So anyone who knows me is fully aware that I’ve drunk a whole lot of green Kool-Aid the past several years. Every day I wake up and ask myself, ‘what’s up with this crazy world, and what can I do to help make it a little less crazy, or at least a better crazy?’ I feel incredibly blessed because there is an abundance of amazing people, initiatives and ideas out there that are supporting and guiding my journey of exploration. As optimistic as I am about what a future of possibility could look like, I certainly have my fair share of hesitations around how we will actually design and build this shared vision. We’ve had access to the knowledge of our negative socio-environmental impacts for generations now, and at the same time solutions to these problems have been fully attainable. This has exposed a massive disconnect between what has happened and what has needed to happen to maintain stable living conditions into the future. I could spend about 30,000 hours attempting to piece this big ol’ mess of a puzzle together, but instead I’ll explore one idea that’s been chewing at my brain the past couple of weeks that directly relates to this disconnect… check it out, y’all ready?… Discipline.

It’s become increasingly clear to me that many of our current environmental and social problems have arisen as manifestations of a lack of collective discipline. Unprecedented issues like climate change, global water shortages, continent-sized garbage patches in the oceans and extreme poverty are not the ideas of a few madmen hell-bent on destroying the planet. These issues are the externalities of billions of decisions made on a daily basis by all of us over long periods of time… decisions that have become invisible to the naked eye. Every time someone throws something in the garbage, flushes a chemical down the drain, or hops in a petrol-based car to run an errand they are exercising a lack of self-discipline, whether they realize it or not…

To dig a little deeper into this concept, it might help to better define discipline and see what role it plays in our personal and collective development. Webster defines it in part as “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.” Discipline is the rejection of instant gratification, even though it may seem harmless enough, in favor of something that aspires to a higher and better goal. It is hard work, unglamorous and often goes unnoticed. This explains why the subject is quite unpopular these days. We’re accustomed to having whatever we want, whenever we want it, and without any sense of consequence. Adding to the difficulty, an endless stream of temptations flows in front of us each and every day… but for those who refuse to satisfy many of these temptations, they get stronger… With discipline, the average person can rise as far and as fast as their talents and intelligence can take them. But without it, a person with ample education and skills will seldom rise above mediocrity…

Yeah, you know all this, so what gives? Well, like I mentioned earlier, discipline has been on my mind quite a bit the past couple of weeks. I’ve realized that an incredibly valuable aspect of my own development (which I’ve been depriving) has surrounded a series of personal challenges that have required a tremendous amount of self-discipline. A couple years back, I set aside a month to do a makeshift ‘sustainability cleanse’… I didn’t eat any meat, didn’t buy anything new outside of bare essentials, attempted to live plastic free, rode my bike everywhere, and went sans coffee and sugar… wow, what a month, eh?! I’m sure you’re wondering why I didn’t give up water and oxygen too!… well that month taught me a lot, really more than any piece of literature I’ve ever read. I was able to analyze my relationship with many of the things I had associated as detrimental to not only myself but also collective society. It instilled a sense of accomplishment and pride that I was able to withstand the barrage of temptations… it made me stronger and more confident. It also gave me information… I learned that a meat-free diet is ridiculously easy to achieve and that a plastic-free lifestyle is ridiculously difficult (next time you walk through a grocery store, look at all the packaging). Ultimately, the experience gave me a greater understanding of how complex and difficult the challenge ahead of us lies in our transition to a restorative future…. valuable insight!

So now I’m at the front end of another cleanse, albeit not as intense but one which will most certainly last longer than a month… I’ve found myself, much like everyone else who appreciates the good life, a coffee addict. Mmmm, nothing better than that hot cup o’ joe to get the day going, the sweet aroma filling the house, beckoning a fast transition into productivity mode. Yah, great, until you go without coffee for a day and discover that your head feels like it’s getting squeezed in a vice… ouch! Paired with the java fix was an unrelenting sweet tooth that constantly scratched my most primal temptation itch. After a bowl of cereal in the morning I would feel the gravitational pull of something sweet in the pantry and indulge in a quick treat… yep, addiction! A third pull of meat had increasingly presented itself back into my diet… I realized (again) that I want nothing to do with the industrial meat complex so I decided to throw that in the cleanse mix as well… So yep, no coffee, sugar or meat… wish me luck!

