How to use two metaphors for the mind to discover discipline

The most common bit of feedback I heard about my essay "Little know ways to think about discipline" could best be summarized as "Discipline is not distinct from motivation". That is to say that "We clearly always do what we are motivated to do, and sometimes that may appear to look like discipline from the outside". Let's call that capital M "Motivation"

Within the framing of the Motivation, the complaint is a good one, but it's also semantically reasonable to describe motivation as only inducements which appear below the level of consciousness. Others might call these needs, drives, or desires but there is no doubt that they exist. It can be useful to cut Motivation up into several categories of which discipline is one. To use this model in discussing discipline we clearly must decide on the other categories as well. How few sub-categories of Motivation are we able to create while still arriving at a coherent picture? Can we keep them roughly balanced in size such that discipline does not seem overly large or absurdly small?

One of the best place to look for a collection of very high level motivators is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
Each of these is itself an excellent example of a motivator, but this model is still slightly too fine-grained for the level of metaphor I seek. Rather than abandon it completely, I suggest we combined the Physiological & Safety needs together in order to produce something that looks a lot like our broader inducement to homeostasis. This powerful drive can be thought of as our animal need for survival, our "lizard brain".

Using a similar process we combine the Love/Belonging & Esteem needs together to produce a set of drives centered around interaction with others and social acceptance. Social acceptance is not a uniquely human thing, it's a need for all pack animals1, and it's a very powerful drive. When I observe myself and others in social situations, I'm often struck by how little leadership, loyalty, and love have to do with logic or the broader context, and how much they have to do with simple animal cues like posture and height. I like to call this set of drives our "wolf brain".

Self-Actualization is a slippery concept, deeply intertwined with goal setting, and reason. If we are limiting ourselves to a short list of Motivations, one of which is discipline, then I am inclined to include "Self-Actualization" as part of the broader discipline context. Self actualization, and discipline in general, is a more2 uniquely human drive. It depends largely on foresight, focus, and imagination, as well as self control.

Taken together our lizard brain, wolf brain, and our powers of discipline show a striking resemblance to Plato's chariot as described by J.M. Greer :
the human mind had irrational as well as rational dimensions, and that there had to be better options than ignoring or browbeating the irrational side of the self. In one of his dialogues, Plato had compared the whole self to a chariot in which reason was the driver and two irrational parts, the biological appetites and the social reactions, were two very unruly horses.
The challenge that had to be solved, to the Neoplatonists, was how to train these horses so that they would pull the chariot the way the charioteer wanted to go.3

Perhaps because I'm inclined to florid, high fantasy imagery, I much prefer to visualize this chariot of the mind as being pulled by a massive lizard and a massive wolf while guided by some sort of animate but empty suite of armor that drives them on with a flaming whip.

This metaphor as presented by Plato ignores the most powerful motive which I wish to include in our set: habit. For most of us, habit drives the vast majority of our actions. We are likely to basically do what we did yesterday. Habit keeps us moving in the same direction long after our original motivations have left us, and will even prevent us from changing our behaviors rapidly. Many people use the word "Discipline" to describe any good habit they have, such as going to they gym regularly. This is particularly true of habits that were created intentionally through discipline. I think, however, that there is real value for this model carefully separating the ideas of habit and discipline.

To introduce habit into the metaphor of the chariot, I believe we can most easily envision habit as being the chariot itself. It's frame and wheels allowing easy movement and inertia even when it's fantastical animal motors are mostly exhausted. At the same time, the design and maintenance of the chariot makes a tremendous difference to it's performance. If the chariot is broken the charioteer is far better off spending his energy fixing it than working his animals into a lather. If the chariot is well designed, it will be comfortable for the animals, and allow them to naturally pull together rather than against each-other. If the chariot is crooked, it may always drift in one direction.

The second metaphor I wish to introduce, and the one I find more delightful, is that of the sailboat. If we take the same list of Motivations as our starting point, then the "Lizard brain" and "Wolf Brain" become the South and West wind, "Discipline" becomes a sailor, who can paddle, hike out, work the rigging, or even modify the boat. Finally, the part that makes this metaphor so delicious for me is that, "Habit" becomes the keel.

A keel is basically a fin that sticks down from the bottom of the boat into the water. It forces the boat to travel forward, rather than sliding sideways over the water. What makes this crucial, is that a keel allows sideways force from the wind to be transformed into forward force for the boat, even allowing the boat to travel against the wind using a maneuver called tacking.

What makes this metaphor so delightful is that it actually provides hints as to how we can manage our own mind. Thought the sailor is able to paddle, his energy is much better spent sailing: capturing the force of the wind. The keel, that is to say habit, is crucial to being able to move in any direction coherently, and not simply being blown adrift by the wind. The amount of forward motion that can be generated from the "winds" is to a large extent determined by the skill of the sailor. It is even possible for him to, with a good keel, sail upwind. It is never possible to sail directly into the wind, though one can travel in that direction by zig-zaging on close approach.

Both of these metaphors contain a serious danger: allowing ourselves to identify primarily, or solely, with the charioteer or sailor. This is essentially the Homunculus fallacy. It's quite critical that we recall that we are the entire vehicle4. For example, in the chariot metaphor, the charioteer is completely unable to feel joy or pain. At it's best it can help the lizard and the wolf find good hunting grounds and stay happy and healthy, but at it's worst it becomes a terrible master, whipping them forward arbitrarily, relentlessly trying to maximize the efficiency of movement because that is all it knows how to do.

