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Shakespeare’s Thoughts on Willpower, Discipline & Personal Resolve…

28 June 2013 No Comment

shakespeare in love 1998 photo still joseph fiennes gwyneth paltrow

“It is foolish to presume our power of resolve is constant…”
~ Troilus in Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida

Towards the end of my book, How to Conquer Yourself, I discuss willpower as an energy source in the body and mind (rather than a virtue to be found in one’s character), because if you look at the latest scientific research, you’ll find that your willpower operates more like the vitality-gauge in a game of Street Fighter than it does a “supreme self” which you can call on at whim, as most people mistakenly presume it to be.

Study the work of scientists like Dr. Roy Baumeister, health-psychologists like Kelly McGonigal or even CEO’s and corporate professionals like Tony Schwartz and you’ll soon come to realize that each day you face is a sort of “round” or “face-off” where you have a finite, limited power of resolve, a finite, limited storage of will and a finite, limited amount of energy with which to do things like:

- think clearly in order to make important decisions

- hold a complete session of creative, artistic or intellectual work

shakespeare's statue, gower memorial, stratford-upon-avon, warwickshire, england- learn new information or acquire new habits and skills

- effectively communicate and negotiate with other people

…and so on, including whatever else the day brings against you (whatever tasks, challenges, conflicts or other circumstances come up for you to take on); they can all be seen as a series of attacks from which sustain your willpower by strategically defending against. Specifically, in order to not get “K.O’d,” completely drained or prone to foolish mistakes – what Dr. Baumeister refers to as “ego-depletion” – doing things like:

- eating healthy, “low-glycemic” foods

- taking frequent breaks

- planning, structuring and routinizing your work (rather than simply reacting to things haphazardly)

- making important decisions and doing important things early on in the day

- having specific windows of time where people can’t distract you

…are all significant aspects to this willpower-oriented, defensive strategy, because your power of resolve is both finite and universal – you’re always using same RAM, fuel and basic willpower-energy for all forms of productivity and conscious action.

Shakespeare’s Thoughts on This:

So again, look at willpower as an energy source in your body and mind (to be expended strategically) rather than a virtue to be found in your character (and thus, judge yourself for not having enough of). If you don’t develop a strategy to sustain and replenish your willpower throughout the day, you’ll run out of vitality and lose the match-up: you’ll make poor decisions, procrastinate on your goals, sabotage your momentum, undermine your relationships, so on and so forth.

Remember, as Shakespeare said in Troilus & Cressida, “It’s foolish to presume our power of resolve is constant.” So treat willpower like it’s a vitality-gauge in a round of Street Fighter rather than some supreme, all-powerful version of yourself which you beckon to your calling at whim.

Troilus & Cressida, interestingly enough, is a play about infidelity: the play covers a lot of issues of course (it’s Shakespeare), but infidelity was one of the central concerns around which the discussion of willpower arose.

Troilus and Cressida, Act V, Scene II; 1795 engraving by Luigi Schiavonetti after a 1789 painting by Angelica Kauffmann

Troilus and Cressida were lovers torn apart by the hostile dynamics of the Trojan War (Troilus was a Trojan prince and Cressida’s Father, Cachlas, a Trojan priest who defected to the Greek side). When the couple finds that Cressida is to be exchanged and sent to the Greeks to join her Father, she reassures Troilus of her loyalty and pledges to him her faithfulness. Troilus, in turn, argues that no matter how strong her love for him is – no matter how resolute her convictions and dedication are – she’s still a human who, like us all, suffers from human limitations.

At one point he actually says, “Sometimes we are devils to ourselves, when we will tempt the frailty of our powers, by presuming on their changeful potency.”

I won’t spoil anything for you, but you can guess for yourself how the rest of that story pans out.

So again, “It’s foolish to presume our power of resolve is constant…sometimes we’re devils to ourselves, when we tempt the frailty of our powers by presuming on their changeful potency.” See your willpower as an energy-source that’s essentially limited, which therefore requires strategic frugality in respect to human nature, rather than some supreme, all-powerful, alternate (but stronger) version of yourself available to call forth at whim.

Dr. Roy Baumeister wrote the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Kelly McGonigal The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works and Why It Matters and Tony Schwartz The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is The Key to High Performance, all of which serve as great reads for more insight into this concept of willpower as an energy-dynamic.

I wrote How to Conquer Yourself: Discipline & Willpower for the Conscious, Creative Thinker, which simplifies the key points from all three books, covering how to cultivate willpower, overcome procrastination, how to raise productivity and much, much more. Get your copy of my book on Amazon now.

Take care,

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