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Jocko Willink On the Power of Discipline

December 11th, 2017 · 37 comments

On Doing Less to Get More

Jocko Willink is an intimidating looking man (see above). He’s also intimidatingly impressive. He’s a former Navy Seal who was awarded a Bronze and Silver Star in Iraq while leading Task Force Bruiser: the most decorated special forces unit in that war. He recently wrote a business bestseller called Extreme Ownership and now does leadership consulting.

He has a new book out and its title caught my attention: Discipline Equals Freedom.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I did listen to Jocko’s interview with the always-sharp Ryan Michler. Here’s how Jocko explained his book’s theme early in the discussion:

“If you want freedom, then you need to have discipline…the more discipline you have in your life the more you’ll be able to do what you want. That’s not true initially; initially the discipline might be things you don’t want to do at the time, but the more you do things that you don’t want to do, the more you do the right things, the better off you’ll be and the more freedom you’ll have…”

Jocko’s examples of this idea in action mainly concerned personal development. More discipline with your finances, for example, will eventually yield more financial freedom, while more discipline with time management will allow you to do more interesting things with your time.

As I listened to the interview, however, I was struck by the thought that his concept might also prove relevant to the seemingly less related context of digital knowledge work.

The front office IT revolution granted the knowledge worker an amazing amount of apparent new freedom: email made communication with anyone about anything instantaneous; the world wide web put all information at their fingertips; the mobile revolution allowed them to take these promethean gifts with them everywhere.

But as I discussed in my recent post on stagnant economic productivity, this apparent freedom is yielding mixed results. And I can’t help but wonder if Jocko’s wisdom hints at an alternative vision.

The new economy does offer exciting new opportunities, but perhaps the most effective way to unlock this freedom in the long term is to be more disciplined in the short term, especially when it comes to your time and attention: to focus relentlessly on producing the things you know how to do best at the highest possible level of quality, while ignoring the attractive digital baubles that promise you conveniences and the potential of breakthrough connections and exposure.

As Jocko put it: “do things you don’t want to do…do the right things,” and trust this discipline now will eventually generate the freedom you seek.

37 thoughts on “Jocko Willink On the Power of Discipline

  1. AML says:

    Discipline is hard, he admits. How does one develop through discipline to wake up at 4:30 every day, for example? Just set your alarm clock for 4:30 and get up. There are no shortcuts for how to be more disciplined other than to just START DOING IT. Start doing what you know you should do. Jocko is fantastic.

  2. Dino Vino says:

    Guy’s a genuine inspiration because he turns the concept of ‘motivation’ around. It’s about discipline. The discipline of holding the course, knowing what you have to do, and making it happen. I particularly like this quote from “Extreme Ownership”: “Good leaders don’t make excuses. Instead, they figure out a way to get it done.”

    1. NonaYobiz says:

      I have to point out how nefarious your comment becomes when put into a corporate/business sense. While Jocko IS amazing, we have to remember that his ideas regarding “Good leaders don’t make excuses. Instead, they figure out a way to get it done.” were used to ‘figure out a way’…to kill people. In his line of work, there are few limitations. But if corporations were to enact such a ‘win at all costs’ approach to their work (which they already do, and have done – to the worlds detriment) the truly amoral, immoral, or outright evil deeds that they might (and probably WILL) do in order to ‘get it done’ are limitless.

      1. Rohit says:

        My thoughts: The political morality of the objectives of this specific Navy Seal is not the center point of this post. This is about the value of discipline in one’s work/personal life.
        We can probably tune in to Sam Harris’ podcast to debate moral precepts and free will. Cheers!

  3. Ed says:

    Yep. Always refer to his extreme ownership book with my clients, which IMHO is of tremendous help for getting the best out of life. Funny enough there are many similarities with Jim Collins’ teachings.

  4. Ernst Stavro Blofeld says:

    Ironically, Jocko is somewhat addicted to social media, most notably Twitter.

    1. Roman says:

      Given the fact that he is a public figure, being on social media can help him to be a better podcaster and sell more goodies. So technically, it is part of his job 😉
      Also, he mentioned several times that he won’t hire anyone to do his social media bidding for him, hence he spends time reading and posting things online.

    2. Marko says:

      He’s actually not that bad – he seems to batch his tweeting and limits it to certain times a day. And one word responses very often.

  5. Carl says:

    I love his wisdom. He only looks intimidating. He’s very relational, and funny too, while his style is refreshing and engaging. He’s got one video where he talks about how your ‘excuses’ are LIES.

    One of the messages of extreme ownership is that when one takes full responsibility for screwing up–people tend to have extreme respect for you, which is the opposite of the oft thinking you’ll be disrespected or ostracized.

  6. Luis says:


    The root word of discipline is “disciple.”

    Semper Fi,


  7. Carol says:

    Wow. Wanted to listen to this interview, but that macho and uber-manly intro made it pretty off-putting.

    1. Brad says:

      Me too. It reeked of “white men’s lives matter” and felt like a boys’ club. I stopped listening after Jocko trotted out the simplistic line about the homeless guy being on the street and strung out on drugs because he had made “choices” in his life. Seriously? Close to a quarter of homeless people in America have a severe mental illness; I don’t think they had much choice about that.

      1. Lachapelle John says:

        I think you have to take the message for yourself, and not extend to others. I have spent much time thinking about this. Why spend any energy helping the helpless? Discipline. Ours , not theirs.

