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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Developing Discipline in Students

My blog today will be a bit controversial—so I’d like to get any feedback you have.

I’ve been observing a pattern in young people. Like past generations, kids need to develop discipline in their life. They need disciplines like service, patience, listening, and establishing a strong work ethic, to name a few.

I know some young people, however, that never develop these disciplines because they constantly remain in an area they love and are strong in. Curtis is a talented musician. He can sing, arrange music, write music and direct musicians as they perform. He thinks he is a disciplined person because he can do these things, but everyone who knows Curtis would say he is a terribly undisciplined person. In fact, in every area of his life outside of music—he is immature and disorganized.

I’ve been pondering a theory. I wonder if young people ought to purposefully take on a job or a project that is outside of their strength area. For a season, what if every student dove into a task that is beyond the boundaries of their passions, for the purpose of developing raw discipline. A task where nothing inside of them drives them to accomplish it except the muscles of discipline they build in the process. Later, when they do find a career in their areas of passion—they’ve already established disciplines that enable them to do stuff they don’t like, such as paying bills, maintaining a car, or patiently waiting for people less gifted than they are.

We all know that people need to find a career in an area of their personal strengths. When this happens, we come alive. We deepen our passion and tend to become the best version of ourselves. I am suggesting however, that before we take that plunge we may be served well to do something outside of that “fun” area to build discipline:

  • Waiting tables at a restaurant
  • Inputting data in a computer program
  • Washing cars
  • Filing folders or shipping products
  • Cleaning offices and restrooms

Do you remember the movie, “Karate Kid”?  In both the original and the remake, a mentor takes on a kid and teaches him karate. But this mentor does so by building skills and disciplines in his protégé that seem unrelated to his area of interest. The kid cannot see any relevance to karate. Remember: wax on, wax off?  Eventually, however, by developing those disciplines, it paid off in the karate matches.

I must confess, there are areas of my life I’m not too disciplined. I’ve atrophied because I’ve worked for years in my strength areas. I don’t regret my work, but I realize now that discipline won’t stay strong unless it’s exercised in its purest form.

I realize this may sound morbid. Tell me what you think. What have you observed? What is the best way to build the muscle of “discipline” in young people?



  1. Jamie O'Donoghue on August 24, 2011 at 6:00 am

    I have been pondering some of these questions myself. I have noticed a growing tendency among adults when it comes to children, teenagers and tweens. Adults right now seem fascinated with teaching skills to these age groups.

    While I think this is important it is not essential. What is essential is character. Skills are easy to learn and pick up. Character is far more difficult.

    We don’t teach good character anymore. We are obsessed with personality and skill tests. What about a character test? Patience would be a natural by-product of a teenager who understood that consistent loyalty and faithfulness are fundamental characteristics of a good person.

    The same goes for discipline. A teenager or young adult who has been trained in good character such as honesty will naturally have the discipline to work hard when he is representing another person on the job or in a volunteering capacity.

    • Tim Elmore on August 24, 2011 at 7:36 am

      Great point, Jamie. Character is the essential. By teaching a skill, adults can create a great opportunity to share a deeper lesson. Unfortunately, it is easier to just teach the skill – adults have to remain intentional about pour character into their children/students. The long-term benefits underscore how essential this is. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. John Miller on August 24, 2011 at 6:39 am

    I would add the notion of returning to something that was abandoned for the reasons you stated: lack of passion, too difficult, not exciting. Resubmit to the discipline that was abandoned and find the courage and perseverance necessary for success.

    • Tim Elmore on August 24, 2011 at 7:40 am

      It’s so true – building these qualities in our students is not quick or easy. Keeping the end in mind helps develop the perseverance to stick with it!

  3. Woostew on August 24, 2011 at 7:48 am

    Always thought provoking. I teach middle school and I am a strong believer in strength building. Last year at Open House and the first week of school, I set the stage that my class might not be an area of strength or interest for some children. I gave the requirements for passing my class and allowed the uninterested a way out. I love your idea of challenging my students to attack an area of weakness/uninterest. Thank you for the mind shift.

    • Tim Elmore on August 24, 2011 at 8:19 am

      I, too, am a strong believer in playing to your strengths. Giving the students a way out of a class that is not in their strengths is not a bad idea but maybe following it up with a challenge: for some students this may be an opportunity to build an area of weakness. Take the opportunity to outline what the benefit of “pushing through” this challenge would be for those students. I’d be interested to know how many students/parents rise to that challenge!

  4. Ed Smith on August 24, 2011 at 8:00 am


    I totally agree! In fact, I have been kicking around a book idea to challenge parents, educators, mentors and youth pastors in a similar area. 

    • Tim Elmore on August 24, 2011 at 8:19 am

      Fascinating! I’d be interested to hear more as you develop this idea.

