With Written on Their Hearts: Writing, Worship, and Spiritual Formation in the Life of the Mind, Dr. Royce Francis began a new series on writing with a new format for the ESN blog, i.e., Masterclass. Like a Masterclass in music or performance, it provides the opportunity to learn skills from an expert, as well as exercises designed by that expert to help you deepen those skills in your own academic life. In this series, which will run for the length of the spring semester, Royce will weave together theological reflection and practical suggestions on becoming a skilled writer in general and within your field. He will also provide exercises each week to give readers a way to put the ideas in the series into practice. Join ESN for a Masterclass in writing. Questions and conversation are welcome—feel free to use the Comments section to express them, or email them to http://www.intervarsity.org/contact/emerging-scholars-network.
For God did not give us a spirit of timidity (of cowardice, of craven and cringing and fawning fear), but [He has given us a spirit] of power and of love and of calm and well-balanced mind and discipline and self-control. — 2 Timothy 1:7 Amplified Bible, Classic Edition
There is a question I have been thinking of for some time now: “What does it mean to say that I am free?” Closely related to this is: “Can I truly be free?”
However you answer these questions, one of the ways we experience what we call freedom is, ironically, through discipline. And discipline is absolutely indispensable to the academic life.
In my opinion, the thing that distinguishes research (and invention, for that matter) from many other worthy pursuits is that there is no roadmap. There is no one who has charted the course for you. There are no well-defined mileposts. Those who want to know where they are going before they start will not finish the PhD unless they become comfortable with uncertainty. They need to take ownership of their own decisions, and not rely on others to make those decisions for them. But this is not enough. After they become comfortable with uncertainty and take ownership of their own decisions, they must be disciplined.
Discipline makes all of this hold together. Without discipline, you may be comfortable with uncertainty and indeterminacy, but you will have no direction. Your efforts may become counterproductive, and it will not be possible to know when you have achieved a goal. While there is some virtue in undirected exploration, there comes a point at which this is counterproductive. It becomes selfish self-indulgence. And your professional community will not suffer unproductive self-indulgence very long. Our discipline helps us to identify our trajectory within our disciplines.
This obviously presents some tension. Our professions are necessarily creative, but discipline can seem to constrain creativity. Fortunately, the opposite is probably true. If you are undisciplined, you will not produce enough work to express your creativity. But if you are disciplined, you will make the conditions for yourself to “find your creativity out.”
The idea that discipline constrains creativity proceeds from arrogance. We can think we are not “normal” or “average” and therefore we think we are not subject to the same forces others are subject to. While there is some sense in which we are not average, in most ways we are just like everyone else. Most of our efforts are mediocre. Most of our efforts are plagued by misunderstanding or confusion. Our visions and their implementation are most often frustrated by complexity and human error. Discipline provides the safety for us to proceed, humbly, through the ways that our humanity frustrates the God given visions that we have.
Discipline is crucial because creativity cannot be scheduled. There is no formula. The only thing we can do is devote ourselves to our tasks long enough for our minds to work things out. Michael Polanyi reports that breakthroughs often come after distractions from our normal thoughts. However, he does report that the regular disciplined devotion to our tasks probably creates the conditions for breakthrough by providing our minds with the material it needs to synthesize novelty.
The same is true of writing. The reason I made you commit in the last three weeks to daily tasks is that our writing proceeds from our daily, unseen habits. If you don’t take it from me, take it from our most successful writers. On The Daily Beast, Noah Charney has interviewed several writers about their disciplines. These writers are from a wide variety of disciplines, backgrounds, and genres, but they all commit to regular practices that structure their creativity. If they must do it, please don’t think you are exempt. Discipline is the essence of freedom.
In the last three weeks, we’ve established that you should be reading every day, eliminating distractions, and writing every day. This week, while implementing the actions of the prior 3 weeks, I want you to keep doing what you’re doing with a renewed focus on the disposition of your mind (Romans 12:1-2). Specifically:
- Ask yourself who is calling you to this assignment. Most of the time, we focus our processes of discernment on our own desires and thoughts. We forget that if there is a call, then there is someone who is calling. The one who hears the call responds to the will of the one who calls. Who is calling you to this academic pursuit? Who is calling you to renew your discipline? If it is your Lord, you should have no say in whether it gets done. If you belong to Him, that is. Why do you call Him Lord and not do what he says? Read, write, and focus as if God is calling you to do so.
- Make no excuses. I was reading a book by the Navy SEAL Jocko Willink titled Discipline Equals Freedom. In this book, Willink points out that most of us simply don’t hold ourselves accountable to our choices. We have much more control over our actions than we admit, and we must hold ourselves accountable to our goals. What is my takeaway? If I find myself procrastinating or making excuses for my behavior there are two most likely possibilities: I have committed to something beyond my capacity, or I am not being obedient to my Lord. What is your takeaway? If it is the first, write down your mistake and make sure you default to “No” next time. If it is the second, see #1.
Brothers and sisters, let us become aware, consciously aware, intentionally aware, of our actions and our mind. Let us model our work patterns after the best authors. Let us respond to the call of our Master. And finally, let us take control so that we can be free.
Peace and Blessings.
Royce is an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at the George Washington University. He conducts and teaches under the broad theme “SEED”: Strategic [urban] Ecologies, Engineering, and Decision making. His research and teaching interests include infrastructure sustainability and resilience measurement, risk analysis, and drinking water systems analysis. Royce is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA).