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The currency of human potential

There’s a noun that the personal development industry avoids like a leper. Excuse enough, I think, for me to write a post on the topic. Don’t let the title mislead you either – I’m not talking about money.

Some would say this thing (and our lack of it) is the whole reason the self help industry exists. We’re shamefully obsessed with it, but we can’t touch it, see it or hear it. Yet, we marvel at what it does in the world. We never talk about it directly but we never stop thinking about it.

What is this elixir of awesome? Read on to find out…


It’s the currency of your potential. It transmutes the raw and liquid “potential” that resides within you into tangible success. It manifests your potential. The equation looks like this:

Potential + Willpower = Results

It’s that simple. That’s why we don’t talk about it. That’s why self help literature dances around the topic but never quite touches it. The simplicity scares the shit out of us.

If you have a lot of willpower, more or less, you can do anything. If you don’t… Let’s face it, you’re not going far.

Or will you?

If you found yourself even slightly nodding when you read the sentence above, you’ve fallen into the collective hallucination our culture has around willpower. We nominalize it, taking what should be a verb and turning it into a noun. From a neuro-linguistic point of view, this embeds a belief deep in our psychology: That our willpower is a concrete, tangible and finite thing.

That’s where shit gets REALLY scary. When you start believing that willpower is finite, the next question is “how much do I have?”

What do you do if the answer isn’t enough?

This post is designed to address that question because, despite my many talents, I don’t have what it takes to de-nominalize your willpower belief. At least, not through a single article. In lieu of that life-changing psychological transformation, I want to talk about what you can do when you find yourself short of willpower… The tangible currency of your potential that you believe it is.

How do you spend your potential?

Accepting the premise that you have a account balance of willpower (and no overdraft!), budgeting becomes seriously important.

If your willpower balance will only afford you one major behavioural change per month, what will it be?

Suddenly, finding the willpower to finally clean out the garage isn’t looking like such a wise investment. Better to expend willpower doing that thing in your business that might turn everything around.

Like any investment, the way you spend your willpower comes with two variables: risk and return. Higher risk actions (i.e. things that might not work out) offer greater potential returns – starting a business is a good example. Lower risk (proven, trustworthy) offer fairly guaranteed but less glamorous return. Workout twice a week for six months and you’ll see what I mean.

If you’ve got limited willpower (let’s be honest), choose your investment wisely.

What do you spend your willpower on?

The second critical concept for effective use of (limited) willpower is the types of behavior you choose to throw your willpower behind.

Many people expend an enormous amount of their willpower on trivial behaviors and decisions that don’t have a long term impact.

The perfect example of this can be seen in weight loss/health – that fickle sphere of life where folks spend so much (or so little) of their precious willpower.

People with a “dieting” mentality tend to be overweight. They also burn out much of their willpower by forcing themselves not to eat the chocolate cake that finds it’s way in front of them. By obsessing about food decisions (should I, shouldn’t I?) in the moment, they expend all their willpower – saving none for the important stuff.

On the flip side, chronically fit gym-junkies only ever spend willpower on the behaviors that add up over the long term. Want to lose weight? Throw your willpower into getting up at 5am, lacing up your sneakers and running three miles away from your house. Invest your willpower in constantly filling up on protein rich foods, before you get really hungry. The rest will, more or less, take care of itself.

Weight-loss examples aside, the point here is that throwing your willpower behind practices, rather than individual instances of indecision, is far more effective.

Entrepreneurs who use their willpower quota to cultivate a habit of making daily sales calls know that if they get the money in the bank, the rest just flows. Bloggers who invest their willpower in a 1000-words-per-day writing habit know that the rest will sort itself out.

You’ve got a cap on your willpower, so be smart. Use it to build habits that are generative of success, instead of solving your short term indecisions.

Hope for willpower deficient individuals everywhere:

Here’s the best news – willpower is, if it is anything, a muscle. It gets stronger with practice.

