It took me longer than you might realize to figure out how to begin this in-depth look into discipline and specificity.

(Last week’s posts, in which I asked whether you could have specificity without discipline and then answered “discipline is committing to do the work to solve the problem; specificity is what you get after the problem is solved,” were technically an introduction.)

But when it came to me — while I was practicing, naturally — it seemed obvious.

The conversation about discipline and specificity begins at the moment you discover you are unsatisfied with some aspect of your life.

Feeling bad about something, for lack of a better phrase, is a sign that something needs to change.

What does that mean? If you’re at the piano, it means that whatever little bit of the music that isn’t coming out the way you want it to — whatever trill or articulation or ornament prompts a twinge of dissatisfaction every time you play it — has to be addressed. Given focus. The relationship between cause and effect has to be re-evaluated, since you’re not getting the effect you’d hoped for.

In other words: Something about the way you’re playing that section has to change.

If you’re dealing with something interpersonal (like a romantic relationship), it means — well, that whatever’s bugging you has to be addressed, given focus, and re-evaluated. Same goes for a job, or a freelancing client, or the way you use social media, or whatever else is currently pinging at the edges of your brain.

If you are unsatisfied with some aspect of your life, it is your responsibility to start working towards greater satisfaction.

Whether you attribute that dissatisfaction to an external source or understand that it’s primarily an issue with your own thoughts, actions, or behavior.

Which we are going to describe, in this case, as unspecific.

Now you see why I’m starting here, right? Why I couldn’t start this conversation anywhere else but here?


At this point, I can hear what you’re thinking (metaphorically; I’m not telepathic):

I can’t just quit my job! Do you even know how money works? (Yes, and I didn’t say you had to quit your job.)

I can’t just play that trill better, if I knew how to play it better I’d be doing it already! (Great, you’ve just identified a gap in your knowledge and you can start working towards filling it.)

Why isn’t it good enough to be good enough? Stop pressuring me! (I’m not pressuring you. The dissatisfaction, to borrow the cliché, is coming from inside the house.)

I can’t stop doing this thing that I don’t like doing, it’s making another aspect of my life easier and I think it’s worth the tradeoff! (That’s fair — but is there any other way to get what you want?)

Well, aren’t you just Miss Perfect, telling us all what to do? (No. The reason I’m committing to what is probably going to be a month-long series of near-daily posts on discipline and specificity is because this is the problem I am currently trying to solve in my own life.)


L and I often talk about hitting bedrock (his term) in our music, in our philosophical discussions, and in our conversations about how to live our lives. One of us might say something like “It’s kind of ridiculous, but I’m feeling anxious about XYZ and I don’t understand why,” and the other one might say “That sounds like it’s a cover for something else, I don’t think we’ve hit bedrock yet,” and we’ll keep digging until we find out what is actually causing the anxiety/frustration/dissatisfaction — and when we do, the core problem is finally revealed, and we can start doing the work of addressing it.

I mention this not only because this idea that dissatisfaction is a sign that something needs to change feels like the core problem behind the discipline and specificity conversation, but also because many of the things we feel dissatisfied about aren’t necessarily bedrock.

That doesn’t mean our feelings are invalid; just temporarily misattributed.

As Daniel Kahneman puts it in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.

Or, as I wrote last Friday (with emphasis added):

Discipline is committing to do the work to solve the problem. Specificity is what you get after the problem is solved: an ornament that comes out the same way every time, with none of the notes fudged or blurred. The problem itself, and finding both its core issue and its solution — well, that’s a whole other thing.

We’ll continue tomorrow. ❤️

2 thoughts on “Feeling Bad Is a Sign That Something Needs to Change

  1. Coming at this from a project management perspective (because I have more experience with managing projects than managing personal problems; I was also a successful project manager before retiring and I am on my second marriage, FWIW) I always started by asking the question, “What is the problem we are trying to solve?” It often delighted me how often a strict definition of the problem would greatly improve the odds of fixing it; occasionally a clear delineation of the problem DID solve it. I mention this because you look to be following a similar methodology, Nicole, albeit from a different angle. Nicely done. I look forward to see where you’ll take us.

  2. Coming at this concept from a different place, I’ve been stuck on the phrase “what’s the dream beyond the dream” for a while. Sometimes, the dissatisfaction of not achieving/reaching something is about a deeper dream (a more bedrock-y dream?). I really love the idea of having a partner who is helping you find the deeper dream in addition to the deeper dissatisfaction. This all has been very interesting to read. 🙂

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