On Discipline, Intelligence, and Stoicism: It's Tough to Be Smart, but Smart to Be Tough

"Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

It's tempting to believe intelligence trumps everything else. "If only I were a genius" becomes the standard magic answer that leads to everything we've ever wanted. If we don't get the things we want, it's either an effect of not being smart enough or because other people have advantages we don't: rich parents and/or extreme luck. But there's nothing magical about effort and working hard. It's actually a lot of work.

Little Suzie the Math Whiz

Let's imagine we're in a 9th-grade algebra class. It's Tuesday, that's the day our teacher Mr. Johnson promised to give us a test. Well, it's Tuesday and here's the test. As we sweat away, laboring on the meaning of "x"—there's Suzie. She's breezing through it effortlessly, like a concert pianist and her scientific calculator is her piano. She's a natural; and just like that, she's done. We're, however, still on page one.

Suzie has an advantage, a philosophy of life. (Maybe as 9th-graders, we aren't mature enough to be self-aware—though even adults can be oblivious.) Suzie's philosophy is to work hard, stay disciplined, and put in lots of effort. We don't. We even mock effort. "Hey, 'A' for effort," we joke. We don't really have a philosophy unless freaking out is a philosophy, which is not a worldview we've thought-out or picked for ourselves, but a trapping we've fallen into. In reality, however, life is a combination of events we can and cannot control. The default mindset for many is: neither our circumstances nor our expectations are within our control. Neither of which are true nor does it make for a positive outlook on life.

A person with a philosophy of life will be best prepared for life. It provides him or her with a ready course of action for any situation: control circumstances or manage expectations. The ancient Greeks knew the importance of having a proper viewpoint and would send their children to philosophers to receive coherent education. Now, coherent philosophy has been divorced from education; and rather than it being taught at home as a complement to modern schoolwork, schoolwork is only further reinforced at home. Kids get more of the same and are left with a vacuum where a life manual should be. That leaves kids with the risky proposition of figuring it out on their own. (And if you want to see what that's like, read Lord of the Flies.)

The Misevaluation of Little Suzie

Back in our imaginary classroom, Mr. Johnson passes the tests back. He wants us to grade each other's work, and as it so happens, you get Suzie's test. Of course! Mr. Johnson puts all the correct answers on the board, and as you go through Suzie's test, your pen never touches her paper until the very end. That's because Suzie got all the right answers. She gets an "A." But that's not that surprising, Suzie is a "brain." She's gifted, and if we were gifted, we'd get an "A," too. We get our tests back, it's a "C." We tell ourselves, "Hey, not bad for not studying."

What we don't know is Suzie studies—a lot. She studied for several hours the night before, whereas we glanced at our textbooks, spent time on Facebook, played some phone games, and then finished the evening with Netflix. We meant to study more but kept getting distracted. However, this isn't just a story, this is reality. On studies of American students, if a fellow student consistently does well on tests, the standard assumption is: they must be naturally smart. What's really happening is, these students study more than their counterparts. Steadfast students generally do better than those students with higher IQs. This doesn't mean high IQ makes people sluggish; IQ is just a capacity to process information. For it to be maximized, it still requires someone with drive and discipline.

Intelligence gets enough credit, what's lacking in credit is discipline—the ability to resist distraction. Suzie could have gotten distracted like everyone else, but the difference was in her discipline, not in her "natural" math ability. There's nothing natural about a math ability that's been performance enhanced with study.

In giving credit to inborn intelligence, we avoid having to confront our egos—not to mention our lack of self-control and wasted potential. There is a fine line we must navigate; too much guilt turns to shame, no guilt leads to a lack of accountability. Without a coherent life philosophy, we get pulled into opposite extremes. A thought-out philosophy is how we harmonize contrasting ideas and get the most out of them. And without it, we lose ourselves to cognitive dissonance and self-limiting beliefs.

