Imagine a shady high school guidance counselor approaching you with a gift of of $10 million, cash. The only catch is that you have to help a particular high school student cheat on a math test. There’s no risk you or the student will be caught. Would you take the money?
Now imagine the exact same scenario, except you also know, with 100% certainty, that if you take the money you’ll drop dead the next day. Let’s also say that this is something only you know. The guidance counselor might be impressed at your amazing willpower as you turn down the money—but you know that willpower has nothing to do with it. Right?
Actually, it does! Willpower isn’t about going against what you want, it’s about wanting the right things badly enough. In the second scenario, all the money in the world isn’t any temptation to you, because you want life so much more. That’s exactly how willpower works.
So Why are Some People “Strong-Willed” or “Weak-Willed?”
Strong-willed people just want the right things, more.
A champion runner may want to win so badly that all the physical pain in the world can’t get him to slow down. He’s not using his willpower to ignore what he wants (he really just wants to relax on the couch, but here he is grinding it out at the Olympics)—rather, he wants to win more than most people, and even more than he wants the pain to stop; and we see the result as willpower.
Great meditators, like the Tibetan hermit Milarepa, are the same way. Milarepa believed he had killed dozens of people using black magic, and so he threw himself into meditation practice with total desperation. We see him as one of the strongest-willed meditators of all time, and he was—but that willpower wasn’t the result of good genetics, but of the total conviction that meditation, and only meditation, could save him from his guilt.
In other words, “the heart of a champion” isn’t about having some mysterious ability to do things one doesn’t want to do. It’s about wanting something so badly that you’ll do anything to achieve it.
Choosing What You Want
Here’s where willpower as a “muscle” comes into play—because some days we really are stronger-willed than others.
Exercising willpower is about staying committed to principles—things like truth, consistency, our own long-term benefit, and the benefit of others—rather than conveniences—how good it feels to stop running, eat pie, or skip work. That requires us to keep those principles in mind, strongly, even as inconveniences (things like sleepiness, frustration, physical pain, or cravings) mount up—and that’s the muscle we can work out.
Some of the “strongest-willed” people I know simply love to be consistent. If they did something the day before, they want to do it today, to keep the streak alive. They get pleasure out of keeping the pattern, and pain out of breaking it—so they keep it! What looks to me like “willpower” is actually them, on any given day, loving an internal principle more than their own short-term convenience.
How to Improve Your Willpower
So if you want to build up your willpower, don’t just try to force yourself to do things you dislike. Instead, get connected to what you want out of life, and work to build up your commitment to those internal principles.
Here are some examples:
- “I don’t lie because that’s not who I am.”
- “I love to follow through on the commitments I make.”
- “I really don’t like feeling like I gave up on myself.”
- “I really care that five years from now, I and the people around me enjoy the benefits of the meditation practice I do now.”
This is the language of willpower: of wanting principles more than conveniences. The stronger, and more internalized, these sorts of feelings become, the stronger-willed you’ll be. Work on internalizing them, making them part of who you are, and you’ll have principles to push back against the short-term conveniences you’re tired of giving into.
We’re bound to do what we really want, and not do what we don’t—there’s simply no way around that. But we can practice wanting the right things, even as the inconveniences mount… and we’ll be amazed how strong our “willpower” becomes.