Consider a student who always starts her homework the moment it’s assigned.  What might look like an admirable display of self-discipline, given that there are other things she’d rather be doing, may actually be due to an acute discomfort with having anything unfinished.  She wants – or, more accurately, needs – to get the assignment out of the way in order to stave off anxiety.  (The fact that something resembling self-discipline is required to complete a task doesn’t bode well for the likelihood of deriving any intellectual benefit from it.  Learning, after all, depends not on what students do so much as on how they regard and construe what they do.  To assume otherwise is to revert to a crude behaviorism long since repudiated by serious scholars.)

More generally, self-discipline can be less a sign of health than of vulnerability.  It may reflect a fear of being overwhelmed by external forces, or by one’s own desires, that must be suppressed through continual effort.  In effect, such individuals suffer from a fear of being out of control.  In his classic work Neurotic Styles, David Shapiro described how someone might function as “his own overseer, issuing commands, directives, reminders, warnings, and admonitions concerning not only what is to be done and what is not to be done, but also what is to be wanted, felt, and even thought.”  Secure, healthy people can be playful, flexible, open to new experiences and self-discovery, deriving satisfaction from the process rather than always focused on the product.  An extremely self-disciplined student, by contrast, may see reading or problem-solving purely as a means to the end of a good test score or a high grade.  In Shapiro’s more general formulation, such people “do not feel comfortable with any activity that lacks an aim or a purpose beyond its own pleasure, and usually they do not recognize the possibility of finding life satisfying without a continuous sense of purpose and effort.”

Alfie-Kohn: Why Self-Discipline is Overrated


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