What Makes You an Outlier

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell spends a chapter discussing Christopher Langan, who reportedly had an IQ between 195 and 210 (higher than Bill Gates and Albert Einstein). In the book, Gladwell drives home the point that intelligence alone doesn't equate to success. Langan, like many intellectuals, intended on becoming an academic. But in the end, he left the university, lost his scholarship, and even lost to a person of "average" intelligence on a TV quiz show. The core message of Outliers is the importance of 10,000 hours of practice, which Gladwell suggests is the minimum requirement for mastery. Philosophers might say, only a master would have the patience to put in over 10,000 hours of practice. One cannot reduce a master to a number of hours. That's like removing effort from practice. And without effort, there is no practice. Mastery is a mindset, not a chart. The combination of mindset and a lifetime of practice is what creates a master. Masters are outliers because it is rare for anyone to stick with anything for an indefinite period of time. It is rarer than diamonds. And if there are innate abilities in addition to discipline, consider that a bonus. However, abilities are like diamonds, we pretend they are rare, but everyone has them.

Stoicism and Other Philosophies

There is a school of Greek philosophy dedicated to the examination of life, it's called Stoicism—a philosophy of endurance. This is why running and wrestling were so revered in the ancient world, they were physical tests of endurance. If you are a Stoic, you determine your life but also accept the consequences. If you lack self-discipline, with much dismay, you take whatever course life takes you. And rather than self-determination, your life will be guided by outside forces and the determinations of others.

The Greeks were not the only people to see the value of self-discipline, there was Seneca in Rome, Zeno in Cyprus, Cleanthes in Turkey, Confucius in China, and Buddha in India (among many others). It is the Do, Tao, or Way aspect of martial arts—that discipline is a physical, mental, and spiritual pursuit. Buddha himself was a grappler and the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma brought martial arts to China, along with Zen. So understand, discipline isn't unique to any one area, it was at one time universally valued. Unfortunately today, it has gone out of favor—it still exists, but as a specialization, and not as a general way of living. (Disciplined in one activity, not disciplined as a person.)

Enjoy life, but be prepared to give up everything you enjoy, that is Stoicism. In Eastern philosophy, this is the doctrine of impermanence. Philosophers didn't invent these concepts, they put into language knowledge gathered through long and painful periods of trial and error. We can never rid ourselves of unhappiness and live in eternal joy, but with reason, we can manage our feelings and search for peace. (This is the search for enlightenment in Eastern philosophy and the Enlightenment in Western civilization.)

It used to be the job of the elder (wise man, sage, guru) to teach the rest of the village how to best manage themselves and live a happy life. If a villager asked, "How does one live a better life?" The guru would respond, "With practice." In modern times, this is the domain of the therapist, yet it is still referred to in the same way, as a "practice."

A Burning Desire Can Burn Through a Delicate Heart

Stoics and Buddhists believe unhappiness comes from insatiable desire. This is a common observation among all surviving belief systems. The modern equivalent of this would be what I like to call: "high expectations, low resilience." If resilience doesn't match expectations, we grow into despair. For happiness, resilience must surpass expectations and not the other way around.

I can't say there is only one path but the common principle among the best philosophies is that of minimalism. If you live up to high expectations, you won't need to live on less. However, if you learned to live on less, you wouldn't wouldn't care about expectations. You would flourish where you stood. Wealth is a greater luxury if you've learned to live without it. The path I was on in my younger years was to actively chase money while increasing my wants. I wanted "x" and if I got "x," I increased "x." I was still in Mr. Johnson's algebra class, still searching for "x"—another rat in the rat race, endlessly envying the Suzies of the world.

I have heard people say, "You can't question my desire," but that goes without saying, it's insatiable. What's in question is your heart, that is the quality that sets one apart. A burning desire will burn through a delicate heart, but courage is what picks you back up when you fall down.

Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.
— Coach Tim Notke

The Uninitiated Set External Goals Only, the Enlightened Set Internal Goals First

The people who have a surplus of discipline set internal goals. No one needs help setting external goals. We all do it, we all know how to do it. Therefore, the thing worth developing is the internal. Don't look for things outside of yourself to solve the problems within yourself. Rather than focusing on a car, focus on discipline. Rather than aspiring to be famous, develop more empathy. Rather than making more money, focus on more self-regulation. Life can be a tempest, self-control is what protects you. From these internal goals will rise external accomplishments. A disciplined person accomplishes great undertakings as a matter of course; it often involves doing those things we don't want to do.

