This morning, Seth Godin published something that reminded me of some ideas I've turned over in my head before:

...the rationale ... appears to be that at some point, obedience transforms into self-control. That at some point, people start obeying themselves and become leaders. Self-control is without a doubt one of the building blocks of success, a key element of any career worth talking about. We need self-control if we’re going to make a difference.

But help me understand why obedience is the way to get there?

Some years back, I was thinking about inhibitions. Someone had suggested inhibitions were good, because they kept you from doing bad things.

After turning it over in my head a little, I decided they were right. Inhibitions are useful for keeping you out of trouble -- keeping you from screwing up your life -- till you've developed enough wisdom and self-discipline to keep yourself out of trouble.

But at that point, inhibitions become bad. They prevent you from putting that wisdom and self-discipline to good use -- knowing when it's a good idea to do something your neighbor might look down their nose at, and having the courage to do it with confidence.

Fear is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you're afraid you're going to look like an idiot, you act so sheepishly that you look like an idiot. Do the same thing with confidence, and the world will watch in awe.

Obedience and Self-Control

Getting back to Seth's post, obedience is a low-level form of self-control. If you have no self-control, how could you manage to keep yourself in line?

As I've written elsewhere, all motivation is intrinsic. Hmm, since the relevant quote is in the "premium" part of that post, I'll quote a little of it here:

Ultimately, all motivation is intrinsic (internal). External motivators like rewards and punishments can never have any more power than whatever internal motivations they’re tied to. And the further they’re abstracted from a person’s internal motivations, the less of that power they’ll borrow.

In other words, whenever someone is motivated by an external reward or punishment, it's only because they, internally, care about that reward or punishment. Offer a bottle of wine as a reward to someone who loves wine, and they'll be motivated. Offer it to someone like me who doesn't drink, and no motivation will occur. The motivation comes from what's going on internally.

Similarly, all obedience is self-control. The motivation to act a particular way may exist only in the presence of externally imposed rewards or punishments. But ultimately, the individual either exercises the self-control to act as directed or they act randomly on the impulse of the moment.

As with inhibitions, obedience is better than no self-control at all. But obedience doesn't magically morph into self-control without the development of other skills.

Some authorities use obedience to prevent people from developing those other skills. They discourage learning, understanding the why behind the rules, and independent thought. Others use obedience to promote self-control by leading their followers in the development of those skills, and giving them greater autonomy as they progress.

A wise follower obeys the rules till they understand them well enough to recognize the exceptions, and till they've developed enough self-control only to break them in situations where the "why" behind them doesn't apply.