There are a number of significant people from throughout history who argue that our sense of will is a rather important thing. To quote just a few:
“The education of the will is the object of our existence.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Those that are firm in their will mold the world to themselves.” –Johann von Goethe
“Great souls have wills; feeble ones have only wishes.” –Chinese proverb
And perhaps my favorite:
“Our bodies are our gardens…our wills are our gardeners.” –William Shakespeare
We will leave out everything that Nietzsche said because he literally wrote the book on the necessity of will. To delve into that kettle of fish would keep us here all day.
Very few people would argue that the power to control one’s will—willpower—is not a positive skill to possess, but most people admit openly that they are not very good at it themselves. They recognize a bit sheepishly that they are unable to keep themselves from acting out this or that little desire. They know they should finish their studies or their work, but there’s a new episode of their favorite show out. Or they know they should eat better but they are a sucker for soda and chocolate cake.
People tend to think that it is perfectly natural to lack in the will to avoid unhealthy inclinations, because seems to be a trait common to just about everyone. This could not be further from the truth. In reality, the sense of acceptance and inevitability that his shared by all people lacking in willpower is a mindset that is conditioned and imposed upon them. It is a behavior that is trained, not one that is inherent. The real you—the one who feels a drive to accomplishment whether that involves health, work, love, or even leisure (because some of us don’t possess the will it takes to simply relax)—knows what is good for you and usually knows exactly how to achieve it, but this knowledge is sort of muddled, as if viewed through a dirty window or from the depths of a fading dream. Always there, just beyond the tip of your mind’s tongue.
Ego is our tool and the will is a tool of the ego.
Humans hold the very strong belief that we are largely comprised these things called egos. In fact, the ego is not a part of us at all, but rather a tool we have developed in order to interact with the outside world in a more or less cohesive fashion. It is the mask we wear so that we can present the world with the construct of what we imagine ourselves to be, which is generally a very subjective one indeed.
Some of you might be inclined to say, “Now wait a minute. Freud told us that we were made up of these things called egos and superegos and ids. The id is all my basest desires, the superego is all of my higher morals, and the ego is the thing in the middle that is more or less me.” This is wrong. The ego is no more a part of me than is a hammer in my hand. Both can be useful tools given the right circumstances, but they are not me.
In fact, the ego is not real at all. It is an illusion; something we have conjured. In order not to digress from the main focus of this article, I will go into this further in a future piece. For now consider this: If your ego is real, where is it? Does it live inside your head, perhaps right behind your eyes where it can just barely see the tip of your nose? Is it in your heart, or hovering just above you? In the search for the ego, the more you look for it, the less that will be there to find.
Anyways, back to the will.
So if the ego is the tool we use to present ourselves to the world, the will is the tool the ego uses to make things happen. It’s the driving force behind our efforts. It’s the thing that gets us moving forward and dreaming beyond physical, mental, and spiritual horizons.
This is clearly an immensely useful tool. It leads to exploration, discovery, achievement, and enlightenment. It is the thing that we have to thank for all of the greatest developments in human history. Paradoxically, it has also brought us many of the most terrible.
Just like we say that a certain type of person needs to get control over their ego, the same can be said for will. An overdose of will and we get Napoleons, Hitlers, and Goldman Sachs executives running around everywhere. Not enough and we get obesity, stagnation, depression, and all of the problems that come along with these and similar issues.
Essentially, an improperly tuned will causes us to take too much action or to not take enough.
So where is all of our will to succeed going? Why can’t we help ourselves when it comes to eating things we know are bad for us, or engaging in entertainment that we know is a distraction from real living, or any of the other dozens of behaviors we engage in which we know to be detrimental to our well being?
Advertising: diminishing willpower for the past sixty years.
Up until around the fifties and sixties, people didn’t have a lot of options when it came to buying things. Before then your will entered into the equation only as far as getting you out of the house and into the store, where you bought whatever soap or soda or whatever they had to offer.
Then suddenly mass production leapt into existence, and companies gained the ability to churn out products at a rate that was far beyond that in which consumers could use them. The people in charge of these companies soon realized they profits they could take in if only people could be convinced to buy more than they actually need.
And at that, advertising was born.
People like those guys we all know from the AMC show Mad Men began working with extreme perseverance at finding ways to get people buying in ever greater excess. At first it was about making this or that product seem like an essential part of everyday life. Soon diversification came onto the scene, and suddenly there was a cleaning product and soap for every application imaginable, when in reality soap is always pretty much the same thing no matter what the label says—soap. Now people have whole cupboards and closets devoted to their elaborate collections of multicolored sprays, powders, foams, and detergents.
What I’m asking you to consider is, how much conscious decision making do you think actually goes into your day to day choices? How much will do you think you exercise? Do you think you actually taste the difference between two essentially identical products, and in fact prefer one over the other based on its merits? And why do you know you shouldn’t sit down and eat a whole bag of Cheetos, but you get the deep-seated feeling that you absolutely can’t help yourself?
It’s because you’ve been trained to respond that way.
Amazingly enough, there are a great many people who would chortle at the idea that their decision making ability has been taken out of their own hands. To them it sounds too conspiratory. To Matrix in nature. To un-American and anti-Democratic.
Well, there’s a reason why companies and political groups spend hundreds of billions of dollars on advertising each year—because it works. Take it from me: I work in advertising.
So where does that leave us?
Start making decisions, even mall ones, and exercise your will.
Advertising and its bedfellow consumerism is just one example of an institution that makes intentional efforts to diminish people’s sense of will. Business in general is geared toward keeping their employees in line, and an excess of willfulness is not tolerated in the workplace for long. As for politics, I see very little difference between that and advertising. Every so often we are offered a slew of what are essentially pre-packaged products for us to choose from. Billions of dollars float around during a campaign in order to hinder our decision making skills, and the only end result is that we are provided with a more or less democratically elected body whose sole purpose involves taking decision making out of our hands.
I know it sounds dismal, but there’s a solution.
If you want to be a happier, healthier person who has more control over your life and your destiny, you have to start exercising your will. It needs to be worked out just like a muscle, and for most of us our willpower has become terribly atrophied.
Start by forcing yourself to make little decisions. If you wish you could be a bit more healthy, say no to drinking that soda that you know does nothing good for you and is in fact very detrimental. If you’re unsatisfied with your work, take a few minutes to glance through a job board and send out a couple of resumes. If you want to get in shape, force yourself to work out regularly, even for just five minutes a day. Learn to deny yourself the supposed luxuries and comforts like laziness and consumption. There is nothing luxurious and comfortable about being unhealthy, overweight, trapped in a miserable job, or generally out of control of your own life.
At first it may seem incredibly difficult to follow through with these inclinations you have toward taking positive steps, but the funny thing is that each time you successfully exercise your will, you’ll experience a strangely satisfying little thrill. There is a reason why so many people throughout history have struggled and even died for the right to self determination. Having control over your own existence is exciting, especially when you’ve never experienced it before.
No one wants to waste away in a life of servitude. No one wants to be obese and unhealthy. No one wants to live an unfulfilling life. The real you—that one that has been muddled by outside forces trying to dampen your will and control your destiny—knows this.
So start taking the little steps necessary to build up your will. Start small and work your way up. A healthy dose of willpower can bring you to fantastic places. You’ll be amazed at how accomplished it feels to have control over your desires and to have the ability to will yourself toward positive successes.
And how free.