  5. Tom on August 24, 2011 at 9:26 am

    Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester MA
    requires each student to participate in a program called the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP).  The IQP is a team based project challenging
    students to utilize science or technology to address social issues or human needs.  Many IQP’s are done off campus at remote
    locations.  Typically the project is unrelated
    to the students’ major field of study.  The
    project also draws students from multiple disciplines.  See
    for more info. 

    WPI is heavily focused
    on developing students who are well equipped to develop solutions in today’s
    world.  A major focus of WPI is requiring
    students to work in diverse teams solving real world problems.  The IQP is a major component of the WPI
    philosophy that takes students out of their comfort zones and puts them in
    difficult real world situations. 

    I’m a huge fan of
    WPI and how it is equipping the engineers and scientists of tomorrow.  My daughter is currently a student at WPI.  I have also had the privilege of hiring WPI
    computer science graduates.  Students
    attracted to WPI are those who excel at technology or science.  The stereotypical “geek” student who spends
    his or her time playing/developing video games, winning the science fair, etc.
    is somewhat accurate of those who enter WPI as a freshman.  However, after getting to know a number of WPI
    students who attend our church, getting to know my daughters friends and hiring
    WPI graduates I have found the students at WPI to be some of most well rounded
    individuals coming out of college.   WPI is helping students develop the service,
    patience, listening, and strong work ethic disciplines you mentioned. 

    After reading through
    this I realize it reads like a commercial for WPI.  I have no affiliation with WPI with the exception
    of my daughter and the associated drain on my bank account.  

    • Tim Elmore on August 30, 2011 at 8:51 am

      Thanks for sharing about this program. I have seen something similar that Dr. Gaylon Turner and the engineering faculty at Louisiana Tech has implemented. They are experiencing similar results by giving students real-world problems to solve. I’ll have to check into WPI – I’d really be interested to find out more about what they’re doing. Glad to hear that both your company and your daughter are reaping the benefits of their innovative approach!

      Also, love the disclaimer at the end of your comment! Ha!

  6. Trent Thomas on August 25, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    I just had a meeting with 3 young men.  They are sophomores at the school I teach at and very capable and smart.  Nonetheless, i do see a sense of laziness in how they approach the things we study.  We are doing a service project this Saturday and I am excited about some of the “raw discipline” it may teach them. 

    • Tim Elmore on August 30, 2011 at 8:53 am

      Yes! Hopefully you’ll see some benefit from that. It often takes time to develop but it’s amazing how the disciplines learned during service projects can carry over to other areas of life.

  7. Jimmy McCarty on August 26, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Hi Tim,
    New reader.

    I work with young adults who have this dysfunction as well.  What’s interesting is the issue seems to be their motivation not their behavior.  One side effect of our over-glorification of this generation’s abilities and potential is that they don’t often agree that they can’t change or behave differently.  They see themselves as competent, versatile and adaptable (in fact, they pride themselves on it).  But there has to be some payoff.  If they can’t see the direct benefit (and as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else…a taboo no-no in this culture), they won’t do it.

    I’m in a seat where I look young adults (early-mid twenties) in the eye and have the conversation: what do you want and how bad do you want it?  Challenging them to a) articulate it and b) emotionally commit to it on some level changes the tone (although an emotional commitment might as well be a request for their firstborn…)

    Have you observed this?  That this generation will do things they don’t want to if the promise of personal (maybe even self-gratifying) advancement exists at deeper level?  My concern is that it doesn’t actually motivate them to scale the mountain, but just look harder for other roads around it.


    • Tim Elmore on August 30, 2011 at 9:08 am

      Very interesting points, Jimmy. I do see the motivation issues you describe playing into the decision-making of this generation. It’s great that you are challenging them to articulate their goal and call for a commitment to action. I do believe than when they start to see progress from good, hard work that it can lead to maturity. There is a fulfillment in achieving real goals through actual work that is far superior to the empty praise they’ve experienced earlier in life.

  8. Clay Morgan on August 27, 2011 at 9:17 am

    First off, love the Karate Kid reference! I always think in movies. I’ve been paid to work over 2 dozen jobs in the past 20 years.  Some of those jobs were definitely not pleasant. In fact, some of that work may have encouraged me to stay in college as I saw the alternatives. I’m sure you are right about developing these other areas of our life in as much as it will build discipline, but it’s a tough sell for sure to any of us who want to live what we love.

    • Tim Elmore on August 30, 2011 at 9:18 am

      Great point – I know people are fond living what they love. The call to discipline, while unpleasant at the outset, starts to provide rewards eventually, and usually small ones at first. I wonder if there are creative ways to provide a balance of privilege and responsibility while students develop discipline.

      Thoughts anyone?

  9. Elaine on September 12, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    You have my attention, as I like your idea very much esp. developing muscles of other ares that one is not good at.  I had wished before that someone else takes my mundane chores away! But you make it sound so appropriate.  Indeed, the development of a person is wholistic, isn’t it?

    • Tim Elmore on September 14, 2011 at 11:25 am

      Yes. It’s amazing when our perspective changes, even the mundane chores have a purpose!

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Developing Discipline in Students