Sunday, July 8, 2012

Developing Will Power

In a previous post I defined success as mastering your own will, and I further state that, " I'm willing to operate under the assumption that we do have the capability for [free will].  That capability however needs to be exercised just like any other mental capacity in order to be effective."  But what does it mean to develop the will?  Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, explores this question in her research, and offers some suggestions in a talk at Google.  The video is long, but I suggest you take the time to watch it, even if it means watching it in parts.  I discuss a brief summary here and give my own insights to her talk.  Dr. McGonigal discusses research about willpower and the physiological mechanisms that regulate it.  She suggests that getting enough sleep, meditating, doing physical exercise, and having a healthy plant-based diet improves your ability to master your own will by giving you the physiological tools needed to accomplish your goals.  Further, based on research in the field, she suggests the following tools for developing willpower:
  1. Being too hard on yourself for failure of your goals will lead to further relapses.  Instead, it is better to forgive yourself and realize it is part of the process of change. 
  2. Writing a lettter from your future self to your current self gives you the ability to strengthen your willpower as your future self is no longer a stranger and can be something to strive for.
  3. Instead of focusing on success, it is more important to ask "when will I fail and what will I do about it?".  While it is importatnt to be optimistic, being naively positive will dissapoint you whereas focusing on potential failures and their solutions allows you to overcome obstacles.
  4. Surfing the urge can give you the strength to do something difficult. This is framed in the context of quitting smoking, or eating healthier.  Taking a moment to recognize an urge and letting it pass while breathing allows you to let the urge go.
Its a great talk that brings science into the realm of philosophy.  She has several books which I look forward to reading, and her work has provided a breadth of resources in scientific literature to explore.  While I do not disagree with anything Dr. McGonigal says, I have a few issues with her presentation.

Will power in this talk is often described in terms desires and behaviors used to control those desires.  This makes sense as desires and behaviors are easily measured by science, and this seems to be an arm-chair use of the term will power.  To me however, while desires are related to will power, having control of your will is much more than having the ability to limit your desires.  I do not intend to give a comprehensive definition of will power as thousands of years of philosophy have already pondered this question.  Any schmoe however can learn to control desires and behavior, but the will is much more.  The will is using your conscious mind to shape and control reality to your liking, having a proactive and directed cause-effect relationship with the world rather than a reactionary one.  Note that this isn't necessarily mutually exclusive to Dr. McGonigal's talk, but it does have a different focus.  Instead of acheiving goals and having self control, I view the will as being about grabbing the reins of reality and steering it in a positive rather than negative manner.  Trying to break through to something new, positive and influential (changing lives for the better, mastering an art, tapping into wealth), as opposed to trying to avoid something (stopping smoking, eating healthier).  I breifly discuss this in my post about desire, which is highly influenced by some of Nietzche's writing.  The distinction is important.  Kelly's description of will power is probably the most pragmatic for people to use, but it is not likely to lead to greatness.  To get to greatness, you need to truly let your soul break free and shine, and while Kelly's techniques likely won't hurt, they will not lead to will power in this sense.

So what does lead to developing the will?  I have learned to control my desires and implement discipline in my life, but these things are not demonstrative of my will's power.  They are simply self control.  I have been working on my will for years and have made progress, but still have a long way to go.  I do not have all of the answers, and I have not scoured the scientific research to come up with a list of techniques (current science cannot give this answer, though it can lead down the right path).  What I discuss here is from my personal exploration in developing will power and from my observation of the few others I know who have mastered their will. 

One thing Dr. McGonigal discusses is meditation, and this above the other items  is vital for will power, but in a different way than I think she discusses it.  I do not mean simple mindfulness and breathing exercises.  Those are good techinques, but they are not meditation itself.  I mean deep, mind-cleansing meditation that takes years of study and practice to learn.  Related techniques include developing a strong sense of self awareness and training your attention (I will write a post about attention shortly).  By being aware of the self, you know what you are doing, what state of mind and body you are in, and what you are capable of in relation to your surroundings.  Attention adds to this awareness and allows you to process the necessary information to implement your will.  Further techinques include learning as much as possible, and mastering as many skills as possible so that you have the knowledge and ability to exercise your will.  Finally, two other items I have found are important for will power are to observe and understand nature, and to understand patterns/rhythms.  Nature is everywhere, in every city street and out in the great wilderness.  Understanding how it works unleashes secrets of life that can be utilized.  It connects our busy wired-in brains to our primitive selves and our intution.  Everything abides by a pattern or rhythm and understanding how your rhythms interact with the rest of the world allows you to control that rhthym. 

This is not an extensive list and I do not have all the answers, but they are useful tools.  Developing the will is and always will be a personal journey.  Let no one hold you back on your journey to success.

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