The Difference Between Self-Discipline and Self-Flagellation

I have a difficult time determining whether or not my internal insistence that I bang out xxx number of words in a  day—no matter what!—falls within the realm of constructive self-discipline or destructive self-flagellation.

There’s no easy answer. The words don’t magically type themselves.

I asked Steve about this when I was in LA a couple weeks ago. He reminded me of his friend who trains thoroughbred horses. He wrote about him in TURNING PRO. What the trainer told Steve is that he never grinds the horses, making them finish a lap when they stop running. While he certainly has an agenda each day and he nudges them with encouragement to improve, once they get tired or bored, he takes them off the track. Tomorrow’s another day.

When I got back to New York, I dug out my copy of TURNING PRO and read further…

“A horse is a flight animal. Even a stallion, if he can, will choose flight over confrontation. Picture the most sensitive person you’ve ever known; a horse is ten times more sensitive. A horse is a naked nervous system, particularly a thoroughbred. He’s a child. A three-year-old, big and fast as he is, is a baby. Horses understand the whip, but I don’t want a racer that runs that way. A horse that loves to run will beat a horse that’s compelled, every day of the week.

You’ll see that I bolded Steve’s sentence HE’S A CHILD.

The reason I did this is that it took me a lifetime and thousands of dollars of paying someone to listen to me blather from a couch to figure out what Steve so eloquently wrote in his book. And still I forget…like every day.

The person that the muse comes to hang out with when we’re at work is not the guy who went to Harvard. Nor is it the guy who wants to show those bastards why they’re so full of shit. Nor is it the guy who wants to write something lyrically profound by using hundred dollar words and super long sentences.

The muse has come to play with our purest self…the little haberdasher who made a suit of clothes out of construction paper when he was four. The little girl who made a townhouse out of a refrigerator box.

The muse loves the child inside that doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of him…the guy who is just happy to be here. To get a chance to make stuff up and try it out. She’s not interested in hanging out with Mr. Ass-kicker. Would you be?

Self-discipline is simply having the nerve to sit down with a pile of construction paper or a laptop or a band saw every day at an appointed time and letting that little guy come out to play. If he gets fidgety after a while, let him go do something else.

If you don’t, no amount of bubble gum or cake will lure him out the next day.

Whatever you do, try not to yell at him. The muse really doesn’t like that. And you shouldn’t stand for it either.

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  1. Ivan Chase on March 8, 2013 at 4:36 am

    Great post! I’m going to do my best to remember it while I work.

  2. John on March 8, 2013 at 5:22 am

    You’re right. Awesome article. Inside us there is a child and we want to get it out correctly…

  3. M Harold Page on March 8, 2013 at 5:27 am

    I think the inner child thing is 50% of the equation. For me, the other 50% is knowing what and how to write.

    Depression and laziness are there to protect us from purposeless activity.

    If you have purposeful activity, then you have motivation.

  4. David Y.B. Kaufmann on March 8, 2013 at 7:17 am

    Beautiful. It reminded me of Blake, for some reason, so I re-read some of his poems. The Introduction to Songs of Innocence fits. But these lines (from Auguries of Innocence) work best as a response:

    To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour.

    It’s true, Shawn, the child at play is both creative and a craftsman.

    Thanks for this.

  5. Django on March 8, 2013 at 8:00 am

    Good post.

  6. Basilis on March 8, 2013 at 9:07 am

    Well said!

  7. Samantha Livingston on March 8, 2013 at 9:18 am

    This is SO, so good. My false self favors the ass-kicker cause that’s the person who makes me get stuff done. But I resent her and what I enjoy most is running and playing. Laughing too. And that’s when the passion comes through my writing–when I’m laughing. Thanks. This is really encouraging today.

    • Sarah Stemen on March 12, 2013 at 9:49 pm

      Samantha, I find myself faltering to the same ass kicker. I surround myself with the order givers, the bossy Bessies, the confident arrogant ones. They direct my scatter and I like the exuse to keep from creating what comes from and totally from me. That leaves too many openings for criticism to my inside wierdness. Everything I write sounds so insanely ridiculous to me. How could it ever make sense or mean anything to an outsider? Good, it doesn’t have to. How will I get past my insecurities? I love playing and laughing. I do it every day. Is that my outlet for creating? Sometimes. I need to read Steve P……again. For the tenth time inn two months. It always helps.

