I ate precisely 2150 calories yesterday: 65 grams of fat, 199 grams of protein, 192 grams of carbohydrates. Breakfast was two servings of oatmeal with protein powder, lunch was chicken and cheese, dinner was salmon and Ukrainian pancakes.
All of this went in a spreadsheet, along with the times of each meal. At the end of the week, I'll sum and average the numbers of everything I ate this week, and I'll look to ensure calories were 2640 or a little lower. The macronutrients I don't worry as much about, as long as protein is high -- I actually target 222 grams of protein per day -- and fat isn't too low.
Now, I'll be the first to confess: this is actually really, really, really boring.
Upon reading the title, On the Conflict Between Excellence and Will, I imagine some readers might think there was some sort of typo or mistake. After all, a conflict between excellent and will? Isn’t will required for excellence? Doesn’t will create excellence?
And to answer those questions: yes, I believe there is often a conflict between excellence and will; yes, will is required for excellence; but no, will does not create excellence.
Let’s not spend too much time defining excellence — we all know what it is. We might have slightly different priorities, but we all know it’s better to be in good health than illness, to be wise and pragmatic rather than foolish and reckless, to have admirable and loyal friends, to live in strong and supportive communities… cleanliness is better than filth, sound finances are better than bankruptcy, knowledge is better than ignorance, and so on.
Excellence, then, seems like the uppermost reaches of these obviously good things. Being healthy and having basic athleticism is good; athletes like Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan take that to the highest levels of health and vigor and beauty; excellence. Managing one’s investments intelligently is a good thing; people like Peter Lynch and Ray Dalio take this to the highest levels of excellence.
As far as Will, we can use Wikipedia’s definition —
“Will, generally, is that faculty of the mind which intentionally selects, at the moment of decision, the strongest desire from among the various desires present. Will does not refer to any particular desire, but rather to the capacity to act decisively on one’s desires.”
“Will” can be understood a few different ways. Technically speaking, some brain process is going on, and without it, we couldn’t do anything at all — there’s rare diseases like aboulia where a person is more-or-less fully conscious and aware of what’s going on, but just can’t do things. It’s worth reading up a little on at some point — you start to realize that there’s some process in the brain that causes us to take actions, and if that process breaks down, things don’t happen. Technically speaking, that’s at least a big part of will.
But in common usage, “Will” is more of a spectrum. You can have more or less of it. When an athlete loses a championship game, sometimes observers will say that “he didn’t want it enough” — this seems to be nearly a synonym for not enough will. He didn’t will it enough.
Now, sometimes that’s just wrong — sometimes the opposing team is just better, and they certainly get a say in how things turn out. Other times, though, it seems correct. Athletes who cultivate a near-fanatical Will-to-win like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant might just get their team over the top to win the championship more often. And certainly, there’s many cases of an athlete who seems to not want it as much and doesn’t practice (Allen Iverson’s “practice?” press conference comes to mind) or is more into being an entertainer than needing to win (Dwight Howard, perhaps) or who simply just doesn’t train and gets fat and flames out in their sport. Surely, Will plays a part there.
More Will can certainly lead to more winning; insufficient Will can certainly lead to less winning.
The common understanding of Will and the technical understanding of will differs slightly — but maybe not as much as you’d think. If the technical definition of will is about selecting from the strongest desire, the common understanding could be about nurturing desire, training one’s selection mechanism, and using will more common to compel the desired behavior from oneself.
Which brings us to the conflict between Excellence and Will.
All of the following will result in Will getting in the way of Excellent --
1. Attempting to Will the impossible.
2. The temptation to use Will in situations where it is the wrong tool for the job.
3. Cultivating more-frequent evaluations and overrides than is helpful and productive towards one’s ends.
I ate precisely 2150 calories yesterday, and it was very boring.
And yet, for every week I sustain this behavior and mix in 2-3 days of weightlifting with a caloric surplus, my body composition changes in the direction I want it to. I’ll never be Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the process leads to being leaner and stronger.
And there is almost no Will involved in maintaining this process.
Having experimented with a lot of nutritional and fitness programs over the last 13 or so years, I’ve experienced all three “failure cases of Will” when training back up into athletic condition.
