How To Harness Your Will
The Lifeblood of Humane Endeavor.
“Happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself, or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
—Viktor E. Frankl, the neurologist, psychiatrist and author of Man’s Search For Meaning.
Will vs. willpower
When someone has willpower, it is implicit that he or she maintains a level of self-discipline. However, the inverse is not necessarily so. A person with willpower does not necessarily have a well-developed sense of will. Will encompasses far more than a series of methods, scientific or otherwise, for modifying behavior. A person will possess an inner strength that comes from well-developed values, faith, an understanding of one’s place in the world, and perhaps most of all, from the creation and maintenance of relationships that are supportive and loving.
Rather than a set of “techniques," the components of will I just described are what turn someone from an ordinary person into a full-fledged human being. It requires unfathomable rigor to search deep beneath the surface of our lives and to allow the insights we’ve gleaned to change us from someone whose first instinct is to take, into someone whose first instinct is to give.
The difference between willpower and will is that the former is a skillset, and the latter, a fundamental change in character. As Viktor Frankl implied, one of the keys to strengthening your will in these times of unceasing flux and disruption is not only to know your values, but also, to examine them, amplify them, and then make a firm commitment toward bringing those values into every part of your life. People with a strong sense of will are strong leaders who possess the following four bedrock attributes.
Honesty means doing what you say you’re going to do, being where and when you say you’re going to be, and crucially, admitting when you’re wrong. That last one is where many of us have trouble. I certainly do. We make the mistake of believing that our relationships are predicated on our being smart, proficient, clever, and strong. We are deathly afraid of being anything other than correct all the time, and so to protect that unrealistic image of ourselves we are often less than honest.
And while we might be attracted to those aforementioned qualities — intelligence, proficiency, cleverness, and physical strength — none of them has much to do with what gives a person an unshakable sense of will. By definition, honesty insists that we don’t distort reality. It requires that we clarify rather than obfuscate the world around us; that we, by our honest appraisals of ourselves and others, help to order the burgeoning chaos in this ever more complex and troubling world. Honesty is the unsullied background on which our will flourishes.
Empathy is easy to talk about and difficult to put into practice. It is, by its very nature, a state of mind, that contravenes a basic part of our humanity—our animal selves and our self-serving need to simply stay alive. This primal and instinctual part of us is not a bad thing, but because of its constant focus on “me” rather than “we,” it betrays the higher levels of humanity to which we must aspire. To develop will, we must start the process of subsuming our survival instinct within the loftier aspiration of allowing others to grow and thrive.
This is where will is often put to the test. To be as concerned with the welfare of others as we are with ourselves requires a rewiring of our brains and a retraining of our minds and habits. It demands that we see the world less as a hostile place of paucity, and more as a nurturing place where love and abundance can flourish. Empathy of this sort is, of course, an ideal. While we may never become completely empathetic; at any given moment we will—at least, be able to judge whether we are on, or veering off a path towards empathy.
I was once very angry with someone. Years had passed and still, I was angry. I was convinced that she should have acted differently. Even after her untimely death, I remained so. About five years ago I visited her gravesite. I began to visualize the anger I’d been carrying as a huge stone. I was standing at her grave in the falling afternoon light when suddenly, almost reflexively, I let my hands go wide apart as if pantomiming the dropping of that metaphorical stone. The whole process probably took no more than 10 seconds. But the image of the massive stone I’d been carrying, falling of its own weight was enough to completely change my perceptions of the woman. Whatever anger I had, fell away in that moment.
When I think of her today, I understand that she almost always did the best she could. Now, I carry only feelings of love for her. Forgiveness is an extension of empathy. If we truly feel for someone else, we will surely understand that we too make mistakes, that we too, act out in anger, and that we too are overly self-protective. To say: I see those same negative qualities in myself, is a sign that our humanity is blossoming.
For some in this day and age, the idea of self-sacrifice sounds naïve. But the fact that the pendulum has veered so far from this understandably aspirational vision of humaneness shouldn’t matter. Any effort expended in becoming a person of strong will is well spent. Except for the rare few, most human beings are hard-wired toward self-service, rather than self-sacrifice. Most of us, as we see on a daily basis, claw our way to short-term gain and self-aggrandizement. When we see a person evincing a strong will, we are inspired to act as they do, to reach for goals that are re higher than we thought possible, and to achieve great things —not for ourselves alone, but for the greater good.
