Discipline is overrated

Are you sure you want more discipline? Because maybe instead, you should quit. Wait — I’m telling you to give up?

Yeah. It’s okay to quit.

Yo-Yo Ma’s first instrument wasn’t cello. He actually started with violin — and he wasn’t good at it. So he quit violin and picked up cello instead.

Maybe you’re like Yo-Yo Ma, and you just haven’t found your cello yet.

It’s okay to quit.

People think I have a lot of discipline because I danced every day for 365 days in a row. But the truth is, I have no discipline. I never did anything else for 365 days before. Dance was different because I loved it the most.

When you find something you’re truly passionate about, it will prioritize itself. You’ve heard the advice before: do what you love.

But what if you don’t know what you love? What if you’re not one of those people who has always known what they’re meant to do? How can you find your cello?

The good news is it’s not magic, and it’s not luck either. And just because you’re an adult, it’s not too late to start.

How to find your cello
Try everything. Be curious, ask questions. Let yourself be pulled in weird and interesting directions. Let your friends drag you to that thing you’re not so sure about. Go to a real bookstore. Sign up for an art class, a cycling class, an improv class. Bring a friend. When your friend bails, show up to class anyway.

I’ve tried a lot of things — and quit just about as many. Piano. Guitar. Singing. Cello. My band. My job at Microsoft. Juggling. Card tricks. Unicycling. Programming. Tae Kwon Do. Judo. Swimming. Origami.

Dancing was just another thing I tried. It stuck because I loved it the most.

Think about your job or hobby. Are you doing it because you really, truly love it? Or because it’s what you’ve always known?

But I can’t afford to quit
Okay, so you can quit your hobby. But what if you can’t afford to quit your job?

I felt that way at my old job. Two years into working at Microsoft Excel, I realized I was in the wrong career. I didn’t want to project manage anymore — I wanted to be a designer. But I had no design skills, and I didn’t want to go back to school. Going $100k in debt was not feasible, and 3 years is too long to wait for your dream.

So I taught myself — everyday I would do my day job in record time and rush home to learn design. I hacked together my piecemeal design education in 6 months. I did not feel ready but I started the job search anyway. I was a lot less experienced than others, so I had to get creative to set myself apart. After getting rejected a few times, I got the job as Exec’s designer.

It’s scary to quit. You can’t always do it immediately. If you can’t quit yet, start investing in yourself right now. Don’t wait to go find your cello. Start playing. Keep going until you can afford to quit.

It’s okay to quit.

–If you’re ready to start finding your cello, you may be interested in a motivational experiment I’m running: 100.


10 Responses to “Discipline is overrated”

  1. Meg July 31, 2013 at 5:32 am #

    I have a question: say I want to hack some piecemeal project manager training in six months. I hacked together my current online marketing job, but have decided I don’t think like it and would rather work with the project management team at my office. I’ve signed on to some projects with them, but things are moving very slowly; is there stuff I could read or teach myself in the meantime?

  2. Peg Carpenter July 31, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    I didn’t find my “cello” til three years ago, when I was 72 years old. I have played viola, piano, done some composing in the past. My :”cello” turned out to be my voice. I have the great good fortune of having a teacher who takes me as seriously as she does her most talented young students and we are on a wonderful journey together.
    I did love your video, by the way! I thought it, as well as your story, was just wonderful.

  3. Vanessa July 31, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

    Hey Karen,

    First off, I love reading your blogs and thank you for sharing so many wonderful experiences. You are an amazing person and I admire you! I’m going to college soon and everything seems like a big change.
    I sometimes wonder that, what happens if one day I quit something that I “thought” I enjoyed, but then realized, maybe it wasn’t the right thing for me. Is this kind of quitting too? I fear about what should I do next if one day I did quit on something I thought I enjoyed.

  4. Geoff August 3, 2013 at 1:37 am #

    Just discovered you and wanted to say how much I love everything you’re doing. Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. Janis August 15, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

    Thanks for the sharing, it was a wonderful story, Karen. Your story inspired me of a book called, ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ and I recommend this book to people who was doubting if they should make a change, for life and career as well.

    I was having a hard time to admit I don’t like what I am doing and was afraid if I would lose my edge but really… It’s okay to listen to your heart because you are the only person, who knows yourself the best and you are the only person who’s gonna spend the rest of your life with.

  6. Ece September 2, 2013 at 3:34 pm #

    Just wanted to thank for the inspiration


  1. Karen X Cheng | Sanna K Design - September 1, 2013

    [...] She is this girl I want to be. She seems to know everything about all the cool stuff I want to learn. She is self-taught and motivated. She is writing and publishing her designs and projects on http://www.karenx.com. Favorite quote so far “Discipline is overrated” [...]

  2. Sunday Reading: December 8, 2013 – Discipline, Military Hires, and the Compensable Value of Expertise | Something Different HR - December 8, 2013

    […] 2. Karen X. Cheng (of learn to dance in a year fame), makes the argument on her blog that discipline is overrated. Instead, she says, focus on that which makes you passionate and the discipline will take care of itself. On the one hand I agree with her – if you love doing something you don’t need to be disciplined to keep doing (and consequently improving at) it. With that said, there is evidence to suggests that “following your passion” is not the best way to obtain a career that gives you the greatest degree of satisfaction. Rather, to really cultivate the most rewarding career, it’s important to first have a skill set valued enough in the market place that you can dictate the terms of your employment to employers. This requires development of skill(s) scarce enough to have significant value.. which of course requires discipline. The good news here is that success often cultivates passion, and so through effort, repetition and success over time you may find a love you never knew you had. Check Karen’s full post out here. […]

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