At times, I’ve looked to to train too hard to add strength, or run a caloric deficit too large to continually sustain in order to get large short term gains. Both of these are trying to Will the impossible — the former results in injury (and I’ve had a couple bad ones), and the second most often results in madness-driven binge eating.
It’s a fun expression in American English to say “you have to do the impossible” — or whatever — but it’s wrong on a literal level. The actually-impossible is… actually impossible. We’re all capable of a lot, more than most people realize, but there is true impossible and attempting to Will true impossible into being always results in failure and often in very unfortunate side effects.
But that’s fine — those who employ Will often tend to learn this lesson sooner or later.
The second failure case is even more dangerous, because people often do fail to learn it.
People who are particularly good at Willing things to happen can easily become over-reliant on Will.
That is, they repeatedly try to use Will in situations where it is the wrong tool for the job.
Some measure of Will is required for any great undertaking, to be sure. You need to want it enough, and then get started, and then do a lot.
But for aspects of Excellence that unfold over a significant period of time — which is a great many of them — repeated and constant usages of Will is not the best way to get there.
In an area like personal finance, disciplined investing, nutrition, physical training, improving as an artist and producing art on a regular schedule, growing the sales and revenue of one’s business, or any such endeavor, you don’t want to rely on Will for every minor decision, every single day.
On the technical side of things, will is absolutely diminished by a number of factors beyond your control — obviously, you have very low will when you’re in bed with a serious illness, but there’s a whole lot of little things that can diminish will. A minor food allergy, pollen allergy, a bad night of sleep, heightened levels of stress hormones, eye strain… heck, seeing a particularly distressing brutal image of a warzone on the television news can all decrease will incrementally for a time — that is, will in the technical sense.
There’s plenty of studies on this, and you’re probably not immune to the effect. When you’re tired, you make worse decisions — and make them more slowly. When you’re ill, you can’t do as much. You can mitigate the effect to some extent, but you're not immune to it.
As such, trying to rely on constant small active applications of Will is probably a losing strategy. Sooner or later, you’ll be tempted to make a decision that works against you while in a compromised or diminished state. That’s when you lose the battle, if you’re relying on Will alone
The guidance for overcoming these first two failure cases of Will is contained in one of my favorite excerpts from Peter Drucker, in his masterpiece The Effective Executive —
"Years ago when I first started out as a consultant, I had to learn how to tell a well-managed industrial plant from a poorly managed one—without any pretense to production knowledge. A well-managed plant, I soon learned, is a quiet place. A factory that is "dramatic," a factory in which the "epic of industry" is unfolded before the visitor's eyes, is poorly managed. A well-managed factory is boring. Nothing exciting happens in it because the crises have been anticipated and have been converted into routine."
I think this is almost a perfect metaphor for reaching most kinds of constant effort over time types of Excellence.
People who rely on constant small dosages of Will are like someone running Drucker’s “dramatic” type of factory — every decision is heroic, inspired, epic, etc.
But under perpetual crisis, eventually something breaks down — and Excellence is lost. It’s possible to undo a week of nutritional progress in a few hours of binge eating; it’s possible to lose 6 months of strength training gains in a single weightlifting session that leads to significant injury; it’s possible to mitigate weeks or even months of one’s savings rate with a single dumb impulse purchase.
The answer is not constant Will, but rather converting crisis into routine. If you know you’re the type of person to make impulse purchases, you need to find a way to mitigate that in the future — not to heroically agonize over whether to buy the fancy thing you’re staring at in the moment.
The actual tactical answers are rather boring. There’s things like avoiding shops and advertising that are triggers, keeping lower limits on one’s credit cards or keeping a small amount in one’s main checking account only with the rest of your cash cordoned off in a savings account, and/or making a process where you write down anything you want to buy and sit on it for two weeks.
There’s no real magic to it. You chip away at your dumb and bad behaviors.
I have a process where, every year, I quit one or two foods forever. I take a food that (1) I eat somewhat often, that’s (2) unhealthy, that (3) I don’t even enjoy all that much — and I eat it one last time, take a photo, and then I’m done with it forever. It’s not a big sacrifice, since I don’t quit my favorites.
I remember the last cookie I ever ate a couple years ago in Hong Kong, but it’s no sacrifice — I don’t even like cookies. My favorite junk sugar/fat/carbs food is ice cream, which I’ll probably never quit. Whenever I’m craving sugar/fat/carbs, I have an ice cream. But you can’t eat all that much ice cream — or at least, I can’t. It’s hard to go crazy on it.
