Discipline Equals Freedom is the title of a bestselling book by the decorated Navy Seal and inspirational speaker Jocko Willink.
“Only the disciplined ones in life are free,” says Eliud Kipchoge, the world’s greatest marathon runner, by far.
Though these two are separated by at least a hundred pounds—while Kipchoge carries not an extra ounce on his wiry frame, Willink is a wall of muscle—they share in common a relatively monkish existence. Both live simple and highly structured lives: they train; eat; read; sleep; and spend time with people they care about. They could travel the world, engaging in endless opportunities. Yet they choose not to, and seem pretty happy as a result.
The psychologist, philosopher, and sociologist Erich Fromm, one of the last true polymaths, wrote often about the difference between negative freedom and positive freedom. Negative freedom is freedom from constraints. Positive freedom is freedom to express yourself as you want. Just about everyone thinks of freedom as unequivocally good, but, according to Fromm, this isn’t always so. While positive freedom is wonderful, negative freedom is often associated with anxiety, insecurity, and depression.
When one “belongs to a structuralized whole,” writes Fromm, “he has an unquestionable place.” When he is freed from that structure he may experience momentary relief, Fromm goes on, but eventually he suffers doubt.
To be sure, some forms of negative freedom are desirable. Examples include freedom from slavery, bondage, and oppression. But more subtle forms of negative freedom can be distressing. Freedom from routine seems great, but it can lead to emptiness and angst about what to do with your day. Freedom from religion or other belief systems seems like a healthy expression of individualism, but it may come with existential and moral uncertainty and distress. Freedom from decision-making constraints seems like a good thing—who doesn’t want more choices—but it, too, can trigger anxiety.
For example, studies show people feel better when choosing consumer products from a smaller number of options (say, four varieties of deodorant) versus when they are confronted with seemingly endless ones. This also appears to be a problem with online dating. On its face it seems great to have an infinite supply of potential partners. But the reality isn’t so. It is not surprising that people on dating apps often report experiencing increased anxiety. When you are free to choose among infinite choices it’s really hard to make a decision.
Perhaps the best kind of freedom, then, is the one that allows you to fulfill your wishes and desires in a productive and sustainable manner. For just about everyone I know this includes having at least some constraints, or what Kipchoge and Willink call discipline.
If someone identifies what they really want, what true freedom means to them, achieving it will almost always require some form of restriction, of encroachment on lesser freedoms.
One problem with the current ethos of heroic individualism is that it fails to separate negative freedom from positive freedom, and instead unquestionably celebrates both. It also fails to separate productive constraints from unproductive ones, looking down upon them all. The result is that while many people benefit from being freer than ever, they also carry the cost of having more anxiety than ever.
An extreme example is someone struggling with alcoholism. Though this person may find alcoholics anonymous to be effective, they choose not to go consistently because they want to be free of religion and what they view as the too-paternalistic nature of the program. They free themselves from AA but the rest of their life suffers, and they become far less free as a result.
Not all freedom is created equal. Constraints aren’t always good, but they aren’t always bad either. Sometimes we need to sacrifice some freedoms in order to achieve others. I hold the freedom to write—or perhaps more accurately, to have written—in higher regard than the freedom to spend my afternoons as I’d like on any given day. So just about every day, I force myself to sit in the chair and write at 3 PM; even though on most days and in most moments I wish I had the freedom to do anything else.
(For related reads see: Redefining Success so It Doesn’t Crush Your Soul, The Best Routine, According to Science, Willpower Isn’t the Key to Success, and Finding Balance in Life is Easier Than You Think.)