I was reminded recently that the wellspring of executive function is boredom. The way to get more of it is to engage in activities like birdwatching, examining patterns and smudges in the walls and ceiling, watching paint dry, and familiarizing yourself with a patch of grass past the point when you feel like it’s going to drive you crazy. You want to get into that mental state where you start spontaneously seeing the outlines of cartoon faces and character silhouettes in a pile of brush or a tangle of branches. This observation led me to break out willpower into the following three subphenomena:
- Executive function, as noted above.
- Motivation, which I’ve previously described as the sincere belief (as in *felt*) that a specific action will have a specific consequence and result in a preferable outcome (there’s probably a special term for this in behavioral economics). Could also reasonably be called enthusiasm or libido.
- A sense of direction, purpose or destiny, the subjective experience of which could be called moral confidence
Moral courage, in turn, breaks out into willpower and moral character. I don’t have an analytical breakdown of moral character yet, but it’s essentially passive and could be profitably compared to resilience or sincerity. It’s the quality lacking in people who are high-agency (high-willpower, high will-to-power) but can’t be described as high in moral courage, like Jeffrey Epstein or Arthur Finklestein.
So initially I’m going to say:
Moral courage = Stress/Vice
(Executive function * Motivation * Sense of direction) * Moral character = Stress/Vice
This will probably change because I suspect the three parts of willpower interact the way associative horizon, intelligence, and conscientiousness interact to produce creativity. For example, ADHD could be thought of as overabundant motivation in the absence of executive function and direction. And I think those people who complain about their internal monologues getting out of hand probably have overabundant executive function in the absence of motivation and direction. And people with overabundant moral confidence but no agency or motivation write ideological jeremiads on the internet. (Not that I can throw stones.)
A couple of practical notes:
Motivation-slash-libido is fostered by art and culture, particularly the visual arts. These are the fuel for our *felt* beliefs, which you can think of clinically as our emotional worldview. This is a set of very simplistic stories that consist of an emotional state, followed by an emotional decision of some kind, followed by another emotional state. For example, think of a typical American underdog story: guy is poor and unhappy, he works hard and never gives up, he’s vindicated with wealth and happiness. The key is to remember these stories are 100% told in dream logic, which is almost entirely visual and often a bit metaphorical. For reference, here’s a bit from Brian Tracy:
The first of these actions is visualization. This is perhaps the most powerful technique of self-image modification available to mankind. Your visual images become your reality. They intensify your desires and deepen your beliefs. They increase your willpower and build your persistence. They are enormously powerful.
There are four elements of a visualization. An increase in any one of them will accelerate the rate at which you create the physical equivalent of that mental picture in your life.
The first of these elements is frequency. How often you visualize a particular future event, goal or behavior has a powerful impact on your thinking, feeling and acting. People who accomplish extraordinary things visualize their desired results continually. They think about what they want to accomplish all the time. They replay the ideal image of their futures over and over, like projecting a slide on the screen of their minds. In fact, the frequency with which you visualize not only tells you how much you want to realize that picture but also intensifies your desires and your belief that it is achievable.
The second element in visualization is vividness. This refers to the clarity with which you see something in your imagination. There is a direct relationship between how vividly you can see a desired goal or result and how rapidly it appears for you.
You have often had the experience of thinking about something you wanted. Your first thoughts were vague and fuzzy, but as you thought about it more and more, and perhaps gathered information, your mental picture of what you wanted became clearer and clearer. Finally, when you could close your eyes and see it in complete detail, it materialized in your world. This is the way you achieve most goals.
Successful people are very clear about what they want, and of course, this refers to the clarity of their mental pictures. Unsuccessful people are unsure of what they want to be and do. Their fuzzy mental pictures are too vague to motivate them, or to activate the various mental laws to work in their behalf.
The third dimension of visualization is intensity. This refers to the amount of emotion that you combine with your mental pictures. When you intensely desire something, when you are excited and enthusiastic about your goals, or when you have a deep faith that you will realize a goal that you are working toward, whatever it is occurs much faster. Increasing the amount of emotion with which you accompany your visualizations is like stepping on the accelerator of your own potential. This is perhaps why Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
Unsuccessful people, on the other hand, are usually unmotivated and unexcited about what they are doing and where they are going. They have a general attitude of pessimism that keeps them functioning at a low level of energy. They tend to be more passive and accepting of things as they are, rather than being excited about things as they could be.
The fourth part of visualization is duration. This refers to the length of time you can hold the picture of something you want in your mind. The longer you imagine a desired future event, the more likely it is to appear. Whenever you can, you should get actual pictures of things or conditions you desire and look at them repeatedly, until they are accepted as commands by your subconscious mind. Your self-concept soon changes to be consistent with your new visual commands.
Do you want a new car? Then go to the dealership and take it for a test drive. Bring the brochures home, cut them up and put pictures of the car wherever you can sec them. A friend of mine started doing this when he was broke and driving an old car. He test drove a new BMW every weekend. He even put a picture of the car he wanted on his steering wheel so he could imagine he was already driving the car of his dreams. And within one year, he had started a new job, learned a new set of skills, increased his income and was able to buy the car.
When you combine the elements of frequency, vividness, intensity and duration with your visualizations of anything you want to be, have or do in the future, you actually supercharge yourself and accelerate your movement toward it. You unleash your hidden powers to succeed and tap resources that enable you to accomplish things beyond anything you’ve ever done before.
Most successful people have developed this ability, through practice, to create clear, vivid mental pictures of themselves being the persons and doing the things they really want. And since your external performance is always consistent with your internal image or picture, if you see yourself as an excellent parent, spouse, executive or salesperson, you will feel more relaxed, confident and capable in that role. If you see yourself as awkward or clumsy in any role, you will feel tense and uneasy whenever you find yourself in that particular situation.
Smart guy. Keep in mind though, this can be dangerous stuff.
A sense of direction can be nurtured by doing the other stuff Brian Tracy talks about that isn’t visualization, because it’s a fundamentally linguistic phenomenon. It’s still emotionalized language, but it’s verbal. This is what the more ideological stuff taps into: verbal rants, song lyrics, and so on. This is what Jordan Peterson’s self-authoring whatsit was engaging by having people write their thoughts in a semi-hypnotic state. So if you want a sense of purpose, listen to religious or ideological propaganda, write down your goals, make plans, take notes when you’re doing research on the thing, etc. Example of that here.
The difference between motivation and a sense of purpose is like the difference between catharsis and epiphany. Freud stopped using hypnosis because his patients were achieving insight but not catharsis, i.e. they understood their feelings better but the feelings didn’t change.