January is the quintessential time to make changes in our lives - those all too-familiar New Year's Resolutions. For millions of people, that means working to achieve health and fitness goals throughout the following year. However, most well-intentioned resolutioners start with a bang and end with a fizzle. In fact, Time Magazine states that an estimated 80% of people quit their resolutions by February, and only 8% actually stick it out to the end of the year. And, well it's that time of year again (end of January) and statistically, many of you may have already fallen short of your goals.
Why is it so difficult to change? Why can't we just, well- simply DO IT?! As human beings we have the tendency to take the path of least resistance, which is usually the anthesis of change and the enemy of success. While there are many reasons we may fall back into our old ways we can boil it down –at least in part– to willpower. Or as is the case in most of us, the LACK thereof.
This is why we create New Year’s resolutions, race goals, and personal benchmarks– to test our willpower and challenge ourselves to rise above the norm. We all know that complacency and mediocrity do not typically create greatness. We don’t overcome very little to achieve great things; quite the opposite is true. We grow, excel, and in many cases thrive, because of the struggle, not in spite of it. We don’t create muscle without the resistance that weight training provides, and we don’t build our aerobic system by remaining sedentary.
Everyone is inspired by the person who loses 100 pounds of unwanted bodyweight, runs the marathon in a fast time, or completes an IRONMAN. We can expand this to include academic and professional feats of success, such as graduating from Harvard, starting a successful business, or retiring early. What makes all these accomplishments noteworthy, is that they are hard. And they involve doing things that we don’t want to do.
No one wants to get up at 4:30 in the morning to go running in the middle of the Winter, much less going to a pool to swim. No young person in college wants to sit home studying on a Friday night, and no business owner would rather stay late to review the company finances, instead of going home to spend time with his or her family. Yet, they do it because that is the price to pay for success. That kind of willpower is the essential component of high achievement, whether it be for athletes, students, entrepreneurs, or executives. While some may argue those successful people are blessed with inherent exceptional willpower, or that they are naturally disciplined, we know that willpower is a skill that can be developed.
Many have erroneously accused me of being a “naturally gifted athlete”, or they say I am “inherently disciplined”...but that is simply not true. The reality is that I worked extremely hard to cultivate the skills necessary for me to achieve an athletic prowess and mindset. I would venture to say that successful people across all aspects of life would say the same. Every once in a while, we see true prodigies, but most successful people who achieve extraordinary goals are average ordinary people who have worked really hard, and have developed willpower and discipline over many years.
Up until recently, much of the lot of the evidence for developing discipline and willpower has been purely psychologically based. And that is in part true, but we now have empirical data to suggest that our brains can physiologically adapt to cultivate willpower.
Andrew Huberman, renowned expert in Neurobiology, and professor of neuroscience at Stanford University, explains that there is an actual physiological change that happens when we do something hard we don’t WANT to do. In his podcast, “Huberman Lab”, he explains the anterior midcingulate cortex, a structure found in both the right and left side of the brain, actually GROWS when we do something we don’t want to do. In essence, by doing hard things that we are otherwise not inclined to do, we are physiologically building our willpower.
Huberman explained this relatively new discovery on building willpower recently on the podcast while speaking with David Goggins–arguably the toughest man on the planet. For those that may not know, David Goggins is a former Navy SEAL, who not only went through 3 ‘hell weeks’ at BUDS training (if you’re unfamiliar, look it up!) He also graduated from Army Ranger school, is an elite ultrarunner who came in 2nd at the Badwater 135- a 135 mile run through Death Valley, is a best-selling author and sought after speaker, and at one point held the World Record for the most pull ups in 24 hours: well over 4,000 reps.
What most may NOT know, is that before becoming a SEAL, Goggins had a severe learning disability, endured an abusive, impoverished childhood, was bullied because he was African American in a predominately Caucasian neighborhood, weighed over 300 lbs, and worked the midnight shift as an exterminator at a fast food restaurant chain…before he decided to make a change. And that change required an extraordinary amount of willpower. He decided against all odds, to become a Navy SEAL.
In the podcast, Goggins shares what drives him daily to do the extraordinary hard things he does. He shares how his past has shaped him, but that it’s a daily grind: a struggle every day to get up and run (he HATES to run), to study (he’s studying to become a paramedic), to work long days, and do it all over again tomorrow. “Inspiring” in an understatement.
Yet we don’t have to run ultra marathons, be Navy SEALS, or best selling authors to cultivate the elusive willpower that we all crave. We simply have to do the hard things we don’t want to do.
Again, this grows our anterior midcingulate cortex, which in turn, allows us to continue to do those hard things. Huberman explains that this brain area is larger in athletes, smaller in obese people, and grows larger in those who have overcome significant adversity in their lives. He elaborates, saying that when those who are dieting resist the temptation to eat an unhealthy food choice, or add 3 hrs of exercise to their week, they experience growth of the anterior midcingulate cortex. He summarizes by saying that the very act of doing something that is hard –something that we don’t want to do– literally builds up our capacity to continue to do more hard things.
He continues: “In people that live a very long time, this area keeps its size. In many ways, scientists are starting to view this anterior midcingulate cortex, not only as one of the seats of willpower (within the brain), but actually as the seat of the will to live.”
So as we struggle with our season goals, New Year’s resolutions, and personal challenges during the year, just keep going. Keep doing those hard things you don’t want to do. Remember that as we struggle daily –even hourly for some– we are quite literally building our will power. We are increasing our capacity to endure, to fight, to grow- and even to live! And that’s something worth fighting for.
See this 13 min clip in which Huberman and Goggins discuss this ground-breaking discovery below:
(WARNING: strong language - viewer discretion is advised)