On Jimmy Carter’s Ambitions and Industriousness

I know little about Jimmy Carter except what is known by most politically-aware Americans. He oversaw both an energy crisis and an international crisis; he was more successful after his presidency than during. I know of his Christian faith and his relatively simple lifestyle.

But I don’t know much else.

Recently, I read a short article that mainly focused on the humble house of the Carters. While former presidents often cash in on their fame and live much more luxurious lives after their presidency than they did before, the Carters still live a simple lifestyle. After reaching around a some, I came across a 2011 article by Nicholas Dawidoff in The Rolling Stone entitled, “The Riddle of Jimmy Carter.” The article highlighted the tensions of Jimmy Carter’s personality and activity. Dawidoff writes:

And who really is Carter anyway?

That has always been the rub, the core elusiveness of the man. It would be hard to find a person of comparable fame and ongoing public presence who has remained more personally remote.

But what interested me more is the description of Jimmy Carter’s simplicity, ambitions, and industriousness. (The tension between Carter’s ambitions and humility is one of the tensions written about.)

On his simplicity, Dawidoff writes:

This morning, he’s wearing khakis, casual black shoes, a blue shirt and a red tie. In other words, he still dresses like a high school guidance counselor. He shops like one, too. Carter flew to Africa on a supporter’s private jet, but he buys his clothes at the Dollar General store back in Plains, Georgia. “Tight as bark on a tree” is Carter’s old friend Dot Padgett’s cheerful assessment of his Depression-era frugality.


Jason [Carter’s grandson] has prepared me for my visit to Plains….“They built their house in the 1960s, and they almost haven’t changed a thing. They were superexcited — legitimately excited! — when the Dollar General store opened in Plains. They buy their clothes there.”


“My grandparents, their microwave is from 1985. It goes tick tick tick tick! It takes 12 minutes ticking down to pop popcorn, because why would you buy a new microwave? The point is that nothing is easy, and why should it be?”

The brown-brick, ranch-style house where Jimmy and Rosalynn live is just as Jason described it. Shaded by tall pines, it looks like the sort of suburban residence where you might expect to find a young ophthalmologist and his family. There is a tennis court and an outdoor swimming pool and a carpentry shop. When Carter left the White House, his staff planned to buy him a Jeep, but he let it be known he’d prefer a set of woodworking tools. Carter has since built many of the wooden furnishings, including a handsome four-poster bed for the master bedroom, a coffee table he fashioned out of a livestock trough, and a chess set….But the house doesn’t really reveal the range of Carter’s worldly concerns. It suggests that he doesn’t want anything around that would distract him from them.

This truly is astonishing, if true. Jimmy Carter is one of the most influential men in the world, and yet he buys his clothes at a discount store and lives in a relatively modest house. Yet, Dawidoff sees in this simplicity more of a desire not to be distracted from his projects than a renunciation of worldly possessions.

To me, this is the other interesting thread throughout this article that interests me: Jimmy Carter is extremely hardworking. Dawidoff writes:

Carter’s days rarely involve spontaneity. Through the agency of the Carter Center, the flourishing, action-oriented organization he founded in 1982 to resolve international conflicts, promote democracy and fight disease, he keeps so busy that his calendar is a legendary document covered with transverse lines, abstract art made out of advance planning. Rita Thompson, a volunteer on his 1976 campaign who now serves as a family assistant, says, “He relaxes once a year. The week after Christmas.” That’s when Carter takes a family trip with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that he organizes right down to the minutes set aside for “free time.” To be late for anything on the itinerary is to be left behind, with an exception granted for Rosalynn, whose 57th-birthday present from Carter was a promise to never again nag her about “tardiness.” The other 51 weeks, Carter’s preferred pace is constant motion, flurrying from briefing to meeting to press conference, maintaining a slam-the-door-and-go tempo that keeps everyone who works for him aware at all times of where the exit signs are.

While talking with Dawidoff, Jimmy Carter describes his campaign for the 1970 election that made him the Governor of Georgia:

With a borrowed automobile, Carter says, “I drove all over Georgia for four years. I’d work all day at the warehouse and on the farm. In the late afternoon, I’d drive all over the state giving speeches” — to the Jaycees, Lions Clubs, Kiwanis. Late at night, driving home, “I’d dictate on a hand-held Dictaphone the names of people I met.” Then letters were sent to all of them. “It was rudimentary, but detailed,” Carter says of this extraordinary effort. He mentions the 600,000 hands he shook, the 12,000 pamphlets he handed out and the factories he visited — every one in the state.

Read the article. I learned much about Carter, changing him from a boring former president (in my mind) to someone with a multi-faceted personality, worthy of more study to understand.

The Genius of Karl Deisseroth

On a road trip recently, I listened to Tim Ferriss’s interview with Dr. Andrew Huberman. In the wide-ranging interview, Huberman mentioned high regards for the intellect, productivity, and scientific discoveries of Karl Deisseroth. Huberman spoke as if Deisseroth was not just one of the great scientists of our eras, but also one of our greatest intellects.

I made a mental note to read more, and when I arrived home from my road trip I found a New Yorker article from 2015 about Dr. Deisseroth. I read it that night and found the whole thing fascinating.

Deisseroth is a groundbreaking psychiatrist and bioengineer whose research has already yielded several breakthroughs. He is, however, not that old and also has a large family with his wife, who herself is an accomplished neuroscientist.

As you know I am neither a neuroscientist nor a bioengineer. So I barely understand the significance of his research, nor do I even have an inkling of how difficult such research is. I am, however, an avid reader and was amazed at the description of Deisseroth’s voracious reading habits and astonishing memory. From the New Yorker article:

He was in the third grade when he learned that his own brain functioned in an unusual way. A teacher asked the class to choose a poem to recite from memory. Deisseroth opened his reader, looked at a page containing “The Road Not Taken,” and put his hand up. When the teacher explained that he needed to memorize the poem first, he said that he already had, and recited it. The teacher, disbelieving, spent the rest of the class calling on him to quickly glance at a poem and then recite it. “It kind of turned into a circus act,” Deisseroth says.

He remains a preternaturally fast and retentive reader. At a recent conference, he attended a talk by David and Nic Sheff, the father-and-son authors of the addiction memoirs “Beautiful Boy” and “Tweak.” In the course of an hour, while listening to the two men, Deisseroth read both books in their entirety. He does not use the standard techniques of speed-reading but, instead, sees printed pages “in blocks,” he says, and instantly “fills in gaps.” Colleagues suggest that this ability helped Deisseroth to acquire the wide-ranging knowledge necessary for the development of optogenetics, which required a working familiarity with virology, optics, animal behavior, genetics, 3-D imaging, microbiology, materials science, and chemistry.

If this is accurate and not an exaggeration (either by Deisseroth or by the journalist), then this is an amazing ability. It reminds me of Tyler Cowen’s statements on reading; the story of the poem memorization is oddly similar to the story of Dr. Samuel Johnson memorizing a long poem at a young age in the time it took his mother to walk up their stairs.

Another interesting this was his description of his need for stillness in order to concentrate:

His unusual calm has allowed him to compartmentalize competing demands (fatherhood, marriage, neuroscience, literary endeavors, clinical psychiatry, speaking appearances at dozens of conferences a year), so that he can think through complex problems. He told me that, while many people find that walking or jogging shakes ideas loose from the subconscious, he needs to quell all physical activity. “Otherwise, I get this disruption from the motor cortex,” he said. “I have to be totally still.” Ideas come floating up “like a bubble in liquid.” At that point, he goes into an excitable motor state, pacing or scribbling down ideas.

The whole article is worth reading to get an insight into the significance of his breakthroughs. His productivity and his intellect, though, struck me as most interesting and most unusual.

Determination Versus Discipline

On the many mornings that I am undisciplined and check my social media accounts upon waking, I am greeted by an Instagram picture of Jocko Willink’s watch. Every morning, the former Navy SEAL commander wakes at 4:30 a.m. and posts a picture of his Timex watch, with ‘4:30’ usually displayed on its digital face. An hour or two later, he will post a picture of his gym floor, sweat dripped all over it from his intense, early-morning workout.