Equipped with these two powerful metaphors, and wary of over-identifying with the pilot, let us explore other concepts in motivation, and see what we can learn. One school of thought in motivation is the "Intrinsic Motivation" vs "Extrinsic Motivation" pattern. In brief, the idea that things you are motivated to do because you want the outcome are "Extrinsically motivated" where as things you do for the pure joy of doing them are "Intrinsically Motivated"5.

If we were to use the example of the chariot, then an intrinsic motivation would be something that the lizard or the wolf could see, and was attracted to, say for example a pile of carrion. Completely without the intervention of the charioteer, and with great glee they will run together towards the meal, and feel quite happy while doing so. Conversely an extrinsic motivation might be a pile of carrion so far away that the animals can't see or smell it. The charioteer is given a map, possibly by some other charioteer, and in order to bring the vehicle to the meal it is necessary to whip and cajole the animals, often an unhappy process until the last moments.

A second concept in motivation is "Incentive salience". Incentive salience makes things seem like they are worth wanting. If your not sure what exactly that means, it's essentially what changes after you have a cup of coffee in the afternoon6. Bio-chemically this is actually one of the most straightforward changes around, and correlates to a combined uptick in dopamine and norepinephrine in your brain.

In this case, the boat analogy works nearly perfectly. Incentive salience could be thought of as the size of your sails. By letting out more sail, you can use ever smaller winds. Like with boats larger sails mean a need for a larger keel, or better ingrained habits, and for more skill in sailing. Even for an expert sailor with a large strong keel, larger sails inherently put more strain on the structure of the boat. Larger sails in no way help you go in the right direction, they just help you go faster.

This is a great time to talk more about stimulants. I have a complicated set of feelings about the use of stimulants. They're a powerful but dangerous tool that is frequently misused and I am constantly amazed at the number of caffeine addicts I know who don't even recognize that they are drugging themselves daily. To work with the sail metaphor for incentive salience, stimulants allow us access to much bigger sails with obvious and very real upsides, but also complicated and frequently ignored downsides. With the stronger stimulants, it is quite easy to overwhelm your keel, and or even your sailor. This causes the the boat, that is to say you to slide across the water and end up pointed in a new direction or even capsize. Additionally, and perhaps more critically, In strong winds the "sailor" component of your mind is fully occupied with keeping the boat sailing correctly, and may be tempted to ignore things like repairs and navigation7. That said, if you are pretty sure you know where your going, then a little more sail is often a very good thing.

Within this model, the 4 motivators are:
  • Survival : The Lizard or the North Wind
  • Sociability : The Wolf or the West Wind
  • Discipline : The Charioteer or the Sailor
  • Habit : The Chariot or the Keel

This leads to the question "how do you know where your supposed to be going?". Whether it's a specific goal such as "I want to own a house", or a general theme such as "I want to be more social" finding a direction worth going in is it's own puzzle. This is where the charioteer really shines or fails. Within this metaphor there are other chariots who can be imitated or ignored. Many of them are headed in a direction already, and the wolf that is pulling your chariot desperately wants to go along with them. Further, the landscape is dotted with maps, chariot design books, and manuals for animal husbandry8. None of them are guaranteed to be right, but there is a strong temptation pick one, and follow it. You could call these documents life scripts. Of course, the terrain changes, and what is marked as a verdant hunting ground on a popular script may be horribly over-hunted when you get there, though this risk hardly makes these documents useless.

This is where the greatest danger to your chariot comes in. If the Charioteer looks only at the scripts, and not directly at his location, or to the health and happiness of his animals, then there is a real risk of living in self inflicted misery. The Charioteer doesn't feel and can be content to leave his animals miserable in an area once marked "delightful pasture" that is now a barren wasteland. If tending to his animals isn't seen as part of his job then he may leave them in ill-fitting racing harness' that he saw designed in a book or on another chariot rather than making them comfortable. These mistakes are real, and I have both made myself miserable with them, and seen others do worse.

The charioteer would also do well to listen to his animals sometimes. The wolf can hear things that the charioteer could never hope to, the lizard can taste the air and in doing so see the invisible. Sometimes it's wise for the charioteer to let one of the animals lead, essentially letting the chariot "follow it's instincts". In this case his job is to keep the other animal in line, and prevent the chariot from venturing into dangerous or foolish places. The ability to let the animals take the lead without loosing control is a powerful one, often described as "intuition" and perhaps the most subtle part of discipline. It also a key to finding unexpected delights.

  • 1. I suspect for many non-pack animals have social acceptance drives as well. For example it seem cats have a surprisingly strong set of social needs for being solitary predators.
  • 2. I think it may appear in a few other animals as well, particularly primates. I have a primate research friend who I hope will read this and add to the conversation
  • 3. Greer is the only person I have ever seen describe Plato's chariot quite this way, but I think that it's a very effective view. I'm honestly not sure how closely this reflects the original intention, but that may just be because of my opinion that "the white horse who seeks social approval" is not in inherently noble as Plato described it.
  • 4. In the case of the boat metaphor we are also the wind itself, this is a place where the metaphor is a little awkward
  • 5. I think that these concepts are, at there core, much more complicated than they appear on first examination. For instance, since all experiences exist in time what is the difference between a reward and a intrinsically motivating action? If activities oscillate quickly between intrinsically and extrinsically motivating the behavior appears to become intrinsically motivating. This rabbit hole goes much deeper
  • 6. Incentive salience also changes with a cup of coffee in the morning, but there is a good chance that you are also experiencing the relief of withdraw symptoms as well, and teasing the two apart is far more difficult
  • 7. Do you feel like you need coffee to get through your work day? I'm sure some of that is good old fashioned physical addiction, but there is also a good chance that it's helping you hide the bullshit nature of your job from yourself. It might be time to reel in the sails and take a look at the compass and charts
  • 8. Your reading one of them right now!