Mahatma Gandhi writes:

We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.

This is the universal philosophy of life, to be the change that you wish to see in the world.

Conscientious Therapy

How do we set internal goals? How do we increase our discipline? I asked psychotherapist and best-selling author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do Amy Morin about the role of discipline in therapy and mental health. She says:

People seem to have a notion that they’re either born with willpower or they’re not. But the truth is, we can all improve our self-discipline. It’s a skill that we can sharpen through practice and hard work.

Discipline gives us the ability to manage our impulses and control our feelings. Having discipline doesn’t mean you won’t feel tempted — it’s about having the confidence to know you can overcome those temptations. The more we practice that, the better our ability to deal with the discomfort that comes.

Discipline is the key to reaching our goals. Whether we want to lose weight or start a new business, we need to be willing to behave contrary to our emotions. There will be days that it’s hard and times when we don’t feel like we want to keep going, but we’ll keep at it if we’re disciplined.

Discipline, we all have a little bit of it. Some through practice choose to develop it, and some do not. Some think development is the process of life, and others believe who we are is set at birth. The fixed mind does not reason, it only reacts.

The Stoics warned, when you have no philosophy of life, you fall into automatic responses, pleasure seeking, and instant gratification. Emotions can sometimes hijack our free-will, making us their slaves. We sometimes think a person who can self-regulate their emotions is robotic, but what makes someone a robot is their inability to control their own behaviors.

What makes us human, the Stoics explained, was our ability to reason and resolve a better way to live. In The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, Seneca writes:

For what prevents us from saying that the happy life is to have a mind that is free, lofty, fearless and steadfast — a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire, that counts virtue the only good, baseness the only evil, and all else but a worthless mass of things, which come and go without increasing or diminishing the highest good, and neither subtract any part from the happy life nor add any part to it? A man thus grounded must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.

In modern terms, the struggle often is with mental and emotional well-being. Amy Morin continues:

Part of being mentally healthy involves a willingness to behave contrary to how we feel and this can be really hard to do sometimes. Combating mental health issues often involves doing things we don’t want to do. If you’re depressed it’s hard to get moving. If you’re anxious, it’s hard to face your fears. But those are the things that can improve mental health.

Delaying gratification is the key to long-term contentment. While giving in to urges and temptations right now can lead to brief momentary happiness, true happiness in life stems from reaching our goals and becoming better.

The East Values Heroic Effort over Luck

In Eastern languages such as Korean or Japanese, there is no version of "good luck." When someone is taking a test or about to go into a job interview, an American might say "good luck." But luck isn't something we can control; we're either fortunate to have it, or we're not. Rather than luck, Koreans and Japanese have a sense of blessing. (Not the same type of blessing you give someone sneezing.) It's not something that is often said, unless it's for something that is considered beyond our control, like a winning lottery ticket.

If someone were to ask how to say "good luck" in Japanese, a native speaker might say "ganbatte" as proxy, but literally, it means “give it your all.” The East is often known for blending spirituality into daily life, but in this instance, it would be the Western term that is superstitious, and the Eastern term that is actionable—determined by the self.

In English, if someone tells you "good luck," a typical response would be "thank you." In Japanese, you would typically respond with "Hai, ganbarimasu!", which means, “Yes, I’ll do my best!”—an indication of action rather than an appreciation for a blessing. Consider that, rather than saying, "Yes, I'll try," you were to say, "Yes! I'll do my best"—what a shift in actionable thinking.

The Chinese would say, "jiayou" which literally means "add more fuel." Refuel and put in an even greater effort. This word sounds very similar to "jai ho," which is a Hindi and Nepali phrase that means "prevail" or "must triumph." The Korean version would be "pil seung." These are all forms of encouragement that are based on heroic effort. That's what makes a hero, their effort, not superstition.

