Willpower: Just the Tip of the Iceberg
Updated: Jun 17
“I want to do kung fu. It’s so cool!”, my eldest son Ben said when he was 7 years old. And so we signed him up for Taekwando. Ben was boisterous, hyperactive, and could never sit still. I was secretly hoping that some of the rigour and discipline would rub off on the young padawan.
Every week the instructor would go through a fixed routine: warm-up, drills, followed by pattern practice. With drills, students learn different techniques of punching and kicking. Ben absolutely loved going at it into the punching bag. Boom! Pow!
With pattern practice, students learn to perform a specific set of moves, like a dance. Ben didn’t like that at all. Any move he learnt was quickly forgotten. He would try to escape whenever the instructor wasn't watching. But he couldn’t wriggle away for too long. Soon it was time for grading. If Ben wanted his yellow-tip belt, he had to perform the pattern for the examiner.
“Help him practise at home”, the instructor advised me. At home, Ben kept running away. “You must practise!”, I exclaimed, locking us both in my room. I literally had to force him through the pattern - move after agonising move. 19 moves. Again and again. It was like World War III. Yes, there were tears. From both parties.
Ben passed, and he was back to being a happy chap punching and kicking. However, preparing for grading would be the same for the next five gradings. World War III. The patterns are different for each belt: more moves (up to 38 moves), more challenging. “How is this going to continue?”, I wondered.
But something changed after Ben got his blue-tip belt. During class, instead of trying to run away from pattern practice, he was focusing and practising. At grading, Ben passed without practising at home. For the first time, I didn’t need to intervene. Ben did it all by himself. And it would be like that until Ben got his black belt.
It was like a miracle. Instant turnaround. It’s like something switched on in him. Years later, I was curious and asked him what happened. What caused that change?
“I don’t know. I guess it got easier”, Ben shared.
Erm, black belt is way way more complex and technically difficult than the other belts. What is it?
“I don’t know. It’s just more fun. And the moves are cool, I guess”, Ben said. And he added,
“White belt was boring. Not worth my time”.
THE “COOL” FACTOR
What if, like Ben, you have a switch you can flip on to unleash your hidden power?
When trying to do something, most of us think, “I must have a plan, I must be disciplined, I must work harder, and then I’ll get what I want”. Most of the time, it works. For tough challenges, it doesn’t work like that. We spend hours, days, months brainstorming but can’t seem to make things happen. We work really hard but don’t get the results that we want. We run out of willpower. We feel exhausted.
Planning and discipline are critical, but it’s not enough when you’re trying to overcome tough challenges.
BLAME YOUR BRAIN
There are two parts to the brain. First, there’s the rational side that likes facts, logic and thinks long-term. Then there’s the emotional brain that likes to feel loved, understood, and most of all, safe. It craves instant gratification.
Think of someone riding an elephant along a path. The Rider is the rational brain and the Elephant is the emotional brain. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be in charge. Sure, when the Elephant is happy and comfortable, it lets the Rider lead. But when the Elephant feels scared and uncertain, the Rider loses control and the Elephant does whatever it wants. The Rider may get her way temporarily - she can tug strongly on the reins or offer the Elephant a banana. But the Rider can’t win the tug-of-war with a huge animal for long. She simply gets exhausted. Or runs out of bananas. She is completely outmatched.
When change efforts fail, it’s usually the Elephant’s fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term pain (boredom in Ben’s case) for long-term gain. We blame the Elephant. And so we hear phrases like “Don’t take it personally. It’s just business”. We develop split personalities: we have a professional self at work, and a real self at home.
But what may surprise you is that the Elephant isn’t always the bad guy. The Elephant also has enormous strengths. Emotion is the Elephant’s turf, things like passion, empathy and a sense of purpose. For Ben, it’s that “cool” factor. For you, it might be that fierce instinct to protect your team. Or that spine stiffening you get when you fight to do what’s right for your customers. Unlike willpower, this energy is LIMITLESS. To make progress towards a goal, you need the brute strength of the Elephant. The Elephant is the one who gets things done. It helped Ben get his black belt. And this strength is the perfect antidote to the Rider’s great weakness: spinning his wheels. The Rider tends to overanalyse and overthink things. Agonising for an hour over what to eat for dinner? That’s a Rider problem. How about NATO (no action, talk only)? Again, Rider problem.
If you want to change things, you’ve got to appeal to both. The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the energy. The Rider asks "What's the correct thing to do?". The Elephant asks "What's true?" A reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can both ensure that nothing changes. But when Elephants and Riders move together, that’s when the magic happens.
At your best, you are a powerful force for positive change: driven, conscientious and highly motivated to make things better. The thing is, it’s a choice to unleash it. To get your Elephant and Rider to move together. Choose to stand in your circle of power. Nobody can do it for you, it has to come from within. And that’s where the power lies.
3 WAYS TO UNLEASH YOUR POWER TODAY
Unfortunately, most of us don’t tap into this hidden force. Our education system and workplace traditionally favour the Rider and ignore the Elephant. Here are 3 things you can do today to switch on your hidden power:
1. Be aware of your Elephant and Rider at play. Observe yourself when you’re in the flow, when the Elephant and Rider are working together in perfect harmony. Catch yourself when you’re feeling the Elephant leading you astray or the Rider going into a wheel-spinning spiral. Once you’re more aware, you can change it.
2. Read the book Switch by Dan & Chip Heath. Learn more about the Rider and Elephant, and how to change things when change is hard. Insightful and great fun to read.
3. Get a coach. The role of the coach is to help people come up with their own answers, and not tell them what to do. A coach helps the coachee leverage her Rider’s intellect and Elephant’s strength to create breakthroughs. The answers come from within.
At PERSONNA, we coach people to create breakthroughs in their careers or business by unleashing this hidden force. We coach people to stand in their circle of power - get their Elephant and Rider to move together, and make those tough changes easier, cooler and way more fun.
Curious to learn how to stand in your circle of power and unleash your force for positive change?
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PERSONNA is a leadership development company focused on the people side of transformation. We hold a simple belief that everyone is an extraordinary and powerful force for positive change. When you make work personal, naturally you become a better leader.
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