Jason Shen graciously contributed a new guestpost to the site -- his have always been popular here. He's running an online class on "The Science of Willpower, Habits, And Behavior Change" in January. Here's Jason --
Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is one of my favorite films and the best comic book to film translation ever done. Nolan's take on Batman is gritty, heroic, fresh, and even somewhat plausible. One of my favorite scenes from the first film, Batman Begins, is when he is being trained by Ra's al Ghul on the art of ninjutsu.
The key conversation I want to point out here:
Ra's al Ghul: "Your parents' death was not your fault … it was your father's."
Bruce fights back in anger
Ra's al Ghul: "Anger does not change the fact that your father failed to act."
Bruce Wayne: "The man had a gun."
Ra's al Ghul: "Would that stop you?"
Bruce Wayne: "I've had training."
Ra's al Ghul: "The training is nothing! The will is everything. The will to act."
George St. Pierre pummeling your untrained faceBut beyond the literal falseness of this idea, this "lesson" encourages us to believe that willpower is everything and that all external factors play a minor role in guiding our behavior. Dispelling the myth Look, the will to act is important, and you will never succeed in anything without a great deal of hard work, but it can be dangerous to put too much stock in this concept. One of the first things I teach in my class on the science of willpower, habits and behavior change is that willpower is not enough. Sebastian himself has documented how he's slowly but surely eliminated sugar from his diet, developed a complex time-tracking system and used public accountability to get more sh*t done. If willpower was everything, why bother with this nonsense? He'd just grind through it. But Sebastian knows better. He understands that his environment, his habits, his systems matter. Controlling behavior is kind of like riding an elephant. The elephant is powerful but can easily get off track. It takes a smart rider and a carefully laid path to guide the beast in the right direction.
Courage Wolf giving some bad advice.Going beyond willpower
The idea of Willpower being the answer is dangerous. An example I think of is 12-step programs for fighting addiction. In almost every 12-step program there is the need to submit to a higher power which can help you stop your habits. This leads to some consternation from those who don't believe in a higher power, but the programs themselves are very effective.
In my view this is hugely due to our cultural idea that the correct way for us to deal with something like addiction is to "Man Up" and will ourselves to stop doing whatever destructive behavior we're trying to avoid. However, in the process of manning up, we're exhausting our ability to continue to do so, and in effect putting ourselves at a prime risk of relapse.
Constant exertion of "will" leads to stress, which is not healthy. Relapse is discouraging. In the end, the result of ending addiction through sheer force of will is a memory of your attempt, which is highly stressful, and ends with failure. This means that if you want to end your addiction later, you will recall your stressful failed attempt, which will then require a larger exertion of "will" to overcome.
It's when you stop trying to will yourself through it that recovery is possible. If instead of directing your life through sheer force of will you instead make small decisions that lead you away from the thing you're avoiding, and you stop trying to force yourself, you will suffer less stress, and when it's time to make those difficult decisions in the face, you will have more "will" to do that.
Our culture assumes that a person's behavior is a measure of their worth, and that the absolute worst thing that can happen to you is that you are not in complete control of yourself. However, there's a loophole in western culture, and that is submission to God. If you let God "guide" you, then you're allowed to let go of some of that control. In the scope of recovery from addiction this would mean you are "allowed" culturally to stop trying to exert your will, and just trust that it will be taken care of for you. But these programs work regardless of the higher power you choose to follow.
What's important though is that you conserve your "will". In my observation and research, when you form habits, you disengage the decision evaluation process that consumes willpower, and the less resistance you put up in general helps you conserve it too. The more stress you need to deal with, the more will it takes to forcibly jump those hurdles, and the more you force yourself to do when your will is exhausted, the more stress you feel. The amount of stress you can tolerate is a limited resource too, and when that runs through, you start supplementing it uncontrollably habits that make you less stressed or more driven, and emotions and anxiety. That's when things can get detrimental, because an addictive substance makes you feel less stressed, or makes you feel more driven, or both. Even though you want to avoid them, your ability to do so is exhausted.
Learning to conserve will has been a huge thing for me. Let my mind do its own thing most of the time, and then I always have the will available to make the important adjustments when necessary, practice the habits that are important to learn, and let problems go without a second though. I try to exhaust myself by the end of the week if I haven't by then, and have a restful weekend. I find it like training a muscle. I want to use it to it's full potential, I want to try and push it a bit further than I'm comfortable, but I want to make sure I can rest and recover. People who try to bully their way through their own life by exerting their will at every turn is like the person who tears a muscle and then tries to lift more weight the next day. The wound doesn't heal, and the muscle gives out.
Peter's example about people who succeed in groups is similar. When we're in a group, you let yourself stop pushing so hard. You can stop forcing things because someone else can take care of something, or someone can remind you of something, or maybe you just feel that someone can do a better job than you anyways. If you put your faith in someone else, you can let go of a lot of stress, if you say "If I can't do it, they can back me up" then you stop worrying about whether you can't do it. In the end, it may be you that does it, but it was because while you were doing it, you weren't worrying about what would happen if you couldn't.
