There’s no such thing as willpower. Here’s what you can do about it.
When I went through Army training, I saw a lot of people quit or fail. Most of the guys who washed out during Basic Training were in poor physical shape, mentally unstable, or had emotional stuff going. That being said, a lot of people with those same problems I just named also passed. The difference, in Army terms was their motivation.
I made it through Basic Training, Infantry School, and then Airborne School, and although thousands of men and women do this all the time, I still admit that it was hard. I was just motivated enough to do it and had more willpower than those who couldn’t. I believed, as I always had, that motivation or willpower was like a muscle. You were born with some innate strength of willpower and then worked it through exercise.
Then a weird phenomenon happened. It took place while I was at Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS), a brutal 17-day test of mental and physical ability conducted in the forests of North Carolina. I did pretty well, and after a whole lot of blisters and bruises and soreness and self-doubt, I passed the test.
But some of the best guys I knew, stronger, faster, and smarter than me, were quitting or getting kicked out. I had seen the strength of their willpower. I knew that, with their physical and mental ability, they wouldn’t even have to dig as deep into their motivation in order to succeed.
What looks like willpower is often just the result of preparation
What I didn’t mention about my experience with SFAS is how much preparation I had. I read books about the two-week test, and I packed helpful things that other people didn’t. I rested, ate, and slept really well prior to leaving, as well as doing a lot of preparatory exercise and training.
I also made sure to call family and friends for assurance. My wife was incredibly supportive as I left, although she was eight months pregnant with our second child. I made sure the bills were paid and everything was taken care of. I eliminated all distractions.
Probably most importantly, I thought of every reason I would have for quitting SFAS and came up with a rebuttal. I knew that I would be too tired to think straight during SFAS, but I created a game plan to win the psychological jousting beforehand.
All of this preparation majorly contributed to my ability to pass SFAS, although I probably believed that my willpower was all I truly needed at the time. I prepared because I thought that it would prevent a random fluke, but not because it was the core of what I needed.
After SFAS came a long period of hazing. Because we gave birth to my son during that time, I spent over three months in the hazing unit. Although being hazed was easier than SFAS on a daily basis, and I got to go home at night, the extended suffering wore on me. The difference between willpower and physical muscle building was beginning to show itself. My body was getting stronger than ever, but my ability to keep up with my peers was lagging behind.
I tried to psych myself up, but it wore off quickly and eventually stopped working at all. Getting pumped works for a short burst of performance, but it doesn’t last.
Goals, not willpower, determine your enthusiasm
Granted, as my training got harder, my peer group was more elite. But many of the people I was still training with in Special Operations were the exact same guys I had started Basic Training with. A few dudes who had almost quit in the past and had leaned on me for support before were now excelling while I was floundering. Many people I thought of as mentally or physically less than me were kicking my butt.
I admit, a few things about my views were changing at the time. My son and daughter were still babies, and after being away for so many months during training, I didn’t want to leave for more training again. My wife missed me when I was gone or busy, and she told me so.
If I had been wise, I would have listened to my wife, who told me to ask my leaders for a break. I would have used that spare recovery time as a means of preparation, which would have increased my ability to drive on. Looking back, they may have said no, but they probably would have said yes.
Other guys were taking breaks. I just didn’t want to ask because it would make it look like I lacked willpower. I was embarrassed and scared, and I wanted to look tough and capable above all. My perception of willpower was getting in the way of real success.
The other factor was that, secretly, I didn’t want to stay in the Green Beret program anymore. The training and culture were nowhere near as intellectual or cool as they had advertised, and I didn’t like the people I met who were already Green Berets. To make it worse, a lot of my friends were conforming to be more like the worst of our instructors. I didn’t want to be around, or worse yet, become that type of person.
My goals had changed, and on the outside, it looked like I had lost my willpower. I do know the difference in feeling drained and slow because of being unhappy about what’s at hand, and how quickly that can change when we’re doing something we like. Imagine how tired you feel at work and how suddenly you have energy to go out when you’re done for the day.