        1. Sale says:

          “Why spend any energy helping the helpless? “….Really? I hope you do not mean it seriously …. please think this again from all sides of the view…

      2. Devon Smith says:

        Funny how self-hating and obtuse you are, that you find any reason to bring up that it gave you the feeling of “White lives matter”. I bet you are one of those losers that is white and goes out protesting how you hate being white or you’re black and make every excuse in the book of why your life sucks because of the evil white men/patriarchy.

        Look at your statement you effeminate fool. You said it yourself, close to a quarter of homeless people have mental illness, hence the overwhelming MAJORITY have probably made “bad” choices.

        1. D. Downer says:

          Devon, you’re spot on.

    2. M. Chan says:

      I agree with Brad and Carol. I wanted to listen to this too because Discipline Equals Freedom is a pretty compelling title, but Jocko seems totally blind to his own privilege, and totally ignorant to the fact that there are external factors that affect people’s behaviors and influence their likelihood to succeed. There are things that people can control, sure — and it’s good to know what those things are so that we can do our best to make our lives better. But without a doubt, there are some things people have no control over — including systemic racism, economic inequality, mental or physical illness, abusive family members, etc. These are not excuses; this is reality.

  8. Misha says:

    Not to sidetrack the conversation, but… I wonder if this dichotomy of ‘right’ and ‘easy’ things is a natural one? Or is it possible to re-frame and break down ‘right’ things to become joyful (not necessarily fun), say, in the spirit of ‘tiny habits’? What do you think?

  9. George D says:

    Don’t much care for his shtick and his ridiculously patriotic rose-tinted worldview, but there’s a nugget of wisdom there.

  10. One man’s discipline is another man’s hedonism. If he finds it pleasurable is it really discipline?

  11. Steven says:

    Did Joko Willink ever had the discipline to not give in to the herd of war mongers, oppose the Iraq war and refuse to go to a vain war that got tens of thousands of people killed, created ISIS, and left a country in ruins for decades to come? Did he ever have the discipline to acknowledge the disaster he was part of? He did not.

    1. NonaYobiz says:

      Well said! It is sad that Jocko’s ‘discipline’ was used/abused/manipulated to make him one of the most efficient, and likely prolific, killers in a false ‘war’ based almost entirely on lies. Perhaps he should have spent more of his ‘discipline’ on making the right moral choices.

      I also appreciate your pointing out that even AFTER it was clear and proven that the Iraq war was based almost entirely on falsehoods, Jocko continued to double (and triple, quadruple…) down on death. His ultra commitment to a false narrative – one in which he supported by killing, does not strike me as a good leadership strategy. GOOD leaders ADMIT bad decisions, and course correct!

      1. Sale says:

        Agree 100%

    2. Sale says:

      I agree!!!

  12. Ali says:

    “At 50, everyone has the face he deserves”!!

  13. Will D. Beiste says:

    There is no justification for anyone being relegated or compelled to listen to a “navy seal” (and unwitting/gullible and or strategically positioned fans and commentators thereof) provide life skills advice and counsel in attempt to line his or her own pockets. Unless “navy seal” training is replete with phd – equivalent psychology / psychiatry education and requisite expertise, any “navy seal” has no standing and no competency to opine and posit in regards to any matters other than “navy seal” experienced – which of course are generally accepted and agreed to be of a confidential [do not disclose] nature. This is the case regardless of whether the seal’s appearance is “uber manly” or effete [if male] and/or uber butch or feminine [if female]. Perhaps the recent net neutrality reversal opinion will rid the internet of such vendor oriented drivel.

    1. A.I. says:

      Your moralizing is besides the point.

      You can reach objectives in a disciplined and effective manner, even though you disagree with the objective.

      You can also choose objectives that you deem morally worthwhile, and fail because you are chaotic and ineffective.

      You sound like someone refusing to learn effective Java because some has written a military application in Java. The conclusion that therefore it’s better to be a lousy and incompetent Java programmer seems, at least to my mind, logically incoherent.

  14. Will D. Beiste says:

    Post Script (“P.S.”) to above: Where was all this purported discipline, and or self control, when Willinko/Jocko was deciding for himself whether or not to support not one (1), but two (2), illegal wars, entered into under false pretenses, the catastrophic effects of which in terms of loss of life [on all sides] and careening the United States into an economic ditch of bottomless proportions. With that fact pattern memorialized, none of which is laudatory nor rational, should we all still fawn over these vendors and whatever self-help rubbish wares they are attempting to sell? Indeed.

    1. Mark Reynolds says:

      I think the message is HOW to reach your personal objectives, not WHAT those objectives should be. His message would help both those who favor and oppose any war, those who practice law, farming, teaching, parenting or any other endeavor.

      BTW, regarding the war, let’s not forget that today we have the advantage of seeing it all in the rear view mirror. Those involved at the time, didn’t have that advantage. I suggest that we use his message to help us acquire the discipline to build future peace instead of vilifying historical participants in wars…

    2. Ali says:

      Excellent questions you pose! Cannot be brushed aside. Before trying to learn sophisticated techniques from such supposedly high-powered experts, first one has to learn/remember the simple lesson that “the best policy is honesty”! I’d think about your questions and find the honest answer whether it be officially “correct” or not. I suspect if I have enough discipline to do this, perhaps I won’t need the book to teach me…

  15. Daniel says:

    It makes me so happy to see you mention him. I love how a lot of the most interesting people I am following are starting to also notice or collaborate with each other.

  16. Harish Joshi says:

    “Discipline is what needs to be done even if you don’t want to do it”
    Awesome post by u !!

  17. Vanessa says:

    One possibility is that those who have very difficult life circumstances are likely the ones who struggle most with self discipline, and are also those who could benefit most.
    I think there’s something to be said for compassionate discipline, and for disciplined compassion.

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