Discipline- In The Pursuit of Perfection

     Good evening, friends and neighbors!

The other day, my girlfriend and I were talking about our work over dinner. She’s a piano teacher, specializing in teaching very young children, ages 3 to 9. At this age, the children don’t learn to read music so much as listen and learn by ear, memorizing pieces and which keys make what notes to play them.
As we were talking, she mentioned that one of the hardest things to teach students of any age isn’t so much the material, as the characteristics of a pianist- attention to detail, feeling the music, investment and passion in playing, and most of all the diligence and discipline for practicing.


    I couldn’t help but smirk and agree. “Discipline” sounds like a dirty word these days, recalling images of ranting, groundings, spankings, and generally other forms of punishment that parents are warned they shouldn’t use on their kids because it will turn them into cold-hearted, dead-eyed shamblers of the twilight world that is their fate.

“Calm down, Damien…”

But I’m not talking about that- at least, not directly.


The dictionary definition of discipline is:


  1. 1.
    the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.
    “a lack of proper parental and school discipline”
    synonyms:controltrainingteachinginstructionregulationdirectionorder,authorityrulestrictness, a firm hand;

    • 2a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education.
  2. “sociology is a fairly new discipline”
    synonyms:field (of study), branch of knowledge, subjectareaspecialty


  1. 1.
    train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.
    “many parents have been afraid to discipline their children”
    “she had disciplined herself to ignore the pain”

     This, however, is the definition I tend to follow-

     “Discipline is doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, the way it needs to be done, and doing it that way all the time.”

     When I was a kid, I didn’t really have much of *this* kind of discipline. My parents were good ones- they rewarded good behavior, punished bad behavior, and so on. Even so, I was a pretty miserable student. I would read and understand the material, and get questions right when called on in class, and I would even ace tests left and right- but I would never do my school work. If I did do it, I’d forget to ever turn it in. My teachers would go nuts- I’d be the smartest kid in the room, finishing the year with Cs and Ds.

I knew the material fine- I just didn’t give a rat’s ass about it. Not an excuse for not doing my work, of course, but simply the truth- and I graduated dead middle of my class because of it.

     This kind of discipline didn’t really click with me until I went to culinary school, where it was not just the standard my teachers held me to- it was a standard I began to hold myself to.

A few months back, I briefly discussed passion and why it’s important in anything you do. Passion puts the light in your eyes and the fire in your soul. It gives you the energy to pursue whatever it is you want to do. Energy needs direction, though. Light needs a lens to focus it. 
That’s what discipline does. Passion will encourage you to do your best, and discipline won’t let you accept anything BUT.

When I was in school, I had teachers who required perfection in all work. They required it. DEMANDED it.
Every rosette MUST be exactly 1″ across. 
Every petit four must look EXACTLY the same.
You did it? Good- now do it again, 45 more times.

It would be fair to say that at the end of each day, I’d return home in one of three conditions:
50% tired but happy with work done.
25% foaming at the mouth with rage and indignation.
25% broken-hearted and on the verge of tears with sheer disappointment. 



In time, however, I started to worry less about what my teachers thought, and instead I began demanding it of myself. Perhaps it began out of spite- I wanted to prove to everyone I had what it takes to be a pastry chef. It could have also been prideful stubbornness- there was no way in hell I was going to give up and go home over f*&^ing CAKE.
Whatever happened, my attitudes began to change:
     I wanted every rosette to be the same size.
     I wanted everyone of my petit fours to look exactly the same.
I would go home in a fit of rage because I had disappointed myself with not doing what I thought was my best work that day.

I became my own harshest critic, and my failures became my most brutal teachers.
I remember in particular one moment from my school career- in a Centerpiece Artistry class, a few elements of one of my pieces were not coming together properly. I grew frustrated, despondent, and felt as though I had wasted a whole day.
As a pissy 20-something of the Millenial generation, I vented about the day in a Facebook post, and just left it at that.

    The next day, I went in to class, already formulating a task list in my mind of what needed to happen. My teacher, Chef Chelius, called me up to the front. Chef Chelius was, frankly, notorious in school for being an exacting, demanding, but excellent teacher. This was the third time I was taking a class with her- the first time, she told me that if I didn’t shape up and knuckle down, I’d flunk right out of the program.
This day, she called me up with an interesting look on her face.

“You had a rough day yesterday, Matt.”
“Yes, Chef.”
“You wrote a very amusing Facebook post about it.”
*I think I turned bright red here* “…Yes, Chef.”
“Matt, do you remember what I told you three classes ago, over by the flour bins?”
“… Yes, Chef- that if I didn’t shape up, I’d be out of the program.”
“How many classes ago was that, Matt?”
“…Three, Chef.”
“Yes- and you’re still here, and you are doing excellent work, and you are going to get an A in this class. Don’t be so hard on yourself, and have fun.”
“…Yes, Chef. Thank you, Chef.”

Obviously, there are limits to how healthy a devotion to discipline can be. Chef Chelius reminded me then of one of the most important ones- don’t forget WHY you are doing what you’re doing. There is passion, and then there is obsession, and then there is madness.

I am still very demanding of myself and my work. At my job, even if it puts me behind or out of my way, I can’t let myself send out something I find unacceptable.
It has trickled into various parts of my life, as well- my poetry, my exercising, even my home life (Em once caught me growling in frustration when I screwed up flipping an omelette for breakfast.)
All the same, I feel like I’m better for it.

Robert Service is one of my favorite poets, and he once wrote about the search for perfection:

The Land of Beyond

Have you ever heard of the Land of Beyond,
That dream at the gates of the day?
Alluring it lies at the skirts of the skies,
And ever so far away;
Alluring it calls: O ye yoke of galls,
And ye of the trails overfond,
With saddle and pack, by paddle and track,
Let’s go to the Land of Beyond!

Have ever you stood where the silences brood,
And vast the horizons begin,
At the dawn of the day to behold far away
The goal you would strive for and win?
Yet ah! in the night when you gain to the height,
With the vast pool of heaven star-spawned,
Afar and agleam, like a valley of dream,
Still mocks you the Land of Beyond.

Thank God! there is always the Land of Beyond
For us who are true to the trail;
A vision to seek, a beckoning peak,
A fairness that never will fail;
A proud in our soul that mocks at a goal,
A manhood that irks at a bond,
And try how we will, unattainable still,
Behold it, our Land of Beyond!


One last thing I was thinking about earlier, especially for anyone that thinks this all sounds like madness or making things way too difficult:
I read somewhere that the writer Ray Bradbury would write 1000 words a day, every day, no matter what. 1000 words, ideas or no ideas, felt like it or didn’t. It was routine for him- like brushing his teeth or reading the newspaper.
Ray Bradbury died 3 years ago today. He was one of the most prolific writers of our age, with a career spanning 70 years, over fifty novels, and hundreds of short stories, poems, operas, plays and screenplays that have enriched our culture, made him a monument of science fiction, and an icon of American canon.

I’m just over here trying to make the best damn cakes possible.
What are you doing?

Stay Classy,

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