But that’s not willpower, that’s changing your surroundings and objectives. It happens because of the environment you’re in, and you can manipulate it by changing your goals and what’s around you.
In reality, there was no lack of willpower. I would have liked to complete the goal I had started in the Green Beret program, but my new goals and situation weren’t pulling me strongly in that direction. The only solution would have been reverting back from my new objective, not fighting against it.
Muscling through everything makes you weaker, not stronger
I switched to another Special Operations program I liked better: Psychological Operations. It was a great fit for me, and I finished the training with honors.
I deployed to Afghanistan to use what I had learned, but I still had the wrong idea about willpower. I broke myself down again, physically and mentally, trying to get tougher by refusing to stand down from any stupid challenge. I assumed that, if I pushed hard enough through things I hated for long enough, my willpower would grow and everything would become easy. Finally, after developing a stress disorder, damaging my spine, and being unable to sleep because of those ailments, I asked for help.
Ironically, the assistance came more easily than I expected. I was given permission to rest and recover physically and mentally. The Army paid for me to get therapy, which helped immensely.
I realized that my toughness and strong-willed image had been the main thing preventing anyone from caring for me. I could have been just as strong while still being more open about my own injuries and doubts. In fact, I think that some people saw my old fake display of willpower as a challenge, and subconsciously made my life harder to bring me down a notch. The illusion made me target.
After a lot of learning, healing, and reflection, I changed paths and left the Army.
You don’t have willpower; you have something even better
Since leaving the Army, life has still provided me many challenges.
I started selling insurance right when I left the Army so that I could pay the bills. It was smart to cover my costs and provide for my family, but it was unsustainable work for me. After a few months, I chose to leave and become a writer and marketing strategist full time, which had inherent financial and social risks. I was very scared to change.
Part of me wanted to use my willpower to stay in insurance sales. With enough motivation, I could perform better, make more money, be happier, and make my boss happier. But that wasn’t working. My performance actually got worse over time even though I was trying harder and learning more. Willpower was just never going to be enough to overcome how unprepared I was for the job.
So I wanted to use willpower to become a writer instead. I was going to write on nights and weekends until I built enough business to stop selling insurance. I would apply to jobs and go to interviews during lunch. I would muscle through. After a month, that was not only exhausting, but it didn’t yield any fruit.
I had to stop trying so hard. Willpower was killing me.
I switched gears: I told my family and friends that I was going to quit my job without waiting. I dropped the tough-guy image and admitted to being sort of a vulnerable dreamer. I asked if anyone could help with minor financial backup if things went bad. We tightened spending as hard as we could but didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot.
I told everyone that I was looking for writing work, even though I felt like it made me seem helpless. I made sure my wife was on board, and she was actually more confident in this change than she was in my regular job! Then, without a truly guaranteed safety net, I quit selling insurance.
And over time I grew and succeeded. That’s not to say I’m set for life, but I believe in my current mentality, and it is rewarding.
Willpower isn’t a real thing. You can’t measure it. All you can do is pretend to have it, and that just gets in the way of planning, goal setting, healing, and recruiting help from others.
If you still think you have willpower, you’re probably just mistaking it for focus or intensity. Those are just traits, and depend on your environment and preparation.
Without willpower (you never had it anyway), here’s what you have instead:
- Relevant habits, preparation, resources, talent, and psychological planning lead to results under pressure.
- Set better goals that you really want to reach and you’ll be more likely to experience a helpful sense of desire towards them.
- Relax. Sometimes you’re more likely to accomplish your goal if you don’t push yourself as hard. You can break yourself early if you rush, like in the story of the tortoise and the hare.
- Some things simply can’t be done. You can still try, but don’t blame a lack of willpower if you fail.
- Drop the outward image of willpower and be genuine instead. People will more likely help you make your goal a reality.
No go out and prepare. You’re going to give your best no matter what when the time comes. What you do before then determines what “your best” really is.