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The Four Tools of Discipline

“The life of wisdom must be a life of contemplation combined with action.”


Life is full of problems. We can moan about them or we can solve them. Scott Peck argues in The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth that discipline is the toolbox for solving problems.

Peck's argument is based on the notion that most of us want to avoid problems – they are painful and often lead us to confront our humanity. They are frustrating. There are false starts. We lack consistent frameworks for improvement. They cause us to feel sad and lonely; things we'd rather avoid. The mental pain and strain often rivals physical pain. Yet Peck argues it is in this “whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has meaning.”

Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. When we desire to encourage the growth of the human spirit, we challenge and encourage the human capacity to solve problems, just as in school we deliberately set problems for our children to solve. It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those things that hurt, instruct.”

This is why some of us come to welcome problems. Most of us, however, fear them.

Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems. We procrastinate, hoping that they will go away. We ignore them, forget them, pretend they do not exist. We even take drugs to assist us in ignoring them, so that by deadening ourselves to the pain we can forget the problems that cause the pain. We attempt to skirt around problems rather than meet them head on. We attempt to get out of them rather than suffer through them.

Ultimately however the suffering from avoiding reality is more painful than reality itself. You can see where this goes right? Now we want to avoid the pseudo-reality that we created to avoid the reality. And so it builds, layer on layer.

Avoiding problems avoids the growth opportunity. Most of the time problems don't go away, rather they grow.

This inclination to ignore problems is once again a simple manifestation of an unwillingness to delay gratification. Confronting problems is, as I have said, painful. To willingly confront a problem early, before we are forced to confront it by circumstances, means to put aside something pleasant or less painful for something more painful. It is choosing to suffer now in the hope of future gratification rather than choosing to continue present gratification in the hope that future suffering will not be necessary.

The Four Tools of Discipline

What are these tools, these techniques of suffering, these means of experiencing the pain of problems constructively that I call discipline? There are four: delaying of gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing.

Easy to learn and yet hard to employ. These are the tools to confront problems and thus pain.

1. Delaying Gratification

Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.

2. Accepting Responsibility

The extent to which we will go to avoid responsibility should come as no surprise. Accepting responsibility is emotionally uncomfortable. We often feel, incorrectly, that we can solve a problem by saying “That's not my problem.” Other times we hope that someone else will just solve it for us.

I can solve a problem only when I say “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.” But many, so many, seek to avoid the pain of their problems by saying to themselves: “This problem was caused me by other people, or by social circumstances beyond my control, and therefore it is up to other people or society to solve this problem for me. It is not really my personal problem.”

There are extremes of responsibility.

The neurotic assumes too much responsibility; the person with a character disorder not enough. When neurotics are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that they are at fault. When those with character disorders are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that the world is at fault.

Just remember …

Whenever we seek to avoid the responsibility for our own behavior, we do so by attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual, organization, or entity.

3. Dedication to Reality

This sounds a lot like Joseph Tussman's wise advice. Most of us have problems confronting reality because it does not line up with how we want the world to work. The rise of a political figure that we don't support baffles us because in our mind the world shouldn't work that way.

What Peck outlines below is a version of the map and terrority problem.

Superficially, this should be obvious. For truth is reality. That which is false is unreal. The more clearly we see the reality of the world, the better equipped we are to deal with the world. The less clearly we see the reality of the world— the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions and illusions—the less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions. Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.

While this is obvious, it is something that most people to a greater or lesser degree choose to ignore. They ignore it because our route to reality is not easy. First of all, we are not born with maps; we have to make them, and the making requires effort. The more effort we make to appreciate and perceive reality, the larger and more accurate our maps will be. But many do not want to make this effort. Some stop making it by the end of adolescence. Their maps are small and sketchy, their views of the world narrow and misleading. By the end of middle age most people have given up the effort. They feel certain that their maps are complete and their Weltanschauung is correct (indeed, even sacrosanct), and they are no longer interested in new information. … Only a relative and fortunate few continue until the moment of death exploring the mystery of reality, ever enlarging and refining and redefining their understanding of the world and what is true.

This biggest problem isn't that our maps are inaccurate but rather that we fail, especially as we age, to revise them. The world is always changing. As Heraclitus said, No man can step in the same river twice.

The world itself is constantly changing. Glaciers come, glaciers go. Cultures come, cultures go. There is too little technology, there is too much technology. Even more dramatically, the vantage point from which we view the world is constantly and quite rapidly changing.

When we've worked so hard over so many years to create a map that we believe represents the world, we tend to ignore information that would suggest we need to redraw our map. We become defensive. Often we don't even passively ignore this information. We go further. We denounce it or crusade against it. We feel that people who listen to it are idiots and we are the only ones who see the truth. Rather than change our map, we often try to (mentally) destroy the new reality and those that subscribe to it.

Pride and ego come into play.

Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. We can revise our maps only when we have the discipline to overcome that pain. To have such discipline, we must be totally dedicated to truth. That is to say that we must always hold truth, as best we can determine it, to be more important, more vital to our self-interest, than our comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth.

Openness to Challenge

What does a life of total dedication to the truth mean? It means, first of all, a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination. We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world, we must not only examine it but we must simultaneously examine the examiner.

The only way we can ensure our map is correct and accurate is to expose it to the criticism of others. There might be a better answer than the one you have. We need an outside view, otherwise we live in a closed system. The tendency to avoid being challenged is a characteristic of human nature.

4. Balancing

Balancing is the discipline that gives us flexibility. Extraordinary flexibility is required for successful living in all spheres of activity.


To function successfully in our complex world it is necessary for us to possess the capacity not only to express our anger but also not to express it. Moreover, we must possess the capacity to express our anger in different ways. At times, for instance, it is necessary to express it only after much deliberation and self-evaluation. At other times it is more to our benefit to express it immediately and spontaneously. Sometimes it is best to express it coldly and calmly; at other times loudly and hotly. We therefore not only need to know how to deal with our anger in different ways at different times but also how most appropriately to match the right time with the right style of expression. To handle our anger with full adequacy and competence, an elaborate, flexible response system is required. It is no wonder, then, that to learn to handle our anger is a complex task which usually cannot be completed before adulthood, or even mid-life, and which often is never completed.


Balancing is a discipline precisely because the act of giving something up is painful.


The Road Less Traveled is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be human and to struggle to get better.