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Overcoming strain is not the only kind of will-power there is

Imagine that you are challenged with the task of holding your hand in a bucket of icy cold water for two minutes. Now imagine, instead, that you are challenged with the task of falling asleep in the next two minutes. Which task would you find easier to accomplish?

If you are like most people, you would find the first task to be physically more painful, but easier to accomplish. That is, if forced to pick a task in a bet, you would prefer the first one.

What does it take to accomplish the first task and how is that different from what it takes to accomplish the second?

Accomplishing the first task requires the ability to handle physical pain, and the mental strength to handle the pain. Accomplishing the second task (falling asleep in two minutes), on the other hand, requires a very different type of ability. It requires the ability for directing one's thoughts through mental control. For instance, it requires the ability to not monitor one's progress towards the goal of falling asleep: constantly assessing whether you are falling asleep is, as insomniacs know only too well, counterproductive to accomplishing the goal of falling asleep.

So, one could say that both tasks require will power, but the type of will power required to accomplish the first task (will power to overcome physical pain and mental fatigue) is different from the type of will power required to accomplish the second (will power to control the content of one's thoughts).

I would label the first type of will power as egotistical will-power and the second type as non-egotistical will-power. The reason I use the term egotistical to refer to the first type of will power is simple: those who have a higher need for achievement and success, and those who have a correspondingly stronger desire to be perceived as important (that is, those who have a stronger ego, as the term is used in common parlance) are more likely to have stronger egotistical will-power. Think about it this way: your ability to overcome physical pain or mental exhaustion will be greater when your desire for accomplishing a goal is greater. It is for this reason that people's ability to overcome great odds is greater when their back is to the wall: desperate situations call for desperate measures and we are all more capable of exercising egotistical will-power when push comes to shove.

Egotistical will power is clearly very important for accomplishing many goals in life. Successful fulfillment of numerous goals-from pulling an all-nighter for an exam to completing a grueling work-out routine at the gym-require the ability to deal with and overcome (mental and/or physical) pain.

But, arguably, it is those with higher levels of non-egotistical will-power who will be more successful in most modern professional careers.

Before I explain why, note that the ability to exercise non-egotistical will power doesn't increase with goal-importance; indeed, if anything, the more important the goal is, the less non-egotistical will-power we seem to have! For instance, it is more difficult to will oneself to sleep before an important exam or presentation, and much easier to fall asleep when we are on vacation.

Now, let me explain the connection between non-egotistical will-power and career success. Consider what it takes to be successful in most modern professional careers: (1) the ability to motivate one-self in the face of subtle, but persistent obstacles, and (2) the ability to get along with others. Both these abilities depend critically on the ability to control one's mind.

Consider the types of subtle obstacles that one must routinely overcome to have a successful modern career, such as, maintaining one's confidence despite criticism from others, or the ability to respond appropriately to a provocative email. Dealing with these situations requires ability to control one's mind. For instance, maintaining confidence in the face of criticism depends on one's ability to visualize positive outcomes and avoid thinking of negative outcomes. Likewise, responding appropriately to a provocative email requires the ability to divert attention away from the revengeful thoughts that such an email instinctively generates. 

The ability to get along with others (referred to as social intelligence) also taps into the capacity for mental control. As Dale Carnegie made famous in his best-selling book (How to Win Friends and Influence People), a critical determinant of getting along with others is the ability to flatter others. Subsequent research has confirmed that people are suckers for flattery, and, although any--even inauthentic--flattery works, nothing succeeds like authentic flattery. That is, people who praise others for genuine reasons create better impressions than those who praise them for fake ones. Most people are aware of the power of flattery, but what most people may not know is that the ability to notice and articulate others' positive traits and accomplishments depends critically on the capacity for controlling one's own mind. Why? Because, just like everyone else, our own thoughts typically revolve around our self-centered desires. As such, most of us are more interested in hearing others praise us than in noticing others' positivity--unless, of course, we can divert our mind away from our self-centered thoughts.

Gaining control over one's mind--the ability that underlies non-egotistical will-power--, then, is critical for success since this ability correlates so much with both the ability to overcome obstacles and with social intelligence.

But how does one gain control over one's mind?

The ability to control one's thoughts is a special kind of will-power

One approach, and a particularly effective one that Marshall Goldsmith refers to in his best-selling book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There, is to try this simple exercise: close your eyes and try to count to 20 without being distracted from this task by other thoughts. Count at a relatively slow pace (e.g., one count per exhale) and if it helps, visualize the numbers as they would appear in print. If your mind drifts-as it surely will initially-and you are distracted by other thoughts, don't chase the thoughts. Let go of the thoughts and get back to focusing on the task of counting the numbers. And if you lose track of where you are in the number-counting exercise, begin again at the beginning till you are successfully able to count (even if you are distracted in the process) to 20. Then, increase the target number till you are able to count all the way to 100.

With regular practice of this exercise (which, by the way, can be done anywhere-sitting in your airplane seat, when taking a shower, etc.) you will be on your way to developing greater control over your mind, and hence, to greater ability to exercise non-egotistical will-power. 

One word of caution though: don't expect the exercise to be easy. The exericse is simple in concept, but difficult in practice. There is a very good reason why the exercise is difficult in practice: for most of us, our minds have been hijacked by self-centered concerns and desires and, unless we gain the ability to let go of these concerns and desires, we can't successfully complete the exercise. But, with regular practice, you will improve.

And ironically, with greater ability to divert attention away from self-centered desires will come greater ego-boosting success!  

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