Is it a matter of luck or is it a matter of effort? Whether you're taking a test or playing the slots, people will tell you "good luck." They're treated the same when common sense tells us these things are different. If an actor doesn't get a role she auditioned for, she's just unlucky. It was out of her control. But this absolves her from working harder and taking control over her life. (It might temporarily save her ego but ultimately diminish her agency.)

Koreans take it a step further. They often say "sugo," which is a cross between great effort and toil. They may also say "goseng," which is a cross between suffering and a long, slow, arduous journey. I call this expectational courage—setting the expectations for the requisite courage.

If a father is struggling at work, a child might hug her daddy and tell him with a smile, "him-nae-sae-yo." This is one of the most touching and precious of encouragements a child can give to a parent. It means "apply more strength." This might sound strange to a Westerner, but it is less strange than telling someone who is struggling at work, "good luck."

In more recent times, Koreans have appropriated an English word that is used in a uniquely Korean way. When someone is about to take a test or go for a job interview, they say "Fighting!" You will see it on banners during Korean sporting events and on headbands during exams. It's understood that the journey will be tough, so fight hard. What is honorable isn't the material win or loss, but the fight you gave. In that way, it's much more encouraging than "good luck," which offers no encouragement.

Compare for example, during a child's soccer game, yelling, "You can do it!" vs. "Good luck!" Which offers encouragement and which offers nothing? You're either telling someone to control their own destiny and that you are with them, or that everything is beyond their control and they are alone. What is luck but an underlying belief that we are powerless but should still expect great results? It is nonsensical and unhelpful.

Luck requires no courage, no discipline, no effort, and no perseverance. This is why the idea of "luck" is so attractive. With no amount of effort, we can achieve results. We "believe," even though experience keeps telling us to stop believing. This is why we repeat the same mistakes while expecting new results. As Amy Morin said, mental health involves "doing things we don't want to do." Unproductive thoughts, therefore, can alter our mental well-being and lead to illness.

In Korea, luck is mostly used in a sarcastic, insulting way. "Jal natdah," which literally means "emanating something special." It's a sarcastic way to say "good for you" or to call someone out for thinking they are better or more special than others. Things that are out of our control are not worthy of our envy. If someone were to talk about their natural intelligence, the response would be "jal natdah," you've done nothing to achieve that. To flourish as human beings, the only success that matters is earned success.

Old Wisdom, New Audience

In philosophical terms, it's a case of self-determinism vs. fatalism. If we are talking neuroscience, it's incremental learning vs. entity learning or growth vs. fixed mindset. Really, it's old wisdom with new terms. The strategies for growth has mostly remained unchanged. We merely have more scientific evidence proving ancient wisdom correct.

Life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.
— Seneca

The Stoics believed the first step in creating a healthy society is to focus on the internal life—as Amy Morin explained, creating those good mental habits. The second step in transforming society is to change external circumstances—through self-determinism, great effort, and self-discipline. This was what philosophers taught their students and what therapists teach their patients. (It is also the central tenet of martial arts.)

We fear the possibility that we might try and it won't be good enough. In not trying, we look to preserve the ego. We avoid facing our fears. "Katas" are a type of scripted movement that a martial artist does alone. He is sparring an invisible foe—himself, his self-doubts. The "fight" is a metaphor for defeating one' ego. The art is mastery over the self.

We Value Effort Because Its Practicality Is Self-Evident

Without much need for explanation, we understand the value of effort and admire it. We put examples of common hard work into museums, and we study it in classrooms. It defines who we are.

We must consistently create, and that is hard. We must consistently be useful, and that is also hard. We must take actions, that takes great effort. Luck arises from opportunities, opportunities we must create for ourselves. The harder we work, the luckier we'll get. There is much to be learned about living a better life. It starts with connecting the dots between age-old wisdom and modern problems.

From philosophy to psychotherapy, the consensus is, there is no shame in trying—even if it doesn't succeed. Put another way: It's tough to be smart, but smart to be tough. Intelligence can be improved upon through effort. It is when we believe it is fixed that we fix ourselves in stasis because only a fool would think himself smart and not work hard. Suzie had that figured out a long time ago.

Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):