Axios Finish Line

An analog clock with only two symbols instead of twelve: the symbols read 'AM' and 'PM'.

Welcome back. Reach tonight's host — Axios CEO Jim VandeHei — at [email protected].

  • Smart Brevity™ count: 859 words ... 3 mins.

1 big thing: The case for extreme discipline

Illustration of a coffee mug with the Axios logo with steam forming a thought bubble
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Achieving insane success at work or in personal quests often requires insane effort and discipline, Jim writes.

Why it matters: Almost every person at the top of their game — be it sports or business — does extraordinary things to get their mind and body to perform optimally and at a higher level than others.

  • People too often lose sight of how much of life — your health, your happiness, your smarts, your career — you control. This can be a lazy and unwise mentality.
  • Yes, this is much easier for people with money, power or free time. But I'm convinced it applies to all of us, which is one big reason many of the exercises we tout on Finish Line can be done without a gym or equipment.

My "aha!" moment: Until my early 20s, I was about as unhealthy as you could be: I drank copious amounts of beer ... lived on burgers, corn dogs and pizza ... smoked ... and rarely worked out.

  • I also started experiencing the early signs of ankylosing spondylitis, a rare disease that eventually leaves your entire spine fused and inflexible. The pain and immobility are often debilitating.
  • I later tracked down one of the world’s leading experts on AS in search of a cure, only to find none exists. But I did discover a few studies showing Pilates — and exceptional inner core strength — mitigate the pain and can offset the inflexibility.

I asked the doctor what would happen if I simply never sat still again, worked out constantly, mastered Pilates, and basically kept my spine in constant motion to complicate any fusing. He said: Go for it.

  • At 51, my lower and upper spine are fused but I am active as hell (biking, hiking, running, lifting, Pilates, core), and rarely if ever in pain. This opened my eyes to the benefits of extreme discipline.

You'll find that most people doing extraordinary things weren't simply born with a gift — they learned grit and hard, meticulous work.

  • A good example of this: Jonathan Swan is a star Axios reporter, known for his cinematic writing and captivating, tough-as-timber interviews with Donald Trump and many others.
  • I see him study his subjects to the point of exhaustion, watch old interviews like an NFL QB watches game film, and work harder — and care more about his craft and accuracy — than any reporter I know.

Here’s how extreme discipline might apply to different parts of our lives. (Please send me your personal examples.)

1. Our diets: There are countless good ones, but let’s face it — most boil down to reducing things (sugar, simple carbs, booze, processed food) and increasing things (more water, greens, fiber, healthy proteins — peas, eggs, fish). Try extreme dieting discipline for one week and measure how you feel.

2. Our faith/mind: It’s hard to center your brain and soul without some daily meditation, prayer, reflection. I try to meditate twice daily for 20 minutes and pray afterwards in the a.m. For me, this only works when I am extremely disciplined about it.

  • Confession: I slacked on the transcendental meditation routine while on vacation, in large part because I grew too extremely disciplined about drinking with friends each night 😉. Writing this forces me back on the right path.

3. Our bodies: To me, every person should find a daily exercise habit, even if it's walking, air squats, planks or biking. The body and mind vastly underperform without it. Start young to make it an extreme habit. But better to start now than tomorrow.

4. Our careers: All of the above give you a massive edge at work. But if you really want to crush the thing you spend the vast majority of your hours doing, you need to be more disciplined and self-demanding than others. There is no easy way to be great.

5. Our goodness: This might seem an odd coda. But few things fuel contentment and inner joy more than giving to others. If you think about the benefits (helping others + the psychic lift of doing it), it’s a very efficient use of extreme discipline.

The big picture: Start small. Pick a passion — practice extreme discipline for a few months. You'll find it gets increasingly easy to apply it to other parts of your life.

🥗 Chips with a side of discipline

Jim's dad is on a no-salt or low-salt diet for his health, and he's an admitted salt junkie.

So he shared his Smart Brevity salt-free salsa recipe for any readers who might also be looking to cut down.

  • 28 oz. salt-free tomatoes (whole, crushed, diced — it doesn’t matter)
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1/2 cup of chopped cilantro
  • 1 1/2 jalapeños, partially seeded
  • 1 medium-size onion, chopped
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of pepper, freshly ground
  • 1 tablespoon of oregano

"Throw everything in a food processor and chop to personal preference. I destroy all of it," Dad tells us.

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