Training is Nothing Without The Will to Act

Effort has psychological and physiological costs that have value and meaning.

Posted Mar 26, 2018

Ingrained in all of us is a biological imperative to use as little energy as possible. This imperative is common across the "animal kingdom" and is a hallmark of effective evolutionary adaptation. Effort costs energy and as such effort can be related to the biological imperative to conserve energy.

Despite this, many of the things we do--and value--can actually take more energy than other activities. Yet we do them anyway, possibly precisely because they are more costly. This gives rise to "The Effort Paradox: Effort is Both Costly and Valued" articulated in a recent Trends in Cognitive Sciences review by Michael Inzlicht, Amitai Shenhav, and Christopher Y. Olivola from the University of Toronto, Brown University and Carnegie Melon.

Inzlicht and friends suggest that while effort is costly, the pursuit of the objective requiring the effort--think marathon running—adds value to the process and any achievement. It is important not just for how we value outcomes but also the experience itself. A critical passage in their paper captures this well:

"Effort adds value to the goals that we effortfully pursue, but effort can be rewarding in its own right. Effort is not only valued in retrospect, but can feel rewarding while it is being exerted, and these rewarding experiences can also be anticipated when making decisions about future actions."

The approach articulated here is that valuations about cost are also related to the will, motivation, and determination needed to take action. My favorite quote on this (and I riffed on it for the title of this post) is found in the "Batman Begins" movie from 2005. The scene itself is called "The Will to Act" and shows Henri Ducard/Ra's al Ghul telling his protege Bruce Wayne that " is nothing! The will is everything. The will to act."

This is one of the major inspirational points that I draw on about when speaking or writing about Batman, and was also recently discussing with students in my "Science of Batman" course. The idea of obtaining even some of Batman's skills and abilities is inspirational precisely because it's so difficult to imagine achieving it. I wrote in "Becoming Batman" that "We admire Batman for all his accomplishments and abilities. Yet only through years of rigorous training has Batman approached near super-human status. This is part of what makes Batman so attractive to so many--it seems grounded in the reality of hard work and achievement." But that hard work and achievement requires an incredible effort.

Whatever fraction of the cost we pay for our efforts—and almost everything is certainly a mixture of our physiology and psychological approach—we can value both the process and the product. This is something I've thought about in different ways and at different times across the many years and decades I have spent training in martial arts. It's precisely because the training is hard that adds to my value of not just the doing of the activities but what results from them too.

Each and every training session I've done, each and every kick, punch, block, and joint lock have been predicated on decisions to will myself to action regardless of cost. Or, across my career and recovery from many injuries, precisely because of the enhanced cost that increases my valuing of the experience. In some ways this takes me back to one of my earlier posts "The Joy of Effort", where I described how taking action benefits body and brain.

The great Taoist sage Lao Tzu might have been writing in "Tao te Ching" about this very issue of effort when he said that "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step". Both the the first and the last step on that journey have a cost, require effort, and must be valued. Rewarding the valuing of effort has many important benefits for human psychology, philosophy, and society.

As Inzlicht and his colleagues point out "if effort is consistently rewarded, people might learn that effort is valuable and become more willing to exert it in general." Such an approach can enable more of us to will ourselves to actions that will improve our communities, our societies, and ourselves.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2018)