Nov 7, 2021 • 6M

Willpower is Nonsense. You Need Passion

Lessons from someone who hasn't had to force himself to do something in months

Aaron Nichols
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Three days ago, I logged a three-and-a-half-hour surf session. As is often the case, I was the first in the water, last out. I’d only stood up four, maybe five times on my new fish board in all that time. The rest was wobbles, wipeouts, and face-first falls.

When I paddled back to shore, one of the Germans at my current hostel stopped me as I was walking back inside.

“I saw you out there towards the end!” She said. “I just want you to know that I think it’s so inspiring to see you persevering out there. I admire the fact that you keep trying, and it looks like it’s paying off! I saw you stand up a few times.”

One of the author’s 300+ falls

I laughed and thanked her, and walked over to shower my sore body off. As I showered, I thought about what she’d said. I’d told her the day before that I’d struggled since buying that new board, falling 300–400 times before figuring out how to stand up on it that very day.

It had been a month and a half of wiping out, wondering if I’d ever figure it out, with several good surfers telling me that I went down in board-size way too quick, saying things like “who told you you were ready for this?!

As I showered, I thought to myself: what she said was absolutely lovely, but that’s not quite right, is it? Perseverance isn’t the right word.

Since I started surfing three months ago, the idea of perseverance hasn’t crossed my mind. I’ve never had to drag myself out into the waves and force myself to paddle out to a session. There hasn’t been one moment of “finding motivation” like there is before I’m heading to the gym back home.

Motivation is irrelevant to surfing for me because I have something much more powerful pulling me through: love. I wake up every morning, look at the ocean in its infinite power, glory, and wisdom, and cannot wait to be out in it. Then I paddle out, and every wave I catch is a revelation, even if I just bodyboard it and don’t manage to stand up.

Every time I wipe out, I have something to work on. There’s a correction, a direction to go in.

I’ve never stopped a session because I ran out of willpower. Strength, yes. Calories, yes. Fresh water in my body, many times. But never willpower. I’ve never had to persevere.

Between surfing and yoga, I’m in the best shape of my life. Not once, in three months, have I thought “UGH I need to go exercise.”

This is what we get wrong about motivation and willpower. We admire the people who are able to drag themselves through the same repetitive, boring tasks over and over again, building massive muscles, starting companies, wading through bureaucracy.

Our narrative around health, fitness, business, and success is: “why can’t you be like these rich, famous people? They’re doing the boring stuff over and over again and they’re ripped out of their minds! They drive Lamborghinis! Their houses are made of gold and custard creme! HAVE MORE WILLPOWER, IDIOTS!”

Don’t get me wrong, we need those people in society. Life as we know it would crumble without them. But we don’t need to aspire to be like them.

A photo that tells it all: the author loves being in the water, even if things don’t go as planned.

For most of us, real success (the type that doesn’t drive you to psychosis in the end) comes from passion, not willpower. It comes from love, not perseverance.

I’m of the old school. I believe that if your body and mind are shutting down from doing something over and over again, you should listen to your body, stop doing that thing, and go do something more fun and interesting for a while.

Are you looking to get fit? Not pointlessly ripped, but functionally, usefully fit? Quit your gym membership and sign up for a climbing gym. Bike there for your warmup.

Better yet, climb outside and pay for nothing.

Get off the treadmill, get your heart rate up by smashing it with a hammer and shouting “I AM NOT A LAB RAT!” before going on a hike or a training run with your local running club. Maybe buy a backpack and spend the night in nature afterward.

Play ultimate frisbee in a park.

There are so many paths to success that don’t involve willpower. The question is not “how can I persevere?” The question is “How can I make the idea of perseverance irrelevant?”