Self-mastery is often held up as a goal; a way to achieve success. But reality ends up being rather different.
Struggles With Self-Control
Self-control is something people struggle with enormously. The overweight girl who can’t turn down dessert. The outspoken guy who can’t help but speak his mind, even when he loses enormously for it. Every addict who can’t quit.
Typically, this is framed as a failure of willpower. We’re often taught that willpower is a limited resource; that exercising self-control over time is exhausting, and so you must do so judiciously. We have “cheat days” on diets, big meals after workouts, a drinking binge after a long week of work, and the like. As with a lot of conventional wisdom, this is wrong – willpower is unlimited, if your mind memetics are right.
But willpower is only part of the picture; the greater goal is self-mastery. The ideal is one who is in control of his mind and body; no struggles with willpower, and no issue in pursuing any goal set for himself. Self-mastery is a holy grail for self-development literature.
The Failure Of Self-Mastery
Self-mastery is less powerful a concept than it seems. Let’s examine it in a little detail.
Self-mastery involves (near) perfect goal-setting and pursuit. If we think of someone as having self-mastery, we think of someone who will flawlessly pursue anything they set their mind to. Someone with persistence, determination, and stuff like that.
“Mastery” is inherently a position of command. So self-mastery is the ability to command oneself. But how does this play out in practice? We tell ourselves, in the present: I will no longer eat sugar, or I will no longer drink beer, or I will read a book a week.
When you aim for self-mastery, you’re aiming to become a better commander. But in reality, that’s the easiest thing in the world. How many times have you heard someone say “I’m never drinking again”, after a bender? How often do smokers day “I’m quitting tomorrow”? “My diet starts next week”?
Giving commands is a piece of cake. It’s following them that’s tough.
True Self-Mastery Is Self-Obedience
Commands are worthless signaling if there’s nobody to follow them. They are talk without action – ideas, rather than decisions. A commander who can’t get his soldiers to move isn’t much of a commander at all.
You are the commander and the foot soldier – the player and the coach. But it’s the player that actually scores the points – all the theory in the world won’t do anything for you.
Reframe self-mastery, and focus on self-obedience. It’s fair to say that a true master is one whose commands are followed. But what’s the difficult part of that equation? We saw already that giving commands is the easiest thing in the world. So the focus should be less on commanding, and more on following.
High-intensity organizations know this. They recruit heavily from the ranks of the military and organized sports. In those institutions, you develop a tendency to obey someone else. But once the ability to obey is set, it’s easy to find another master. If you’ve interacted with a couple of these people, you’ll notice they often find a new master once they’ve graduated: themselves. And they fit in nicely to positions in other power structures, which doesn’t hurt career prospects.
You might be instantly put off by the idea of training obedience, of all things. I hate to take orders. But really, you’re working for nobody but you. All you’re doing is speaking to yourself tomorrow – and then following the command.
Become obedient – to yourself – and few things will be out of reach.