I aspire to be as disciplined as Jocko. In the last few years, he has become my lodestar, guiding me towards more discipline and better leadership. Despite the attention he gets for his discipline, his main focus is writing and speaking about leadership. He is incredibly insightful on leadership, and I routinely think, “What would Jocko tell me to do in this situation?” His thinking on leadership has seriously impacted me.

But, still, I struggle to be as disciplined and intense as he is. And it bothers me.

Others bother me in similar ways. Cal Newport, whose approach to productivity has shaped my personal productivity more than anything else, is one of those. Cal is a nonfiction writer, a researcher and professor of theoretical computer science at Georgetown University, a podcaster, and so on. And he does all of this while working less nights and weekends than most of us do. How? An intensity and discipline about his work that mirrors Jocko’s.

Despite following Cal’s writings for years, I’ve yet to be as structured and disciplined as he is.

Yes, it all bothers me. I recognize that being disciplined is the key to getting more done in my life — even the key to getting more out of life. But I have long been undisciplined. In high school, I forgot about more homework assignments than I completed. I was regularly late to school. I tuned out of lectures in high school and college, often bringing a book I was more interested in. I slept through a freshman physics test my second semester. (Why would they schedule it at 8:00 a.m?) Have only recently exercised regularly. And I’ve seen 4:30 a.m. a lot in my life, like Jocko, but in almost every case it was because I stayed up late, not because I woke up early.

Any of you reading this far would be forgiven for thinking that this essay is just a “pity party,” a confession of my own failures. But that’s not its purpose.

Despite falling far short of Jocko and Cal, I am much more disciplined than I was fifteen years ago. A few weeks ago, I was thinking about my slow, jerky journey towards being more disciplined. When applying for my first job, I could not demonstrate a disciplined life. They hired me anyway. But through my desire to do better at my job — and through a desire in my personal life to be healthier, more fit, more educated, and more financially secure — I inched my way towards discipline.

I learned to keep a calendar. I learned to track personal metrics. I learned to keep todo lists. I slowly and reluctantly implemented some simple personal routines. I read book on organization, productivity, time management, etc. I’ve tinkered with different software and systems for productivity, task management, and time management. I intermittently tracked my calories to learn to eat better. I began keeping a simple budget that grew into what is now a budget with over 50 categories, I think. And so on.

I didn’t do these things because I was disciplined; I did these things because I was determined to succeed in the areas that matter to me. My determination made me more disciplined.T

he disciplined life was not the goal in and of itself. Jocko Willink says, “Discipline equals freedom.” And I believe that that is true in many areas of life. But even in that saying, discipline is secondary to freedom; discipline is the servant of freedom; one doesn’t choose discipline as an end in and of itself, but as a means to an important end.

Which leads me to a simple point about a personal characteristic to develop, a point that can also be applied to hiring decisions or when forming a team.

Determination is better than discipline.

I’ve known disciplined people who hated work and so used extreme discipline to get it out of their way. They were disciplined in order to exert themselves as little as possible. Their discipline was in service of their laziness. Whenever you see a disciplined person, ask yourself: “What is the purpose of their discipline?” Because if the purpose of the discipline is to work as little as possible, they will likely end up being an efficient but ineffective worker. But if the purpose of their discipline is to be more successful than they other would be, that person would be a great employee or teammate.

And I’ve known plenty of determined, undisciplined people. I would easily choose to work with them over the undetermined, disciplined person. (I never want to work with an undetermined, undisciplined person.) The determined person will slowly become more disciplined. They will become more disciplined in order to be successful in the areas that matter to them. Determination matters more, because it can be the pathway to discipline.

So, don’t beat yourself up if you are an undisciplined person. Concern yourself with finding an area in your life or a vocation in which you are determined to be successful, and then throw yourself into that work. Almost without fail, you will become a more disciplined person…

…even if you never wake up at 4:30 a.m.