So now I have a very routine boring process. If I’m craving sweets, basically the only sweet thing I’ll go eat is ice cream. I never eat more than a few in a day. I’ve quit, without any problems or real cravings, cookies, pastries, candy, chips, bread, and pizza. This means when someone offers me a slice of pizza, it mentally shows up as not food to me. If someone said, “Hey, you want to drink some motor oil?” you’d say, “Uhh, no thanks.” Because it’s not food. I gradually mentally convert stuff I never want to eat into not food. I do it very slowly, it's been a multi-year gradual process, and it’s been very effective.
But again, it’s not the particular details that are so important. The key is to start with a workable plan for your domain, and then study where there’s failures and put countermeasures in place. Most people don’t do that — they fail, and say “Next time I’ll try harder.” (More Will.) Then they fail again, and say they’ll try harder next time.
No, that doesn’t work. That’s not the correct function of Will. You want to use Will to deeply study a domain, understand what’s possible and practical, and build a workable personalized plan to succeed in it. You want to then use Will sparingly in order to really study errors as they happen, and to reset your plans with new guidance that — again — won’t require much Will going forwards.
Thus, you convert crisis and opportunities-to-fail into a well-running factory over time.
Before we wrap up, I’d like to talk about a final critical thing that I don’t see talked about anywhere — cultivating frequent evaluations and overrides can be unhelpful and unproductive.
Any behavior we do frequently becomes easier to do going forwards, more habitual.
And this is a little eccentric to talk about, but I think that letting decisions get to an evaluate-and-use-Will stage is also habitual.
Think about the various battles-of-Will people go through — should I eat this thing that I shouldn’t eat? Should I buy this thing I shouldn’t buy? Should I do the work that’s important for me to do, or should I do some procrastination activity that I shouldn’t do?
In any of these conflicts, obviously, losing the battle and doing the wrong thing means taking a hit to morale and risks a cascade of failure.
But I think, counterintuitively, fighting the battle and winning can be bad too. The natural inclination when we Will ourselves to doing the right thing is to be proud of it, to congratulate ourselves… you know, if you look at any classical conditioning (Pavlov’s dog type stuff), you know it becomes more likely you engage in battles-of-will going forwards.
In short, I think living in a “dramatic factory” with the “epic of industry” can be addictive in a way. When you constantly fight internal battles and win them, and then feeling proud of winning, you reinforce fighting internal battles = feels good.
Converting to a boring and systematic way of doing things, with various rules and protections against common points of failure, does not lead to as much good feeling and self-praise.
And that’s probably a good thing in the long run.
If you read up on how elite military units train, they learn the single correct way of doing things. Then they can just “forget” the decisionmaking and do the right thing, basically every single time.
In training or real life situations, when a U.S. Army Delta Force soldier is the first to enter breach into a room where a terrorists are holding hostages, he doesn’t have to make a decision or use Will to choose how to assault the room — through training and practice, he’ll go to the strong side of the room; the second soldier in will take the room’s weak side.
There’s no internal battle; there’s no “Should I do the right thing?” or not.
And sure, that’s an intense situation — that’s a crisis. But U.S. Army soldiers generally learn the single standardized way to do any routine tasks, and do them that way basically every single time. It’s not, “Oh, do I want to go running this morning?” “Oh, do I really want to clean my rifle?” “Oh, do I really want to do pre-flight checks on the helicopter?” “Oh, do I really want to refuel the jeep?”
No. It all just happens. There’s no self-congratulatory sense for doing things correctly; you’re just expected do things correctly.
If your response to that is that soldiers have external accountability and you do not, then a find to install external accountability. Use Will for large pushes of research, permanent problem, setting up systems, and training — not for constantly fighting battles on whether you’re going to do the right thing or not. Those internal battles take an obvious toll on you when you lose them, but I really believe they’re not great even when you win them.
If you want body composition, I recommend Andy Morgan as a starting place. He’s a genius on practical nutrition. The End of Overeating is a terrible title but an excellent book on why food is addictive and how food processing is done in the modern Western world; I think it’s a must-read to be educated about what type of food is going into your body, why it’s addictive, and what factors trigger buying and eating decisions.
