You’d think that a guy who spent my kind of years in uniform would be pretty disciplined in just about everything he does. You’d be wrong. I had cause to reflect on my character failings this week as some work-related issues drove me into unjustified laziness at home, and I came to realize that I’m a textbook example of the dichotomy between externally imposed discipline and self-discipline.
As a kid, I wasn’t terribly self-disciplined. I preferred to read novels or goof off instead of working on my academics, and it was a minor miracle that I graduated high school with good enough marks to be accepted at RMC. However, during my high school years, I was also in the Army Cadets and thrived in that environment: the short haircut (this was the ‘70s, so I kind of stood out at school), ironing the uniform, shining the boots, drill and all the other forms of discipline present in the Cadet movement. I think my mother had a hard time understanding why her kid could turn out a sharp uniform, go to summer camp and make his bed military style every morning while being, charitably, a bit of a teenaged slob at home. When I entered the regular military at age seventeen, the externally imposed discipline became a daily affair and cured me of my teenage laziness in most respects. Or did it? I thrived in the enclosed RMC environment, and didn’t do too badly once I graduated and was posted to a regular field unit. One could say that by serving in the reserve after I left the full-time Army, with its obligation to work one night a week and one to two weekends a month, I displayed a commendable amount of self-discipline as I balanced that with my day job and my family. But again, it was an environment where discipline was also by and large externally imposed.
Here I am now, four years after saying my final farewells to my Regiment, with nothing other than my day job to impose external discipline on me. Am I still the procrastinating, lazy and nonchalant teenager, albeit with grey hair and some extra pounds? This week, I’d say probably. My ability to will some self-discipline into my life seems to be somewhat of an erratic power. With the good weather returned, I’ve made myself go outside and walk away the day’s stress, but will I be able to keep it up, or return to my winter’s slump of goofing off on the computer while waiting for Mrs Thomson to return from work? I’ve made no progress on the rewrite of The Path of Duty, or failing that, the first draft of Cold Comfort, but I have been able to write this blog post, so it’s not writer’s block. More like a writer giving up his amateur status and going pro in the crastination game. I look at some of the good people I work with. They’re able to exercise consistently, always and with a will. They can get the yard work done when it has to, and I have no doubt that if they had writerly ambitions, they’d be able to pound the keyboard for a few hours every evening, day in, day out, and yet few of them have been in the military, with all of its regimentation. I can discipline myself to be as productive as they are at work, but incentives are different when it’s what brings home the bacon.
It frightens me to think how my career, and indeed my life would have gone if I’d had the kind of self-discipline we seem to attribute to soldiers. I might have *gasp* reached senior rank. Instead, this week I’m struggling to motivate myself to work on my writing rather than watching Netflix. I look with admiration at some of my fellow sci-fi authors, who can pump out good solid stories every three months. Granted, some might not be balancing out their writing with a day job, but I think the most productive writers are the ones with the most self-discipline.
It’s kind of sad that after all the years the Army spent teaching me to be a self-starting, hard-working, self-disciplined fellow, I can still easily fall back into the mindset of the procrastinating teenager I was, back when disco was in vogue. Hopefully, I’ll be able to kick myself back into gear over the weekend and start making serious progress, but it is interesting to realize that while the military was able to make me function as a highly disciplined individual and have a successful career even when I’m not intrinsically inclined to it, now that I no longer have that externally imposed discipline I sometimes struggle to accomplish things outside those for which I draw a regular paycheck.