The Art of Achieving

I recently read an interesting book titled Flourish. It was written by the prominent psychologist Martin Seligmon who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the book he says that the basic equation to growth, development and achievement (in any area of life) is based on the skill and ability you have, multiplied by the effort you expend. He defines effort as the time you are willing to spend on a task.

Seligmon then looks to the findings of Dr. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State.

Self-discipline is the character trait that engenders deliberate practice

Ericsson has argued that the cornerstone of all high expertise is not God-given genius but deliberate practice: Mozart was Mozart not primarily because he had a unique gift for music but because from toddlerhood, he spent all his time using his gift. World-class chess players are not faster of thought, nor do they have unusually good memories for moves. Rather, they have so much experience that they are vastly better at recognizing patterns in chess positions than lesser chess players – and this comes from the sheer amount of their experience.

Seligman then makes an interesting observation about the time we are willing to devote to growth and achievement. He says it has to do with our character. Self-discipline is the character trait that engenders deliberate practice. Self-discipline is defined as the ability to make yourself do something you don’t necessarily want to do, to get a result you would really like to have.

He then shares some very interesting research on self-discipline with the students of Mastermind High School, in Philadelphia. Mastermind accepts promising students beginning in the fifth grade, though many of them wash out and the real competition begins in the ninth grade. The researchers studied a group of eighth graders to find out how self-discipline compares with IQ in predicting academic achievement.

They employed a battery of tests to determine which students possessed the character trait of self-discipline. For instance, they looked at how well the students could delay gratification. Therefore, they might ask, “Would you rather I give you five dollars today or ten dollars in two weeks?”

They then studied the highly self-disciplined eighth graders and found they:

  • Earned higher grade point averages
  • Had higher achievement test scores
  • Spent more time on their homework and started it earlier in the day,
  • Were absent less often
  • Watched less television

Whenever we underachieve in any area of life, we look for something or someone to blame

In the end, the research concluded that self-discipline out predicts IQ for academic success by a factor of about two.

What I have seen is that whenever we underachieve in any area of life, we look for something or someone to blame. In reality, the real reason is because of an unwillingness to sacrifice short term pleasure for long term gain.

Seligmon believes that his findings apply to every area of our lives. And I might add, this includes our spiritual lives and our spiritual growth.

The Apostle Paul says:

“Discipline yourself for the purpose of Godliness.” (I Timothy 4:7)

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air;  But I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (I Corinthians 9:24-27)

Seeking God and seeking to deepen our relationship with Him requires effort, and the character trait of self-discipline plays a big part. However, what I have found is that another important component of all of this involves the affections of the heart. We invest our time in what our hearts treasure. As Jesus Himself put it; “For wherever your treasure and riches lie, there will your heart be also.” (Mathew 6:21)

So I leave you with this question: “What do you treasure most in your life?” The answer to that will determine where your heart is and how you will discipline your life.


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