Teddy Roosevelt can make you good at anything

'Just send away for my 8-week pamphlet.'

‘Just send away for my 8-week pamphlet.’


Theodore Roosevelt was, unquestionably, awesome. A sickly child, he took up strenuous activities for the good of his health, boxed during his tenure at Harvard and was an early fan of jiu-jitsu. When the Spanish-American war broke out he resigned his own post in the navy to create a volunteer group called the Rough Riders, then marauded through Cuba with them. He’s also credited with popularising the phrase ‘Speak softly, and carry a big stick,’ which is about as solid a personal philosophy as you’d expect from a guy who once guarded a group of prisoners for 40 sleepless hours rather than hang them, and he used it to one day win the Nobel peace prize. Also, when he was a child he bought a dead seal’s head so that he could start his own zoo. I don’t know much about his parents, but it’s probably a safe bet that they were fucking kickass.

Anyway, these are all matters of public record. The important thing is this Roosevelt quote, which is amazing:

The one quality which sets one man apart from another, the key which lifts one to every aspiration, while others are caught up in the mire of mediocrity – is not talent, formal education, nor intellectual brightness. It is self-discipline. With self-discipline all things are possible. Without it, even the simplest goal can seem like the impossible dream.

Turns out, Teddy would later be proved right by science. According to Roy F. Baumeister, author of Willpower, a study that tracked New Zealand children from birth to the age of 32 found that those who had the most self-discipline in their youth had better teeth, happier marriages, better-paying jobs and were less likely to end up in prison than their undisciplined brethren. Dozens of other studies corroborate this. But here’s the best bit: now, science has worked out how to make self-discipline much easier.

See, what Baumeister (and others) also say is that self-discipline is largely about habit. Most of the ‘decisions’ you make in a typical day aren’t actually decisions at all – they’re just automatic processes you go through. Secondly, modern researchers now think that willpower is like a muscle: you can exercise it to make it stronger. What does that mean? If you’re starting a new way of eating, exercise regime, writing routine or set of working practises, it might be tough, but you can stick it out. You can manage things by creating if-then plans, so that if your willpower’s at a low ebb you fall back on a predetermined strategy. You can say ‘I don’t,’ rather than ‘I can’t,’ because that makes it easier to resist temptation. You can focus on the pride you’ll feel from following your strategy, rather than the shame you’ll feel if you don’t.

Those are three examples of how to make self-discipline easier. There are dozens. The important thing is to remember: self-discipline is more important than how clever or pretty or strong you are. It can make you into anything you want. Look what it did for Teddy.

HOMEWORK: Pick a new habit you’d like to form and spend this week trying to ‘automate’ it. That might be pressups before the shower, writing when you get up, or getting the most important thing done first thing in the morning every day. You might as well read Roosevelt’s wikipedia page. Oh, and check out Sharpwriter, who drew the Teddy/Bigfoot battle. He is awesome.

About the author


Editor and creator of Live Hard. Fighting enthusiast, steak lover and aficionado of all things self-improvement related.

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