Discipline equals freedom

Author Image By Ben Ford 3 minute read

I remember when I heard this phrase the first time. It was when Jocko Willink first really burst into the light on Tim Ferriss’ blog in 2015. I was starting to realise just how much I had learned in the Royal Marines in the context of building and leading development teams.

Only a decade or so after I left the corps - I’m not the sharpest tool in the box sometimes. :-)

I’d also drunk deeply of the typed functional programming kool aid, had used it in anger to build a team at a start up, and had found it ridiculously effective. I was primed to make some links between the two and the flash of inspiration came in the form of 3 words:


What did I see in this seemingly simple statement?

To answer this let’s first use the original quote from Aristotle, because it more closely matches the intuition I had at the time:


Some key observations drop out of this small rewording:

  • Discipline is not a static thing. It’s not a binary state.
  • Freedom isn’t a static thing either: It’s a vector. It’s measured with an amount (magnitude) and a direction. direction.
  • Discipline doesn’t equal freedom: Having more freedom is an emergent property of applying discipline.
  • Discipline, even though often spoken about as something one has, is not additive. It’s actually about what you take away.

So what are we actually talking about here?

We’re talking about applying CONSTRAINTS to COMPLEX ADAPTIVE SYSTEMS in order to influence their EMERGENT BEHAVIOURS

So let’s restate Jocko and Aristotle to:


This is an incredibly profound principle, with implications for everything that happens in any kind of human endeavour. For example:

Culture is an emergent property of the constraints applied to a group of people. That means you don’t get to create culture. The only thing you get to do is shape are the constraints that form the system in which that culture evolves.

Quality is an emergent property of the constraints applied to a software project. That means you don’t get to create quality. The only thing you get to shape are the constraints that inform how the software develops.

The kind of person your child develops into is an emergent property of the constraints you apply as a parent. That means you don’t get to create carbon copies of yourself. How kids develop is an emergent property of the constraints you (try to) apply as a parent.


We generally think of constraints with a negative connotation. Just look at some of the synonyms: restriction, limitation, control, obstruction, impediment handicap

These are all fair enough when you’re in any kind of linear system. In a linear world discipline doesn’t equal freedom because you only would only see what you can’t do. But we do not live in a linear world. We live in a complex, networked adaptive world and instead of shunning constraints, we should view them as essential structure that we need to shape our path. How would you ever be able to take on a novel challenge without understanding the constraints of the project, if anything is theoretically possible, no tangible progress is actually possible.

So let’s restate these ideas one last time:


Pay attention to the structures you put in place in your life and work. Progress is a second order effect of the leverage you create.