I think what Peter refers to as Inspiration is the same thing as I'd called will. That "inertia" is the product of the memory and anticipation of stress that will be caused by the action. I think that too much exertion leads to failure, which causes stress, which colors your future attitude toward whatever you're trying to do, increasing that inertia. Like the accountability system, you're unable to avoid the habit due to this sort of exhaustion, but going through the process of paying the money takes even more willpower. This leads to remembering how stressful it was to try to avoid the habit, and how disappointing it was to realize that not only did you fail to avoid the habit, you also failed to uphold your promise to punish yourself for doing so. This makes any further attempt to set up a similar system have more "intertia" in the future. But not only that, you've exhausted and stressed yourself out in the process. In some ways, this I think is a good thing, because I think that system is a poor way to do it, so avoiding it is probably in your best interest.
I think these simplified concepts are directly related to more complex biochemical systems, so it totally makes sense that maybe what we think of as exerting will requires hormones to pass from one part of your brain to another, and if those hormones get used up faster than they can put back you will actually have your willpower exhausted, whether you think you should be able to force it otherwise or not.
We can't lift a ton just because we want to. We can't hold our breath for 20 minutes just because we want to. I have no idea why we think we can force our brains to exercise without rest just because we want to. But we can train ourselves to lift more, hold our breath longer, and better control our actions.
I agree with you that preparation and training is the key to success. I also agree that habits make less will for things that repeat. On the other side for me will is not represented by this. Will is greatly shown when the things you do are very differnet from the ones you do now. Will is driving preparation, training, or any change, so I think will is everything.
I think you missinterpeted the sentence in the movie, meaning that you are trying to understand it literaly.
I am training for a while now and first time I have results after 12 years. This is cause I had the hard will to sit and make a plan, take profesional nutritionst and trainer and apply all of this knowledge into training and meals ove rand over again.
Having in mind that I work two jobs, sleep not enough and go between first and second work to training every second day (very tired) is showing what will can do. I think 99% of people in this situation would not go to training or would go and pretend to train with little or no results, not to talk about what they would eat.
First 10 years had no results.
Now in two years, 10-12 Kg of pure muscless gained, blood cleaned from all the junk like high cholesterol, leaver problem blood parametars, high creatinine and other bad stuff I had.
So will is everything, in this case will to live more qualitative life and other things that came from it were only consequences of it.
I agree with Peter Park re: influences in American culture is probably the most common. In Europe the concept of using pure willpower to accomplish something isn't as prevalent, although one man in the 1930s accomplished a lot with pure mitigated willpower, along with much else, naturally.
In any case my point is that this entire concept of "willpower to accomplish everything" is an American idea. And for Joe Schmoe to adopt it, could be disastrous.
I really like the blog system used here. I've embarrassingly enough never seen it before, or at least I don't recall doing it. What system does SETT use? My guess is some custom / own solution.
Good post, Mr. Marshall.
Jason here. Great question - groups/peer/social pressure or support can be a powerful way to get things done. This is why it's so helpful to have a co-founder when doing a startup, you are less likely to quit because you don't want to let the other person down.
I don't think it's wise to only rely on other people though because that's putting the control out of your hands and into someone else's. I do think social support is one of many strategies that can be used to augment your willpower and get you to do the right thing.
Very important reply to the question, "Is willpower depletable?" by Kat Li, who has an MA in psychology and gives a well-researched answer on Quora:
"Willpower is depletable only if you believe it to be so, is the message from Stanford psychology professors Carol Dweck and Greg Walton . Though past research has shown that willpower is limited and dependent on a continuous stream of glucose, the story is more complex than that.
Dweck, known for her groundbreaking research into the world of mindsets and achievement teamed with Walton, an expert in theory-based interventions to devise a set of experiments looking into willpower . They found that beliefs about whether willpower is a limited resource affect performance on difficult tasks.
One of their studies examined beliefs that subjects held about ego depletion by asking them to rate how much they agreed with statements about it (i.e., "After a strenuous mental activity your energy is depleted and you must rest to get it refueled again.") Then, the subjects completed either easy, almost mindless tasks or a more complicated ask involving self-control. Following that, both groups completed a Stroop task, which is a standard measure of ego depletion.
They found that subjects who believed that their energy could be depleted did perform worse on the Stroop task after having completed the more cognitively taxing task. However, participants who did not believe that energy was limited performed no differently in the Stroop task, regardless of whether they had done the easy task or the challenging task.
For some arbitrary reason, I enjoy thinking of my favorites. Whether it be musicians, sports teams, or really anything else, I have this urge to occasionally "categorize" myself (despite the fact that I detest labels and believe we should stray away from them). That being said, I always wondered who my favorite superhero was.
Now I never really grew up with superheroes. I wasn't an avid comic book reader like your stereotypical nerd (any Big Bang Theory fans?). Really, my only experience with superheroes are the few mainstream movies I've watched recently. This blog post is an effort to dive into this realm I've never ventured into.
For time's sake, I'm only going to look into a few of these individuals. This selection is mainly based on popularity because I don't really want to look closely into obscure superheroes (who the hell is Plastic Man?).
My choices were Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wolverine, Hulk, and Thor. All are pretty well-known, but I tried to incorporate both icons and a few darkhorse candidates. I do realize I don't have any women choices, but that's because there are no recent well-known movies about female superheroes.