On Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney
I’ve never liked the writing styles and unscientific pop optimism of self-help books. Willpower could be classified as a self-help book, but it’s definitely a rarity, at least compared to the very few books I’ve glanced over about that subject, like that moralistic 7 habits of effective people and the over simplistic The secret (sorry if you think those two books are great. I couldn’t get myself to read more than a couple of pages before I started to have nausea. Maybe I should have been more patient.)
The two main reasons for Willpower’s exceptionality, compared to other self-help books, are that it is deeply rooted in scientific research (see note) and avoids any political correctness. The whole reading is, of course, a challenge to religious people, but sometimes it also challenges atheism, common knowledge and even super rational people; as in the case where the authors describe Eric Clapton’s religious transformation. As for myself, I was particularly enthralled by the parts where I read about the explorer Stanley as an example of someone that was able overcome what the great Kurtz, from Hearth of Darkness, couldn’t.
Note: As I’m writing this, I’m also reading an article in Slate magazine released this very month that summarizes some research that doesn’t totally support the ego depletion theory of Baumeister. The article admits the theory was largely accepted for decades but…Science never stops. Future research will add or eliminate some to these ideas, like glucose as a way of replenishing our ego depletion. Maybe even pull down the whole edifice. We’ll see. In any case, the book is still worth reading.
If I understood correctly the authors’ thesis, there are at least three fundamental characteristics that define people’s destiny: intelligence, willpower, and self-esteem. As we all know, it’s almost impossible to improve our intelligence through exercises and studying, particularly past a very young age. We can become more stupid by smoking a joint, a bit sharper by being samurai-style focused or more savvy about some issues by becoming specialized, but not more intelligent. As for self-esteem, this whole book is in itself a full body blow to the modern tendency of educating people on having a great self-esteem just for the sake of it. True, the book says that successful people tend to have high levels of self-esteem, but that’s only correlation, not causation. What’s more, by educating people on having an overgrown self-esteem and the short-termism on happiness, we all, modern westerners, have neglected the Victorian philosophy of discipline and self-control, which is usually the most important factor of success.
This book deserves to be read if only for this attack on our modern values of “be happy” and “love yourself,” but the truth is that it does that and much more. Including a convincing job in communicating the idea of focusing in very few tasks, as opposed to our usual big resolutions lists. Following this train of thought, I began to think and talk to my mother about the wrong education we had in the 80s and 90s on how we are supposed to cope with everything the world throws at us. Actually, I should be glad I’m a man since I think moms are the ones who have suffered more this modern idea of “super.” A woman that can be an attentive mother, a diligent housewife, a successful executive and still have time to sweat in a gym to work on her ass and abdominals. In my experience, achieving “super” status is almost impossible and trying to achieve it is, for most people, a bad idea. Now, thanks to this book, we know for sure why. Ironically enough, this book also encourages us to, as part of our culture, struggle to become better and more “super.”
I enjoyed this book a lot. I missed some tools or techniques that I think are useful for replenishing our willpower, like Qi-gong style meditation or just plain philosophy, but generally speaking, I thought it nailed it. It is inspiring, it looks pretty scientific, it has a lot of wisdom, and it is even well written. It’s also a book that I’ve found strangely alleviating, like a Band-Aid on a wound, in the sense that many issues that I’ve suffered almost in silence, like the idea that I was particularly too much self-aware, are actually quite common in our society. You are not alone in this labyrinth! (That’s what seems to be the claim of Baumeister.) We all like to do too many things and to set way too many targets!
Do you want to quit smoking? Focus on quitting smoking and forget losing weigh and writing your Ph.D. thesis at the same time.
Are you overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks you have? Learn to schedule them with new apps and forget you have to do them… until the day you really have to start doing them.
One last word: even if some parts of Baumeister’s ego depletion theory are modified by future research, reading this book will probably still feel like a healthy exercise and fresh new air. Willpower is important in our lives but in the end, no one doubts that the best way to avoid losing self-control is to be intelligent and avoid those situations that might wear us out.
Juan 胡安Torregrosa Pisonero
Shenzhen, April 6 2016