Personal finance, go with Mr. Money Mustache and Early Retirement Extreme. You don’t have to be as hardcore as them, but start with those guys since they aim for around a 90% savings rate of one’s pay. You can always be slightly less hardcore, but it’s a good place to start. There’s all kinds of tools and spreadsheets in both the ERE forums and MMM forums; they’re both great.
For business, I don’t have any single best canonical resource on making a great product from scratch — let me know in the comments if you have one — but after you’ve got product/market fit, read Paul Graham’s essay on week-over-week growth and closely study that table of exponential growth rates, followed by reading Justin Mares’s Traction for a meta-framework, and Noah Kagan’s quantitive spreadsheet stuff to ensure your growth is happening. It takes a lot of practice to get this stuff down; don’t be discouraged if takes a few years. (This could be said of all the domains mentioned.)
If you want to waste less time online, I recommend you liberally use blocking software — I use SelfControl (blocks specific websites), upgraded so I can block sites up to one month at a time (see my post), Freedom (blocks the whole internet for a while), Distraction-Free Youtube (underratedly excellent) and Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator.
I think proactively cultivating one’s entertainment is important. I use the Audible and Kindle apps on iPhone to always have something to learn if I’m waking in line or something, and I read Farnham Street, Taylor Pearson, and James Clear. I also very happily get “friends and family” updates and advisor/investor updates from every smart person I know personally who sends them out; that’s a wonderful source of really practical information. Nick Gray’s Friends Newsletter is my favorite; he’s a rare mix of hyper-focused and Renaissance Man.
Automation, communications, and lightweight project management all benefit heavily from install-and-mostly-forget instead of Will, but I don’t have any great resources for any of them. I learned them all the hard way through trial and error and hands-on time with smart people. Eli Goldratt’s The Goal is a must-read and excellent starting place, but I don’t know a single go-to out-of-the-box source for those three otherwise. Let us know in the comments if you know of one for any of them.
But again, I’ll note that the specific tactics are less the point.
The point is to put Will in its proper context. It’s great and necessary for building the desire to start things with a bang, and to do the initial hard work of 10-30 hours of preliminary research, design, and initial training on a new systematic way of doing things. It’s great for restarting if you fall off, and for Willing oneself to do the hard work of really studying why things failed last time in an open-minded way. (Though eventually that doesn’t require Will any more, since it becomes pleasurable after you do it long enough.) And it’s of course not a terrible “emergency brake” if you need to fight through a single day, every once in a while.
But Will is empathetically not the way to get routine things done, and it’s the routine things — standardized and done repeatedly, correctly, forever — that so often are the foundation of Excellence.
First thing I gotta say is - wow, I appreciate all the people coming and visiting, commenting, sending an email. I've gotten 718 visits since I installed Google Analytics a few days ago, average time on site 2:36. That's over 31 hours of people's lives they're coming to share ideas with me, read what I write. Wow, that's so humbling. It might even be higher than that with people reading on RSS or instapaper. So, very big thanks to the people that are reading, commenting, and letting their friends know about the site. It's quite an honor to take off so fast.
A very pleasant surprise for me has been (1) I'm getting some pretty insightful comments already, and (2) no stupid/rude/idiotic comments. Is the internet evolving or do I just have an awesome crowd here? Both, maybe?
One such discussion is with Alessandro Orsi, who has kindly made some very thoughtful comments/discussion on Luck Doesn't Exist.
We talked back and forth about cause and effect a little bit, and then he made this comment most recently:
I see your point. You look at generations/human race and consider a new born as a ring in a long chain. So when people say bad luck, you say “There’s no bad luck, just previous actions that lead to present situation”. And that’s fine. Like a political analysis of the People of the World.
What’s up? Todd Valentine here, and today I’ll be covering How to Flirt.
For a while I wrestled with this topic and how to present it, because naturally you all know what flirting is, when you’re feeling it, and when you’re doing it (especially when you’ve been in the game as long as I have been, and flirting becomes second nature). However, the concept of flirting is actually very hard to define.
So, the first thing I did was the old-school method of pulling out the dictionary to see how it defines flirting. Here’s what I found:
Flirt (verb): to court triflingly or act amorously without serious intentions