To build upon these ideas, I came up with a couple key points on why personal discipline is integral for our collective growth.

1. Intentions become actions which become habits

If you truly care about the future, your intentions will align around ideas that promote a sustainable, or better yet a thrivable world. Thoughts or intentions (like wanting to minimize your own impact) culminate in the form of actions. Actions (eating less meat) eventually become habits and redefine what is normal for you. Psychologists have studied this in some depth and determined that it generally takes between 2 weeks to a few months to develop a habit out of intentioned actions. This is where discipline comes in, to withstand the temptations before the habit sets in.

2. Self-discipline is empowering

Self-discipline is the key to personal greatness. Rejecting unnecessary, harmful or distracting desires builds your inner strength, much like going to the gym to exercise your muscles develops your physical strength. This is manifested in increased confidence and self-awareness, tools that are imperative for an optimized life. When discipline is paired with a commitment to our collective growth, magic happens and realities are reimagined. Self-discipline is also a professional tactic that can help an individual differentiate themselves from others.  The most innovative people in any industry have a common trait of controlling their information flows and management of time… basically, they’ve taught themselves how to get more done with less, something we’re all aspiring to do.

3. How we treat ourselves = how we treat the planet

The average American is now consuming about 160 pounds of refined sugar a year, when our bodies are really designed to handle about 10 lbs/year. Similarly, the amount of processed meat we are consuming is at an all time high. Both sugar and meat are linked directly to many lifestyle diseases and higher cancer rates, which is the culmination of thousands of somewhat menial decisions of what we choose to put into our bodies. Similarly, climate change is the culmination of a huge number of somewhat menial decisions of how we choose to transport ourselves, draw our energy and build our communities. When diagnosed with cancer, or when looking at an added foot of water to our oceans, it is much easier to look back with 20/20 hindsight and see the poor decisions that were made over an extended period of time… this is what we need to avoid. It takes discipline to understand how systems work and visualize the consequences our decisions have on ourselves, each other, and our collective future.

4. Without discipline, we’re kaput!

Really, what it comes down to is that if we as individuals who understand the challenges ahead of us are not disciplined enough to act on our beliefs, we’re kaput. We are well past the point of believing that other people, organizations or governments are capable of solving our problems alone. It will take a groundswell of awareness on a societal level to design and build our envisioned future. This will require an incredible amount of discipline to step away from the status quo, resist the constant onslaught of distractions and invest our energies into an unknown future. Clearly it’s a lot easier to ride the current wave of ‘what has been’ than ‘what could be’, but hey, easier has never meant better, right?!

My take home message would be this: set up your own personal challenge(s).  Set aside an hour a day to educate yourself on the global condition, volunteer within your community, go offline from your computer, develop a yoga practice or meditate, go coffee/sugar/meat free with me (I’ll need a support team, for sure!)… turn some of your positive intentions into actions, and then make them into habits! I can guarantee there is something that has been nagging in the back of your head for a while now, urging you to act on it with more conviction. Do it, and do it sooner than later… when we act, we give others around us permission to do the same and that’s how change takes hold… we all touch and impact many more people than we often realize.

I’d love to hear some of your ideas or own experiences surrounding this subject… what types of challenges have you initiated and how did they help shape your being? What habits have you formed that were derived from an intentional choice?



About Joshua Foss

Joshua is a leading voice for transformational change. He is the editor of Metro Hippie, co-founder and director of development of the Ecala Group, and adjunct faculty at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He is also an ambassador for the Living Building Challenge and is a frequent speaker at national conferences, trade shows and summits.