picture, the world beyond your eyes. From this space you can see more truth, draw creativity, knowing, and divine guidance that is beyond you, beyond your five-senses alone. All of this delivers the experience of greater fulfillment.
I wanted to depict what this looks like visually. I Googled it but struggled to find a single image of what I believe life to be like. So I drew it myself. Here’s what I believe it looks like on paper:
For A Guided Meditation Theta Spring Has Provided This Recording Below:
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The straight line is our inner GPS, helping us ascend to our highest expression of self. The squiggly line represents the ups and downs of life: I lost my job, I got married, I had a baby, I got divorced, I lost an investment, I bought a Porsche, etc. In those ups and downs we get reactive and those reactions create impulses in us that cause us to look for instant gratification. The more we are able to delay gratification in those moments, to keep our reactive reptile in check, the higher up the spiritual ladder of self we can ascend.
This image can be used in any context (how to be successful in a relationship, in business, in health, as an entrepreneur, etc). Just change the title of this photo from “life” to “business.” It’s still the same formula. For a billionaire, imagine one of those big dips is bankruptcy (it happened to Donald Trump). He had a choice: continue going up, or give up? Well, we know what happened to the Donald.
As we choose to ascend up our own path, we ultimately grow towards our highest, most evolved, most successful selves, drawing down energy and inspiration that is beyond us, energy to be shared with others (kind of like water overflowing an already full glass). Put another way:
Desire* everything > control impulses > receive everything > share
If you want to become your highest and best self, the most successful, most actualized and most capable and most altruistic you, open that third-eye… stop being impulsive… perhaps start meditating! By becoming a conduit of goodness (sharing), you’ll get to experience goodness via the process.
*A note on desire: desire is intimately tied to impulse control. When you want something really bad, it can be very hard to delay gratification. Arguably, the more you want something the harder it is to say no. Desire, interestingly, also changes with age. Think of the vigor of a 20-something who wants it all. Now compare that to a 60-something who maybe tried and failed (those squiggles) and, as a byproduct, has maybe given up and just wants to go up that ladder less (their desire has shrunk). For the 60-year old, impulse is less pressing than it was 40 years ago. Interestingly, from a scientific perspective, there’s an explanation for this as well. The first part of the brain to degenerate with age is the pre-frontal cortex. Meaning, as our desire shrinks and as we age, the part of our brain associated with impulse control and the ability to delay instant gratification shrinks therewith. So if you want to stay young and you want to continue up that ladder, whatever you do, don’t allow your desire shrink.