What is Will Power and How Do You Get It?

There are two main theories about will power. One sees it as a sort of energy that a person has a limited supply of. Whenever confronted with a choice it uses some of this energy to make a decision about the choice and act on it.  Choices that conflict with low-level desires like sleep, hunger, the avoidance of pain and the desire for pleasure, take more energy to enforce than choices that satisfy these desires. For example: it doesn’t require a lot of mental effort to sleep that extra 15 minutes, have the extra serving or the one beer too many. This view suggests that every time you make a hard choice it depletes your reserves of mental energy and you have less to resist the next time, at least in the short term.  Most mass media advertising is based on this deterministic view of will power and human behavior in general.

The other way to view willpower is that it is like a muscle and every time you use it becomes a little stronger.  My personal experience supports the second view.  The second view also presents a happier vision of mankind, supports the notion of free will and suggests that we can, if we work hard enough, improve ourselves and the conditions of our lives.

“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”

Henry David Thoreau

The truth is that probably both views are partially correct.  We can strengthen our will power by using it, but no man’s strength of mind is infinite. Everyone has a breaking point and once a person’s will shatters it’s hard to put back together.  So the key to developing stronger willpower is to exercise it consistently without breaking it. This is a fundamental principal of any successful exercise regime.  It’s also why working with a coach or personal trainer is such a good decision.  A good instructor will know how to help you push just far enough and not too far, then a little further the next time.

“We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Aristotle

The great enemy of willpower isn’t weakness, but confusion. If a person is confronted with too many choices or unclear choices, then the situation requires exponentially more mental energy to deal with.  This is our predicament in modern life.  We are overwhelmed with data, distraction, and noise. Marketing messages bombard and political messages obfuscate, or worse, inflame. Rather than presenting clear choices to the mind, life points us in a million different ways.

A good gym is a refuge from this numbing complexity.  In the gym the choices are simple.  You perform or you don’t.  Every workout is a series of tiny contests between your will and desire. You win or you lose. When your conscious will overrides low-level animal desire “you” win. If you have a good instructor and on a good day at the gym you experience this type of victory dozens of times, your mind gets used to winning and it becomes addictive.

Like having a strong body, developing strong willpower alone is morally neutral. A person may have indomitable will power but use it towards bad or stubborn ends.  A person’s character is what determines the ways they will use their will power. You may see a bad person with strong willpower but you will never see a good person with weak willpower.  This is because, by nature, a person’s mind will flow towards the path of least resistance, or, towards the desires that tempt them. Because it combines the will-strengthening benefits of athletic training with the character development present in any good student/teacher relationship, martial arts training is a great way to achieve health, a stronger mind, and a happier outlook on life.