More completely alive
Most of us wake up to regular, normal mornings with rhythms so familiar that we hardly notice them. We hit the bathroom, grab breakfast, take 10 or 15 minutes to read the paper or check email, drive here and there, call a friend—and if we’re lucky, share a laugh before we tackle the next chore. Then, once the sun starts to set, we sit down to dinner and soon, head off to bed before it all begins again. But on rare days all our habits, all our rote, ritualized behaviors, suddenly paying uncommon attention to what’s in front of us.
That sort of “pervasive attention” has a way of bringing us to a mental state that transcends and transforms our so-called normal days into days of wonder. Admittedly, I don’t tune in to what animates my own will often enough. Most days it’s just a slow silent pulse, one that resonates in waves of unheard, and therefore unanswered questions. No doubt you know the questions too: Why are we here? What are we accomplishing with our short time? Whom do we serve?
On those singular days when the mystery curtains open wide, we might also become aware that our will, however we choose to enact it, can also end at any moment. Sometimes it’s possible to feel as though we had died and then looked down upon our lives, peering through transcendent eyes at our mortal selves. Perhaps we’d smile then, with both joy and pity for the many things we either celebrated or suffered through.
Nowadays, with attention spans diminished by social media excess, information overload, and non-stop marketing efforts that vie to pull us back on the hedonic treadmill, we find ourselves exhausted and empty. Without the time to reflect on what makes a life fulfilling, we fill up instead on bombast and fanfare—a higher paying job, a bigger Twitter following, or a larger collection of “likes” on Facebook. But those who do make the time to reflect beyond the momentary often find that even seemingly small considerations are packed with big meaning.
Spiritual Eye-Opener Exercise
What I Learned From Today
Yesterday you may have stopped by the bank to cash a check or bought a pair of shoes on Amazon. Maybe you picked your kids up at school and drove home through a snarl of afternoon traffic. Whatever you did, an insight came with it: some deeper life lesson just below the surface of your practical actions. Most of us recall our day-to-day doings and the activities we engage in. But only a few of us stop and consider what we learned from them. I’m not talking about book or classroom learning, though it could be that.
Rather, I’m interested in getting you to examine one important idea you took from your experience of today. You may respond, “Wait a minute, this was just a mundane day; it wasn’t important or significant. I took my dog to the vet, went to the grocery store, bought a bag of onions and some ground beef.” I hear that. I get why you may not think your day lacked anything momentous. But there’s a reason we miss the precious takeaways from our todays. It’s not that they lack significance; it’s because we haven’t looked for it.
Now, take a moment to review your day and then write one sentence about what you learned. To get the full effect, try doing it in this order:
Think about your outward, ostensible actions.
Think about the insight you gleaned.
Then, start by writing, “Today I learned...” and proceed to fill in the blank.
If you still feel a bit confused, have a look at how I did it.
First, you’ll see the outward actions I took:
I woke up this morning and went to work out at the gym for an hour. I came home, made three fried eggs for breakfast, and went out to my studio to answer some emails and do some writing. There wasn’t much to think about at first, it was just normal stuff.
Next, I wrote about some insights I’d had:
When I stopped to consider that between the gym and the fried eggs, I called my daughter in New York, and I suddenly realized that a lot more had occurred. Even though we spoke for less than five minutes, I wanted to connect with her because she was moving into a new apartment this morning. That made me realize how grown up she’s become in the last few years. I began to think about the passage of time, and how fleeting and precious my moments with her have become.
Lastly, I answered the question “What did you learn today?”
Today I learned that nothing I’m doing with my life is more important than the love I have to embrace, be grateful for, and share.
Though what I “learned” wasn’t stunning for its novelty, it was important to me. Taking time to find meaning in each of your days should be very important to you, too. If you go to bed contemplating a positive insight, you will sleep better, wake up more content, and feel better prepared to think and to act with a more urgent sense of will throughout the day.