Willpower: Is It Learned Or Innate

I’ve been doing lots of reading lately, for work and education mostly (Though, who am I kidding? I’ve always done a lot of reading, and probably always will). Recently I started spending more time researching human potential. For the most part, I want to know why some people excel where  others fail. Setting aside talent, resources and support systems, I learned that those who excel possess an incredible will to succeed. By this I mean that group of people is disciplined, dedicated and will stop at nothing in the pursuit of their goals. This glaring difference made me wonder, “are we born with will power, or do we have to learn it?”

Here’s and interesting fact: In one study I found, conducted to deduct whether or not hyper-talented musicians were “born” or “made,” researchers discovered that talent plays a far lesser role in success than we’ve always been led to believe. Sure, some people have a propensity toward certain things, but according to the study, the only difference between the exceptional musicians and the average musicians was the time invested in practice. The exceptional group practiced nearly 4 times as much as the average students and twice as much as the students who were considered ‘very good.’ In other words, the study suggests that success has less to do with talent, and more to do with effort and drive.

So what did the exceptional group have that set them apart? Willpower. The drive and will to practice more than required and the will to put in thousands of hours of time toward the accomplishment of their goals. The study suggests that the ‘very good’ group had more will than the ‘average’ group but less than the exceptional group.

So does this mean that with the right amount of practice, we can become exceptional at anything we try? Does this mean that most any of us can be standouts in nearly any area as long as we’re willing to put in those thousands of hours of preparation?  The study seems to suggest so. I, for one, find it comforting to think that I COULD potentially be great at anything I choose to do — as long as I have the will to go above and beyond (to the tune of 10,000 + hours) in preparation.

But that doesn’t answer the question. Do we HAVE willpower when we’re born, or is it a learned characteristic?

I used to think some people had a greater propensity for willpower than others right from birth. In infants, we call it “stubbornness.” Yet, in adults (at least to a degree) we consider it a trait to be admired, “Oh, he has amazing willpower. His drive is impressive… blah blah blah.”

In my research, I learned that yes, all babies are born with a propensity toward accomplishment of goals – willpower – and that propensity is either cultivated or snuffed out. Certain life experiences (our upbringings, our parent’s behavior and beliefs, etc.) can impact the willpower we may have been born with from a very early age. But I also learned that anything “unlearned” can be “re-learned.”

Isn’t it comforting to know that we weren’t BORN lazy?

So, how do we “learn” willpower?  How do we reactivate our drive to succeed?

It’s all in the mind. (Yes, I know – I know). You’re thinking, “here she goes again with that ‘taking thoughts captive’ stuff.”

But, you’ll be happy to know that today I have some PRACTICAL APPLICATION for you:

Leadership and organizational consultant Hal Resnick says that willpower is like a muscle. In fact, about a year ago Resnick wrote about the “locus of control,” a viewpoint that describes people as being on a continuum (or a long line, like a timeline) that puts “internality” on one end and “externality” on the other.

This concept was developed in 1954 by psychologist Julian Rotter.

Resnick says willpower can be learned AND we can make it a habit — Okay, great. But to make something a habit, doesn’t that mean you have to actually HAVE it, or at least be doing it to begin with. Habits don’t just form out of thin air.  So what if we don’t have much willpower now? How do we get it? 

Resnick says this:

Developing willpower
It can be simple to develop willpower, according to Resnick.
First, like all habits, the first step is to learn how to do it.
“Learning how to do it means planning and practicing the response. The most successful approach to developing a habit calls for a detailed implementation plan,” he wrote.
An unsuccessful habit might be the decision to go to the gym three times a week. A successful habit would include the specific days, times and a pre-planned workout routine.
It also would include keeping a record of the results, with the satisfaction of seeing the progress being made, he wrote.
“Set the cues and prepare the response. Make sure the cue is defined – such as automatically flossing as part of the ritual of getting ready for bed. Then be sure the reward – feeling that everything is done – is part of the process,” he wrote.
For example, parents who teach their children to come home from school, have a snack and then immediately complete their homework before they are allowed to play are developing a very positive habit, including the delay of gratification to do their schoolwork before playing.
“Establishing the willpower that there is no play until all the homework is done builds a keystone habit. The reward is multifold: the satisfaction of knowing the schoolwork is done; feeling fully prepared for school the next day; perhaps hopefully recognition from parents; and now the ability to play without interruptions or worry about homework that is not yet done,” Resnick wrote.
The next step in developing willpower is consistent practice.
“Willpower, like any other muscle, must be practiced to get stronger,” he wrote.
Inconsistent practice or application will not work. Consistency is not perfection because everyone slips up now and then, but immediately resuming the program reinforces the development of the habit.

Believing in willpower

Resnick wrote there is one last factor that must be incorporated into the willpower equation, the “fundamental belief that we can control our behaviors.”
For a habit to become successfully ingrained, there must be a belief the habit will generate the desired reward,” he wrote.
“Belief is the final and essential component of developing willpower, that staying the course will create the desired results,” he wrote.
“Developing the willpower to stay the course even in the midst of crisis … is the hallmark of the truly successful person and organization.

So there you have it. Scientifically, we CAN learn to control our behaviors. We CAN learn to have willpower. Ironically, we need the WILL to learn WILL.

I’m definitely going for it. I hope you’re going for it too — after all, we’re all in this thing together.

And one FINAL thought – the above is another instance of science backing a lesson that scripture has been teaching us all along.

Love in Him,


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