WILLPOWER, FIXED OR VARIABLE?

By KARSTEN NILSEN, Sports Psychologist, adapted by THERESE ALHAUG

Thomas Edison, Michael Jordan, Nick Skelton, Henry Ford, J.K. Rowling, William Kamkwamba, Greta Thunberg, Justin Gallegos, Lee Pearson. This is a shortlist of people who have enjoyed success! Some you may have heard of, others not. Those you recognize have performed to the degree that their merits have been noticed by most people and are very well known. Those not identified have also performed, but then by taking off 5 kg, managed to run 10 k in an hour and stopped smoking.

The point is that we all intend to “perform” in one-way or another. Sometimes we achieve the goals we have set, but usually not without having faced and overcome some resistance, experienced setbacks, negative thoughts, been frustrated, felt hopelessness, etc. This is of course, because no goal of a certain magnitude can be reached without meeting obstacles and occasionally very many obstacles.

Nick Skelton is a world-renowned show jumping rider whose career has spanned nearly 38 years, winning thousands of classes and hundreds of Grand Prix’ events, and over £6.5m in prize money. A very serious injury in September 2000 forced Nick to retire from show jumping in 2001 but he made an amazing recovery and made the courageous decision to compete again, the stuff of legends.  He is once again at the very top of the prestigious sport of international show jumping. Nick Skelton’s brilliant horsemanship is demonstrated by the fact that no other rider has won so many major competitions on so many different horses. Photo FEI


One of the famous people on the list is Thomas Edison. He invented the light bulb, but not without having experienced many setbacks and overcome innumerable problems. He had over 1000 unsuccessful trials before the bulb lit up. Most of us would have thrown in their towel long ago. Edison, however, had a very constructive attitude to all the failures and recounted in this connection : “I didn’t fail a 1000 times. The light bulb was an invention based on 1000 steps”. Perhaps it is easier to say this after having succeeded and not having problems up to your ears, but it does bring up a very important point about reaching goals, and that is to have a constructive attitude to what you probably will meet. A relevant question, of course, is what motivates people who want to use all their time on reaching goals and who in addition face a lot of setbacks in their efforts to reach them? Why don’t they give up when others had given up long ago?

Thomas Alva Edison was an American inventor and businessman who has been described as America’s greatest inventor. He developed many devices in fields such as electric power generation, mass communication, sound recording, and motion pictures.


An obvious answer is that they “love” what they are doing and in this way have a very strong inner drive or motivation which enables them to spend so many hours as they do. Another important explanation is their willpower, persistence, “gang ho” etc. that is absolutely necessary to have when setbacks crop up. We have many names for the things we love, but what does it imply that some seem to have loads of, while others seemingly lack?

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If we look at this mentioned willpower or mental strength, it suggests that this is something that can be trained. All strength is relative, and is an attribute we more or less can get by training or just not bother. For logically and physically says that when we train we get stronger.

“No goal of a certain magnitude can be achieved without facing obstacles and very often very many obstacles”

THOMAS EDISON

Looking more concretely on willpower, it is defined as: the ability to ignore immediate impulses to achieve a goal in the long run”. Edison ́s impulses after one failed trail we know nothing about, but it is possible that these were not of the positive sort regardless of attitude. Based on the definition, you may argue that willpower as a notion probably fits better in relation to overriding impulses of another nature. If you have as your goal to lose 5 kilos you normally do not eat chocolate. An offer from a friend of a bite of chocolate probably emanates an impulse in the form of a craving that may be difficult to ignore. If the person in question anyway declines the offer, he or she has overridden the immediate impulse in order to reach their end goal. On the other hand, if the person eats the piece of chocolate, another type of impulse emerges, and that is the feeling of having failed and perhaps thoughts of giving up. However, this is also an impulse that can be overridden, so that one continues on the job of attaining the objective after having met a minor setback.

