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On an Albert Ellis Quote

How much free will do we really have?

Mark Coggins, CC 2.0
Source: Mark Coggins, CC 2.0

The famed cognitive-behavioral therapist, Albert Ellis, said, "The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny."

I believe we have some control over our destiny. For example, sometimes we can just power through a challenge, resist negative thoughts, and get help where we need it.

But too many people who have had plenty of cognitive-behavioral therapy, drugs, self-help nostrums, articles, tutors, coaches, workshops, and graduate degrees remain with lives far different from the one they want.

And that's not surprising. So many external factors constrain us:

  • Our genes, for example, for intelligence, drive, and impulse control.
  • The habits we've built over a lifetime, first inculcated by our parents, then our peers. A child born to and raised by two successful, well-adjusted parents in Beverly Hills will have a much easier time controlling their destiny than someone born to a single, impoverished parent in Bangladesh.
  • Then there's our health. A person with stage-4 cancer has less free will than does a healthy person.
  • Luck.  It's said we make our own luck but that's true only to a point. For example, I've had many competent clients network well and it never led to a better job, while other clients, worse at work and at networking, happen upon someone who clicks with them and happens to have a job available and hires them.

How broadly can we generalize about our lack of free will? For example, can we really say that being a career criminal is largely predetermined? I think so. Many were born to parents who were not in the best position to prepare their child cognitively, emotionally, and ethically for school and life success. Such kids' neighbors and classmates are likely to be similar. If such kids do poorly in school, they correctly assess that their chances are small of legally obtaining the nice car, house, and clothing they value. And career criminals likely have poor impulse control caused by both environment and genetic predisposition. All that isn't volitional. So while, yes, some people with those characteristics resist the temptation to rob, much robbing behavior is predetermined

Then there's sports, for example, the Olympics. It turns out that there are genes that control muscles' and nerves' growth potential. So, for example, no matter how much I practice basketball (and I've played a lot my whole life), I will never even dunk a basketball, let alone beat the worst Olympic basketball player. Even the amount an athlete practices is affected by genes and not just by genes for impulse control. If you have great genetically caused musculature, practice will yield greater results, which motivates you to practice more. And great musculature plus practice will yield more wins, which motivates you to practice still more. So even in sports, much of success is beyond a person's free will.

Lastly, having been career and personal coach to 5,000 people, I've noted that many clients believe that, over their lifetime, their essence has remained: whether quiet or boisterous, athletic or not, musically talented or not, anxious, angry or calm, adventurous or cautious, brilliant or not. Environment refines more often than it remolds.

So I rarely try to change my family, friends, and colleagues. And with my clients, who are paying me to help them change, we usually assess what s/he should accept as immutable and what's worth the effort to try to change. That which seems changeable usually is best addressed simply by laying out baby steps and anticipating how to practically and psychologically deal with fear of failure or actual failure at those baby steps. In choosing a career, our focus is usually on finding one that makes the most of their natural strengths and skirts their weaknesses. That said, occasionally a client wants to try for a radical change in personality, and that occasionally but only occasionally works.

The takeaway

None of the above argues against striving for big goals. As long as they are consistent with your constraints, you may well accomplish a lot. For example, if you are smart and have good drive and impulse control, with effort, you probably can achieve important things. Conversely, if you've always been bad at playing a musical instrument, chances are that there are better uses of your time than music lessons and practicing.

So, what should you accept as immutable about yourself? What could and do you want to tweak? Is there a major change in yourself you do want to tackle? Is there a major project consistent with your constraints that you'd like to tackle?

If you're a mental health practitioner or other change agent, are you being too optimistic or pessimistic about the level of change you're seeking in your clients? Are you focused sufficiently on building on their long-standing strengths than on remediating their minimally malleable weaknesses?

And intellectually, what's your opinion on that age-old question: How much of our behavior is free-will versus determined?

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.