Kind of a strange topic? Well, I spent two years of graduate philosophy researching it, and I would agree. But to succeed at the project of life, very necessary.
As I was looking for some kind of definition or motivating quote, everything that kept popping up was either Nietzche or Machiavelli and the will-to-power. I decided against the quotes, but I dare to say that willpower for you is probably tainted by these ideas.
Until I spent weeks and months researching and writing “The Specificity of the Human Will and its Formation” I was pretty confused without even knowing it.
Don’t worry, this won’t be Philosophy 101, but willpower is important to better understand and live our lives. So first, we need to clear up a couple of things that will power is NOT.
What it’s not
1. Willpower is not proportional to the size of your bicep.
For some of us, it’s our discipline at the gym, the rigor of our diet, or physical discipline. But just because we work out at the gym every day or because we can lift more than the guy beside us doesn’t mean our will is stronger. Or just because we can’t stop eating gelato doesn’t mean our will is weak (okay, it could be a sign).
2. Willpower is not blind determination or ambition.
For others it’s the hidden drive that leads to success. To succeed at business, studies, life, or even sports, it seems we need that relentless bent to be the best. But your will is not a firehose: a directable flow of energy capable of taking out things in its path depending on how strong it is.
3. Willpower is not a subtle form of masochism.
Others say it must necessarily imply pain. This might sound ridiculous and few would openly admit to being masochists, but are we too far away in practice? The will is not that awful policeman in my life that always blows the whistle right when things are getting good.
4. Willpower is not always doing the opposite of what others do.
Finally our will is not only the ability to resist peer pressure, be different, swim upstream. If we don’t feel the resistance of the current, something doesn’t always have to be wrong (although it might be). If everybody enjoys something, we don’t have to do the opposite.
Then what is it?
So if it isn’t any of these, then what? Well, I should probably be more specific before we move on to what it is. It’s not so much that none of these have to do with willpower. In fact, they all do, but they are not willpower in themselves.
We’ve only been considering one side of it. Basically we can say that willpower is our ability to make and follow through with decisions for what is truly good.
Simply put, willpower is Velcro.
I know it sounds weird, and it does need a little explaining. But it’s true. We need two sides for our decisions to stick. Like everything we’ve talked about until now, we need a certain ability or tenacity in our decisions. But that’s worthless without the other side, our true good.
Our capacity is important – St. Thomas, other saints, and all successful people can attest to that. We have to form habits by repeating our actions and find ways to motivate ourselves.
But, and this is the second side of our Velcro, these if true willpower is going to stick, there has to be a true good. In other words, the concrete decision to be taken must make us a better man.
And here, there’s not an easy answer. Physical well-being is good. Success can be good. Not caving in to peer pressure is good. Even suffering and pain can be a good if it educates and betters us.
But none of these are an absolute good – they can even be bad when they become our ultimate goal. In other words, yes we need the strength to make and follow through with our choices but those choices have to make us better as people.
Willpower is not just subjective, not just about me. It’s about recognizing what is ultimately, objectively good for me and being able to choose that with tenacity. So what’s good for you?
Copyright 2012 Br. Mark Thelen, L.C.