Thursday, 3 May 2012

Will, getting things done and why I'm not a great man

Thus far in this series I've been talking about various qualities and how they relate to my practice of magik. In a magikal sense the concept of Will is all about focus, about removing distractions and becoming wholly present in the moment. I don't have a lot to say on that however, but one subject on which I've done a great deal of thinking is that of willpower. The constant struggle to get things done in the face of the ever present potential for procrastination. In this entry I'll try to explain just how important I think this struggle is and what, for me, have been the most effective methods for occasionally gaining the upper hand.

The true exemplars of success in this area are the great persons throughout history. The Mozarts, Da Vincis and Newtons, who seem to achieve far and beyond what is normally available to us mortal men (if you need convincing this is a great example). However, I have one very serious problem with the way that modern society tends to see genius's like these. Taking Mozart as an example, there is a tendency in all the stories about him to talk about his natural brilliance only, as though it occurred in a vacuum. Certainly he had talents and certainly they were great, but by focussing on these we are missing out on a vital part of the story, that he worked hard on developing those talents, that he, in his lifetime, was more involved in music, more dedicated, than most professional musicians alive today.
It has always felt to me that by focussing on the genius of these individuals, and ignoring their many years of dedicated work, we are underselling ourselves. One of my favourite examples of this dedication is the story about Aristotle, that he used to sit reading at night with a metal ball in his lap and a metal basin on the floor, so that if he fell asleep the sound of the ball hitting the basin would wake him, allowing him to continue reading. I want you to take a moment, and just imagine what you could achieve with that level of dedication. The same level of understanding as Newton may not be available to all of us, but the degree of effort which he expended certainly is and with it I am a firm believer that we could all achieve stupendous things.
Allow me to give a silly example. Let's say I want to learn to survive in the jungle. If I spend an hour every week, first taking classes, then later actually flying out into the rainforest and being shown around, then perhaps I might expect that after a year I would do okay on my own out there (I might make it through a week). If I stepped this up to an hour a day of learning, with day long trips out into the Amazon, then it's reasonable to expect that I'd learn to take care of myself a lot better in that year. Finally, if my plane goes down and I am left as the only survivor alone in the middle of the rainforest (for the sake of plausibility, let's allow me to have a couple of guidebooks which say what's poisonous and what isn't), well then probably I will die in a matter of days. However, if I don't, if I survive for a whole six months then I think it's reasonable to expect that I will now be very adept in those conditions, I will have learned vastly more than if I was only taking in chunks of an hour a week. Naturally this is, as I said, a silly example, probably those six months will also leave me with all manner of infected wounds and other nasty injuries. However my point is that in most learning even what we would normally think of as dedicated people aren't coming close to that Aristotle level of commitment (though admittedly, normally their lives don't depend on it). It is almost always possible to work just that little bit harder, to squeeze a few more hours of the day into an activity. *

This idea of potential, this sense that I could, with the right level of hard work, become a successful astrophysicist, or novelist or mathematician, is one I have held to for much of my life. The problem is that it's an extremely dangerous concept. In the first case, because if I can become that astrophysicist, starting with total dedication today, well then, I can just as easily start tomorrow and let myself have a bit of a rest until then. Secondly, if you accept that you have this level of potential, then the sheer breadth of choice is breathtaking and, frankly, a little paralysing. I want to have all three of those occupations I mentioned, all three of them sound like they would be fun to me.

Why all this talk about potential and great men then? What I'm trying to get at is that, by mastering this battle with our inner procrastinator, we can do amazing things. It doesn't even have to be along the lines I've been presenting, putting all our efforts into one area, but I know, with some certainty, that if I'd replaced all the activities in my life which I now, years later, regard as being a waste of my time, with more, shall we say, productive(**) pursuits, then I would have done some remarkable things by now. This is a fight worth winning (or at least, worth losing just a little less) and these grand examples are important because, paralysing though it is, they are a demonstration of the heights to which I believe we could all rise.

I have, I hope, laid out a reasonable case for why you ought to be trying to do these things. Now though,I feel I should force myself to make some pronouncements about how (though I suppose I should qualify them by saying that this is what has worked for me and that, even then, it doesn't always work).
I think willpower is really about three things. The first of these is the realisation of potential, the acceptance that 'oh, I actually can do this'. Obviously this is easy if we're talking about keeping your flat clean, a lot harder if you're talking about becoming a master in some field. Either way, I think it's just hugely helpful to be able to imagine a future world where you can see that you've managed the task.
The second is that you need to have a sense of path, of the route you can take to get to that imagined future place. This path doesn't have to be complicated, just doing a drawing a day, or a week even, for instance, but doing it with the knowledge that each step will take you a small distance closer to the end goal (additionally it also needs to be paired with the knowledge that it will take a long time and that progress will, at times, be slow).
The third thing you need is desire, a real need to do this thing. Getting this going, particularly right at the start, can be tough and normally for me it goes back to my previous blog entry, that I need to understand (or at least examine) my reasons for wanting to follow this path. Too often I've become involved in developing a new skill only to realise that my reasons for doing it aren't in enough to carry me through. For instance I only started because a particular friend was doing it and so, as soon as they stop, so does my desire.
Often I've simply stopped with the first two, or even just the first one, making tiny advances in learning this language or mastering that ability, but in the few places where I have managed to muster all three, the momentum of that is enough that keeping it going is actually a lot less trouble than you might imagine.

I should probably point out, what I'm plotting out above is how to achieve great things, not how to hoover up slightly more often (obviously hoovering could be part of some grander whole of self improvement, but generally it wont be). Honestly, if I had any sort of pronouncements for smaller tasks I would present them, but I don't, if you can figure it out please let me know.
The other slight caveat is that, if you truly want to develop in one area, you probably need to accept that you will be losing in some other area. This could simply mean that you will dump yourself down in front of the tv to watch soap operas less, but in the extreme cases, it may mean being less social or being less successful at work. Going back to Newton, he, and people like him, were powerhouses, they produced huge swaths of work which seem impossible to us, but they were also completely involved in that world and I don't think it's a huge stretch to say that they weren't particularly well rounded.

I want to finish by acknowledging that this felt, to me, a little like I was writing self help at times and that's probably not a good thing. Honestly I think it's the idea of potential and of the amazing plasticity of the human brain which are of interest to me, but as I say, it felt wrong to write an entire entry on willpower without giving some pointers about what I feel are needed to use it successfully. The other reason is of course, I love it when people I know surprise me by creating or doing things which are unexpected and impressive and I'm always a little disappointed by how few of them seem to think they can or should be trying.

*[Personally, I take this idea to extremes. For instance, my feeling is that in the same way that Mozart's brain was wired differently, I tend to believe that with true dedication (listening to, playing, writing music non-stop) I could achieve a similarly new wiring with time. I think it is totally fair to say, however, that with a high enough level of dedication, each of us could achieve a lot more than we do now.]

**[This is a dangerous word because it can be different from person to person, but what I mean is that there are some activities which are gratifying in the short term, and others which you could argue provide more satisfaction in the long term, at the cost of short term pain (learning a language for instance)]

I thought I should just quickly apologise for this entry going up a bit late (due to a deadline at work) and potentially being quite rough around the edges (due to being edited at two in the morning).

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