Justin Gallegos is a runner with cerebral palsy. In June 2016, he won gold in the 400 meters in the Paralympics-Ambulatory division at the California State Track & Field Championships. He was featured by Runners World magazine as one of their 2017 Heroes of Running. In 2018, Justin Gallegos became the first professional athlete with cerebral palsy (CP) to sign a contract with Nike. Photo Nike

In this regard, Edison also had a long-term goal and on the way experienced several immediate impulses, that could have resulted in his throwing in his towel. However, he ignored these impulses, possibly because of an outspoken attitude stating failures are merely necessary events on the road to success. In this way willpower as a concept is applicable here.

Watch as Justin gets a huge surprise becoming a professional athlete.

If we look at the definition one more time, it tells us also something about a goal, and this is very important! Because if we do not have specific goals, we do not need so much willpower. The concept is often used in connection with “something” negative that may happen and which has to be overcome when it happens.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work”


Was Edison born with a lot of willpower or had he trained himself to be strong? This is a relatively complex question, but research suggests everyone can be stronger through training, but perhaps not the strongest. In the same way someone’s genetically conditioned to become very muscular, run fast, jump high etc., then someone is genetically conditioned to possess a lot of willpower. But, even though there is an inherited factor in play, a lot depends on the environment and on training. Research, therefore, compares willpower to a muscle. If we use the muscle too much without restitution, it loses its power and puts us in a position where it is easier to give in to impulses.

Greta Thunberg is a teenage Swedish school student, who is credited with raising global awareness of the existential crisis posed by global warming and with holding politicians to account for their lack of action on the issue. Photo private

In relation to Edison, this perhaps is not completely true. For if one uses a limited amount of willpower as often as he may have needed to, suggests that he maybe should have given up. However, the explanation may be that he had such a strong genetic conditioned “constitution.”

On the other hand, it may be that because Edison was an inventor and inventors are used to many failed attempts before they succeed, he may have over time trained up this willpower a little bit at a time by not giving in to many previous experiments that also were unsuccessful. About this the story says nothing, but it isn ́t improbable.

Nick Skelton’s tribute to Big Star

If we follow this thread of thinking, it is obvious that Edison had a clearly defined goal, loved what he did, and that his motivation to succeed was formidable. This is also of utmost importance because “right” goals influence the important motivation, that which all the time drives us forward. Obviously, if we are not especially motivated to reach the goal, we will not either complete the tasks that have to be completed in order to succeed.

The difference between motivation and willpower then becomes that one drives us forward and to complete the task, both those pleasant and those not so pleasant, and that the other prevents us from stopping or giving up when a setback appears.

Sir David Lee Pearson CBE is an 11-times paralympic games gold medallist having represented British para-equestrianism in Sydney, Athens, Beijing London and Rio. Over the course of his career he has won 30 gold medals at European, World and Paralympic level.
Photo FEI

It is most probable that Edison was conscious that his task would not be easy and that many trials would have to be undertaken before being able to succeed. Your attitude to this undoubtedly is also of great importance in advance of any setback. Very few things have a tendency to go on rails and most of us get derailed now and then. That, which often sets people apart, is how quickly we get up in the saddle again. Here some are very quick, while others use much more time on the ground before mounting, and then with a little less motivation and with a little bruised willpower.

Which strategy we have when this happens, and is adopted when this happens, is, of course, vital since doubt and negative thoughts ay quickly take hold, often unconsciously. Therefore it is very helpful, and often decisive that we practice the ability to make us aware that this is happening, otherwise we would normally react on autopilot, something that is both compromising and unfortunate. In this connection, researchers have asked some people how they felt before giving up, and the answer is quite unanimous that they felt downtrodden. This suggests that something has emerged that makes them feel low (impuls) and consequently that they gave up. Most often, this something has to do with the “inner dialog,” that is how we think and interpret situations. Naturally, we think less productively when we are despondent, making it vital to have a strategy handy when this happens.

Michael Jeffrey Jordan is a professional American basketball player, Olympic athlete, businessperson and actor. Considered one of the best basketball players ever, he dominated the sport from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s. 
Therese Stub Alhaug
Therese Stub Alhaug

Editor

Therese is the editor of Equilife, and is truly dedicated to equestrian sports and horses. She started riding as a little girl, and enjoys her free time with her two horses back home. Portrait interview is her favorite topic, as it has the gift to inspire others through peoples stories, knowledge, training and general life-philosophy, and certainly, their lives with horses.

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