The old English proverb asserts itself with complete assurance: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Like many time-worn sayings, this claim that mind always rules over matter rings true only some of the time. Sometimes we don’t have the will; sometimes we lose our way. What should we do then?
Etta James, the best blues singer ever, knew more than most people about not having the will and losing her way. Born to a 14-year-old mother who wasn’t interested in children and a father who had long since disappeared, she once described her childhood as a series of one-night stands: she was continually passed from one relative to another. As an adult, she abused her body almost constantly. The men in her life—managers, singers, and family members alike—frequently took advantage of her: musically, financially, and sexually. After a withering battle with heroin addiction, Etta launched a comeback with an album titled “The Seven Year Itch.” The most telling song on the album captures the power of her fierce spirit and the aimlessness of her fragile soul. In “I Got The Will,” she recalls that her mama told her the old saying—that if there’s a will, there’s got to be a way. Etta found otherwise: “I got the will but I can’t find my way now.”
As Etta says, sometimes in life we have the will, but we can’t find the way. At other times, presumably, we know the way, but we can’t seem to muster the will. In either case, getting from wherever we are to some place better is our biggest challenge in life. How do we get from here to there? How do we find both the will and the way?
At the start of each New Year, the literary agent John Brockman poses a provocative question to more than a hundred leading scientists and science writers, and asks them to respond. Brockman posts the results on his website, edge.org. In years past, he has asked: What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? What have you changed your mind about? What is your dangerous idea?
Last year, Brockman asked: What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation? In other words, what deep puzzle in the universe or in human life has been unexpectedly solved by applying a simple and elegant principle?
The answers include some principles you would expect, such as relativity theory and quantum mechanics. Other responses seem almost too obvious to qualify. For example, everything is the way it is because it got that way. Oh, really? My dad—who’s not a scientist—would sometimes give a similar answer to my incessant questions about why this or why that. He’d say, “Just because.”
The most useful of last year’s crop of answers came from Richard Thaler, a professor of behavioral economics at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and co-author of the recent book Nudge. What’s his deep, elegant and beautiful explanation? Commitment. He says, “It is a fundamental principle of economics that a person is always better off if they have more alternatives to choose from. But this principle is wrong. There are cases when I can make myself better off by restricting my future choices and committing myself to a specific course of action.”
Thaler explains that the idea of commitment as a strategy is an ancient one. “Odysseus famously had his crew tie him to the mast so he could listen to the Sirens’ songs without falling into the temptation to steer the ship into the rocks. And he committed his crew to not listening by filling their ears with wax. Another classic is Cortez’s decision to burn his ships upon arriving in South America, thereby removing retreat as an option his crew could consider.”
Thaler’s insight is that an exercise of will involves committing ourselves to one course of action and—this may be the hardest part—setting aside all other possible courses of action. As 20th-century American poet Theodore Roethke says in the title poem from his Pulitzer Prize-winning volume The Waking, “I learn by going where I have to go.” If you have the will to commit yourself, you can find your way in life.
When you’re singing the blues about what to do and how to do it, remember Etta James. She sang more truth than perhaps she realized. She may have said in her song that she didn’t know the way, but she knew all along that she had the will—and eventually discovered in her life that she did know the way. But she had to make a decision about which way to choose, which required her to set aside other options. To have the power is eventually to see the path. We learn by going where we have to go.
So get going. Ask yourself where in your life you need to stop waffling and make a commitment. Ask yourself where you need to start going and make progress. Things will get done in your life because you make a commitment to do them. You learn by going where you have to go. Explanations don’t get any more elegant than this.