Self-Development, Videos

Why Purpose and Discipline Promote Psychological Well-Being

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The following is a transcript of this video.

“Unlimited possibilities are not suited to man; if they existed, his life would only dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, a man’s life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted. The individual attains significance as a free spirit only by surrounding himself with these limitations and by determining for himself what his duty is.”

The I Ching or Book of Changes, Hexagram 60

In discussions of freedom there is a tendency to focus on political freedom. But there is another form of freedom which today, is just as rare. That being the psychological freedom that is experienced when we recognize our weaknesses and bad habits, and instead of wallowing in self-pity, we exercise our autonomy in pursuit of a better life. This form of freedom is all-too absent today. Addictions, compulsions, neuroses, and other self-sabotaging behaviours keep many of us locked in mental prisons and hinder our ability to flourish.

Often these issues are attributed to flaws in our genetic or biological makeup. Hence, the solution is to alter our brain chemistry with regular doses of pharmaceutical drugs. But not all agree that a change in our biological makeup is the only, or even the best way, to escape from our faulty ways of being. Steven Pressfield, in his book Turning Pro, put forth an alternative theory. He argues that many of us will only find a cure to what ails us if we can re-gain control our life and begin moving in a direction which permits us to enjoy the life-affirming experience associated with personal growth. And the best way to do this, he argues, is to commit ourselves to the pursuit of excellence in a self-chosen field, a process he calls ‘turning pro’

“…what ails you and me has nothing to do with being sick…What ails us is that we are living our lives as amateurs. The solution…is that we turn pro.”

Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro

The decision of the amateur to remain locked in a mediocre life, and that of the pro who decides to discipline himself to excellence, are both responses to the recognition that life consists of suffering. Yet while the amateur seeks relief from the pain of life primarily through the numbing effects of addictions and the pursuit of pleasures, the pro strives to rise above his suffering through what Pressfield calls “labor and love”. Some people are lucky in that they find a calling early in life and commit to turning pro with little thought as to what they are doing. For others, however, the choice to turn pro requires many wasted years drifting in despair, before the realization strikes that a change to a more purpose-driven life is needed. 

“No one is born a pro. You’ve got to fall before you hit bottom, and sometimes that fall can be a hell of a ride.”

Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro

If we decide to turn pro, we need to recognize that it is not a part time endeavor. It requires daily sessions of what psychologists call “deliberate practice”, in which we hone our craft through persistence and focus. Our vocation, or calling, must become a top priority. In place of the hours we previously devoted to pleasurable distractions we must devote this time to cultivating the habits and skills needed to excel in our work. Turning pro, in whatever field we choose, involves placing ourselves in self-imposed chains of discipline, for paradoxically, this is the path to psychological freedom. 

“…freedom in its essence is the acceptance of the chains which suit you and for which you are suited, and of the harness in which you pull towards an end chosen and valued by yourself, and not imposed. It is not, and never can be, the absence of restrictions, obligations or law and of duty.”

Bronislaw Malinowski, Freedom and Civilization

While most people can structure their life around the pursuit of excellence, many flee from this way of life by resorting to two main excuses. The first excuse is based on the belief that we are insignificant creatures in a universe deaf to our desires, and so the point of life should be to enjoy the ride, not to burden ourselves with the task of achieving anything of lasting worth. But this ignores the fact that every one of us possesses an innate urge to growth, and that if we refuse to heed this calling, we become self-destructive, and prone to sicknesses of the mind. Or as the psychologist James Hillman wrote:

“Present in body and absent in spirit, he lies back on the couch, shamed by his own… potentials in his soul that will not be subdued. He feels himself inwardly subversive, imagining in his passivity extremes of aggression and desire that must be suppressed. Solution: more work, more money, more drink, more weight, more things, more infotainment.”

James Hillman, The Soul’s Code

Some of us, on the other hand, recognize the importance of turning pro, yet we continually delay in taking action. We tell ourselves we will turn pro when we “find our self”, or when we have overcome our depression, anxiety, or addictions. Yet if Pressfield’s theory has merit, this evasive tactic is again, built on a psychological error. For turning pro is not something we do once we have cured our problems or found out who we are, rather, turning pro is the cure – it is the means by which we become who we are. 

“What we get when we turn pro is, we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and to live out.”

Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro

If we decide to turn pro, it is crucial we do so for the right reasons. For while turning pro will increase our chances of attaining riches, social status, and perhaps even fame, if we turn pro solely in order to obtain these goods, we may sabotage our efforts. Our energy, if too fixated on worldly success, will cause our work to suffer. And if these rewards do not come quick enough, as they seldom do, it is unlikely we will want to continue making the necessary sacrifices required to attain excellence in our field. 

We will not, in other words, become pro unless we can place our desire for money or status behind our ambition to nourish our skills and potentials. But if we can find the inner-drive to commit ourselves to this uncommon way of life, we will discover that over time the psychological rewards we obtain far outweigh any form of worldly success. For as we strive towards the heights of personal greatness our psychological problems will no longer affect us as they once did. They will have been neutralized by a sense of inner peace and accomplishment sorely lacking in the lives of most. Or as the Daoist Sage Lao-Tzu advised:

“Chase after money and security, And your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval, And you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.”

Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Museum of the American Revolution - Joy of Museums 6
John Gully - In the Southern Alps - Google Art Project
Wilhelm Bendz - Studie til maleriet Fincks Kaffehus i München 1
Winslow Homer - At the window
Leopold Horovitz - Head Study of a Man - O 5192 - Slovak National Gallery
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes - A Prison Scene - WGA10071
Thomas Gainsborough - Wooded Landscape with a Woodcutter - 61.9 - Museum of Fine Arts
Carl spitzweg, l'interruzione inaspettata, 1855 ca. 02
Jan Massys - St Jerome
Joos van Craesbeeck - The Smoker
Pietro Paolini (Attr.) - St Jerome in meditation
Christ Walking on the Waters, Julius Sergius Von Klever
An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower o Wellcome V0017631
David Teniers (II) - Boors drinking and smoking in an inn
Olga Boznańska 1893 Paul Neuen
Carl Gustav Carus - Die Ruhe des Pilgers (1818)
Emile louis salome, il figliol prodigo che medita, 1863
Winslow Homer - Girl in the Orchard (1874)
Valentin de Boulogne - Saint Paul Writing His Epistles - BF.1991.4 - Museum of Fine Arts
Yanov Alexandr Inok-Zhivopisec 1885
Hieronymous Francken II - Allegory of Worldly Riches
Antonio de Pereda - El sueño del caballero - Google Art Project
Corinth Gerhart Hauptmann
Marko Pernhart - Peak of Mount Triglav - Google Cultural Institute
Sanford Robinson Gifford - The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert, Maine (1860s)