      • Sarah Stemen on March 12, 2013 at 9:51 pm

        In, rather. Smart phones need a new title.

  8. Jeff Goins on March 8, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Spot on, Shawn. I think the writer’s life is a mix of discipline and grace. You need both to survive.

  9. Bradley Hartmann on March 8, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    Fantastic metaphor, the horse and child…. Great work, Shawn.

  10. Kim Nathan on March 8, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    Great spot-on post.

  11. York on March 8, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    It’s really helpful to see someone else write this.


  12. Howard Stein on March 8, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Don’t yell at him when he gets tired. I do that. And when the work then starts looking shitty, I yell at him harder. My neck tightens. No wonder I’m exhausted. Last night out with the dogs I hurried to get back. The park in New York snow looked gorgeous and I had to say aloud, STOP. Look at this for a moment. It’s amazing. Remembering to stop, so the yelling at the child stops too.

  13. Beth Barany on March 8, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Shawn, Thanks so much for the reminder. I read your post at the right time too as I’m about to slip away and play with my novel that I’m prepping to publish soon: Henrietta and The Dragon Stone, book 2 in my Five Kingdoms series. (I also shared the post on FB, and sent it to my cousin to encourage her to play more. 🙂 )

    Play is so important. SO is gentleness to our inner little one, and so is showing up.

    Ciao for now!

  14. Marian on March 9, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Good reminder, the kind that really makes me crack my own whip. Thank you.

    Now, if only I could quietly correct the typo for you in the headline 😉

  15. Sarah HI on March 10, 2013 at 10:28 am

    I’ve been kicking-ass for many years, but not having very much fun. Now that my artistic child wants to come out and play, she’s scared to death. Sometimes trying out a different material helps her have a little more fun and freedom.

  16. Jim T. Gammill on March 10, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Great post! It is hard to keep these things in mind when facing deadlines (whether they be personal or professional). As always thank you for the inspiration and the reminder of just what it takes to “go pro”.

  17. L. P. Bob on March 11, 2013 at 10:13 am

    Very insightfull. Thoughts, which have been chasing me for years as well.

  18. gary on March 11, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    When I grow up I’m gonna be!

    I remember as a kid going to my best friends house every day and knocking on the door to see if he wanted to come out and play. Most days he did, but some he didn’t. On those days I just said “okay” knowing I could return the next and the next. Nobody got beat up, there was no reprimand or ‘self flaggelation’ … I just knew that so long as I knocked on his door every day that sooner or later we would connect again. It’s a bit like that with the muse. Sometimes she is busy playing with other kids.

  19. Erik Dolson on March 11, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Lovely insight beautifully presented. I think I am going to print, fold and use as a bookmark. Thank you, Shawn.

  20. Rachel on March 11, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    Thankyou for writing this! It was a much needed reminder. I’ve been working on a challenging new art project and beating myself up because it’s not good enough, I’m not completing it fast enough, it’s not amazing enough, to the point that I don’t want to work on it at all. It started as a fun idea but then I got all serious about it. If I just go back to playing with it maybe the project will get its light back for me.

  21. Sonja on March 13, 2013 at 9:30 am

    This is fantastic, Shawn!

    When I watch my children play, I see their unfiltered, spontaneous joy in creating. How sad that we lose that through the years. Your post helps remind me that it’s still right there, if we just use a gentler touch to access it.

    Thank you.

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  23. Jacqueline Gardner on October 19, 2013 at 4:43 am

    Love this. I am realizing the muse enjoys her time to really dig into work, and resents being pushed to finish. She likes to explore every nook and cranny of the territory or the characters. Sometimes it feels like I lose control. But now I realize that is not losing control, but gaining control. The creative side leads, the observers must wait. Create, create and create until there is no time, no distance or anything of importance elsewhere. And then magic happens and I have everything I need, and we have created a new world where anything is possible, by making a thought lead the way. The world succumbs here to the possibilities. Bliss

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