The secret to success really is just “having willpower”. Look at any entrepreneurial role model and you’ll see what I mean – all the rockstars have it. You can have mighty willpower too. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

The more you flex your willpower on high risk, high ROI best-practices and habits… The better and better you’re going to get at it. The better you get, the bigger investments you’ll be able to make.

Soon, your willpower will be unstoppable.


+ Add Comment
  1. Hi Peter,

    I use my willpower to spread my enthusiasm. Sometimes it’s for my business, other times it’s to make my community a more livable or to bring my singing voice to a new place. I wasn’t supposed to be able to sing again. Yet, through real willpower, I’m better than ever.

    For me, all are equally important and life giving. When I’m spreading my enthusiasm — my willpower is on fire. Maybe, they are the same?

    Fun post. G.

    1. Hey Giulietta! Great to see you again 🙂

      I don’t think it takes too much willpower to spread enthusiasm. It takes a LOT of willpower to do meaningful work that your unconscious mind is *afraid* of. Do more of that and great things will happen.

  2. This post reminds me of the saying, “What does not kill us makes us stronger.” I’ve had a few celebrated moments of surviving “Kill James!” events in my life (metaphorically speaking, of course), and it’s true that I became stronger and more confident.

    But neither strength nor confidence mean “willpower”, do they? Willpower, to me, is what happens when your desire to accomplish a goal fuels you onwards… despite crushing fear and emotional obstacles that would rather keep you stagnant.

    Oh, btw – willpower… must’ve been some of it going on when I stepped onto that plane, eh? 🙂

    1. Right on James. Willpower is what ultimately overcame the phobia… the first time. Now, your “belief” that you’ve put it in your past is what keeps it from reappearing.

      Awesome stuff 🙂

  3. Let me get a little controversial… I don’t agree.

    I think we cannot consciously control our urges, impulses, unconscious.

    In the marshmallow experiment – show a 4 year old kid a marshmallow, tell them “this marshmallow is yours to eat. I am going out for a little bit. If it is still there when I come back, you will get 2 marshmallows” – about half of kids can wait, and half are unable to wait and reach out and eat the marshmallow.

    What is important is to watch the strategies that are adopted by each child. No child is able to look at the marshmallow and not eat it. The children that don’t eat the marshmallow go through all sorts of contortions to avoid looking at the marshmallow – put head in hands, get up and walk away…

    The success of a diet happens in the supermarket, not in the home. If there is chocolate in my house, I will eat it. If there is ice cream in my house, I will eat it.

    I think success is less about willpower training, and more about “gaming” the environment so that my decisions in the margins tend towards the positive choices.

    If I get up in the morning and put on my running shoes… I game my environment to make the decision to go running less hard.

    If I don’t have chocolate in the house, I game my environment to push me to eat raw carrot instead.

    If I leave a pen and paper ready on my desk, I game my environment to note down simple ideas, quotes. If I have my email program open, I game my environment towards checking email more often (and not writing deep, profound comments on great blogs).

    How can you game your environment?

    1. Hey Conor,

      All good points – reminds me a lot of “The War of Art” … That said, showing up into an environment that’s geared towards “doing the work” doesn’t guarantee that the work will get done.

      When I re-read your comment, the point about running shoes stood out. I think you’re actually agreeing with me! You’re expending your willpower to get the shoes laced up… and then you sort of *have* to run (or look and feel like a twit!) 😛

      This is very similar to the way I write actually. I expend a LOT of willpower to start writing drafts. Most of my articles start as 500 word, senseless blather. However, it requires almost NO willpower for me to take one of those and polish it into 1000 words of publishable material…. it’s the first 500 words pounded onto a blank page that take EFFORT.

      1. I agree with you now 😉 The willpower is still needed, but is most effective at a point previous to the decision to act.

        I remember a saying “when you fall, focus on where you slipped, not where you fell…” So when you fail to act in the way that you wish, focus on where you slipped… how did you rig your environment to set you up for non-action?

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