18
Aug
10

Willpower

This post is more of a collection of related ideas then a single point.

Many people have to navigate institutions to achieve what they want (perhaps the world is just one big institution, at least for the purposes here), and often there is “friction” in moving through them. You can’t just walk into med school and drift into a lucrative career as a doctor. Instead you have to be yelled at by senior doctors. To be a lawyer you have to get yelled at by law professors. If you want to get a PhD you have to deal with angry and insecure professors (TRUST ME). If you want to be in the military, you have to get screamed at by a drill sergeant. There’s no free lunch. What this points to though is a special lesson about achievement and value.

The lesson, I think, is one about ignorance and commitment. Pretend that you are deciding whether to go to med school, and that you have access to perfect information. You know, without fail, everything that will happen to you in med school, IN ADVANCE. On the basis of this crystal ball you make a decision. If you decide to go, then you haven’t really challenged yourself, even if what you saw in your future was difficult, because overall, you think its worth it. In fact, its no different than paying five dollars for a hamburger. You know the cost and you know the benefit, yet you buy the burger because on net you win.

What’s special though is that institutions bind us and take things out of our control. When you join the military, you have  rough idea of what you’re in for, but not completely, and if things are harder than you imagined, you can’t just tell U.S. government, thanks but no thanks and walk out. You have to finish, and that is where pride of accomplishment comes in, and this holds for all types of difficulties.

In fact Albert Hirschmann (economist) formulated this principle a little differently. He said that it was sometimes optimal to conceal information from someone about a project because if the person knew the full cost of the project, they would not undertake it, but if they were forced to start the project, they would find the ingenuity to complete it. The commitment to something under imperfect information draws out our creativity and problem solving and I would go as far as to say that it brings out something uniquely human.

Willpower works on this same principle and that’s why willpower is heavily related to achievement. Think of it this way. You decide to run 4 miles. You know you can do it and so you start. At mile three, you realize its harder than you thought and so you are tempted to reconsider; you want to adjust your goals to be in line with your new found information; that this run is harder than you thought. But if you tell yourself “ok 3 miles is enough” you are weak-willed. You have not stuck with your original judgment. And so in a sense, the value of willpower comes from resisting the opportunity to bring your decision into line with your desire, normally the hallmark of rationality (at least according to economists we are rational when we maximize our own benefit). When you exert willpower you act like an INSTITUTION and you demand to yourself that you go on, against the pain and desire you have to quit. Institutions are the social manifestation of perseverance.

In cases where you to decide to do something but don’t have the willpower (“I should stop smoking,” you say as you light up), the same rough principle is at work. When you exert willpower you give up your desire or your intuitive feeling of what should be done. You act in accord with an idea simply because it is an idea. You have achieved something. Kant thought that when you acted on willpower, you achieved your own freedom because your actions are only determined by your rationality. You are moved solely by ideas than by desires. (I disagree with Kant but he’s on to something, as always).

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