There are lots of misconceptions out there about how we can realistically change and manage our lives. One of the biggest is that such a thing as “willpower” exists. 

Some people call it “willpower.” Others call it “grit.” 

They refer to this as if it’s a character trait that somehow makes success more likely. Presumably, if you have enough “willpower” or “grit,” you can push through difficulties, whereas people with less of these magic commodities will tap out of tough challenges. 

It’s a fun fantasy, that there’s a magic commodity that makes success more likely. 

Unfortunately, psychology put that fantasy to rest a long time ago. 

“Willpower,” “grit,” and other associated concepts are things that psychology refers to as “reified” concepts. What that means is, they’re descriptions of behavior that have been mistakenly imagined to be things in and of themselves. 

Put simply: those who refer to “willpower” or “grit” will point to certain behaviors as evidence that they have this quality.

However, when asked why certain people demonstrate these behaviors, the explanation becomes circular: because they have “willpower” and “grit.” 

Okay, sure, but how do you know they have willpower and grit? Because they behave that way. 

All right, but why do they behave that way? Because they have willpower and grit. Keep up. 

The concepts of “willpower” and “grit” do not EXPLAIN anything. Anybody who says any differently doesn’t understand psychology— and, more to the point, is probably trying to either make you feel inferior because of your lack of those qualities, and/or sell you a product or service they say will increase those qualities in you. 

Don’t fall for it. 

Instead, get real about what concepts like “willower” and “grit” DESCRIBE, rather than looking to these made up concepts to EXPLAIN anything. 

What do they describe? 

They describe the behavior of persistence. 

How do we develop the behavior of persistence? It’s not by pretending it is attributable to a magic thing called “willpower.” 

We develop persistence by learning to control our focus and focus on our goals. Those are skills, not magic. Those are learnable and able to be practiced. 

We realistically assess what stands in the way of us controlling our focus. We learn the habits of thinking and focusing that have distracted us and discouraged us from following through on our goals. We learn how to identify the distortions in our current and past patterns of thinking. We learn how to talk back to those thoughts in such a way as we stay on task and follow through. 

And, what do you know: we’ve learned the behavior of persistence, all without appeal to a magic, imaginary concept like “willpower.” 

What else do concepts like “willpower” and “grit” imply? 

They imply durability. The ability to come through challenges and struggles and continue to move forward. 

How do we learn this behavior? Again, no appealing to magic words like “willpower” or “grit.” Those don’t exist. 

We learn durability by learning how to recover from stress, by learning how to rest and recharge, by learning how to direct our focus in such a way that we don’t exhaust ourselves in any one task. 

Those are learnable skills. Those are skills that can be developed and practiced. 

There’s nothing magic (or, frankly, particularly heroic) about it. It’s a matter of training and skill development, which happen one day at a time. 

I see so many examples of this magical thinking out there. People want to think there’s a magic bullet, a personal quality they can just get more of and fix their lives. 

I’d say I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings in this respect, but that’s not true: I LOVE putting the lie to that kind of nonsense. 

Because the truth is: there is no magic out there. 

There are behaviors and skills that make building our ideal lives and achieving our goals more likely. 

No more, no less. 

Leave the snake oil salespeople to their magic “willpower” and “grit.” 

Stay tuned in to the real world with me. 


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