Do we have limitless potential?

Willpower on the left, and Indistractable on the right: ego depletion n one side, and limitless willpower on the other!

I’ve been doing a lot of commuting lately, and have been catching up on some reading for research and CPD (continuing professional development). One of the books I have been reading has caused me to ponder the question: do we have limits to what we can achieve, or do we have limitless potential?

This is an important idea. Is there a ceiling on what we can achieve in any activity? If so, where is it, and how do we know when we’ve reached it?

I don’t know about you, but I have often had the experience – particularly when working on physical tasks like learning a new piece of music or a new stroke in tennis – where I have felt as though I am putting in time for limited returns. I work on the same musical passage each day for a number of days, but it does seem to get very much better. Have I reached my ceiling for improvement, or have I reached a temporary plateau? Should I persist in my efforts to improve, and if so, for how long?

Limitless potential vs ego depletion

The book I have been reading is Indistractable by Nir Eyal; its task is to give the reader a methodology for avoiding distraction in order to improve attentiveness and so enable better work and more enjoyable leisure time. As part of his argument that part of avoiding distraction is dealing with internal triggers, he discusses the concept of willpower. Eyal refers back to research done by Roy Baumeister into the concept of ego depletion: the idea that we only have a certain amount of willpower available to us each day, and that we can use it up over the course of a day. To quote from the bestselling book Baumeister co-wrote with John Tierney, ego depletion describes

people’s diminished capacity to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions. People can sometimes overcome mental fatigue, but Baumeister found that if they had used up energy by exerting willpower (or by making decisions, another form of ego depletion…), they would eventually succumb. [1]

In this conception, willpower is a finite human resource. Use it up refusing to eat the biscuits in the office kitchen all day, and you’ll have no energy left to fight the desire for the ice cream in the freezer when you get home!

But is this true? 

In his book Nir Eyal summarises a number of studies (including a meta-analysis of 200 other papers) that seem to discredit the idea of ego depletion. My favourite involves work done by Carol Dweck, creator of the ‘growth mindset’ hypothesis. She found that signs of ego depletion only occurred in test subjects who believed that willpower was a limited resource!

Many people still promote the idea of ego depletion, perhaps because they are unaware of the evidence that exists to the contrary. But if Dweck’s conclusions are correct, then perpetuating the idea is doing real harm. If ego depletion is essentially caused by self-defeating thoughts and not by any biological limitation, then the idea makes us less likely to accomplish our goals by providing a rationale to quit when we could otherwise persist. [2]

According to this conception, willpower isn’t a finite resource. We can choose to persist. But if this is true of willpower, what other concepts could also be as close to infinite as we dare to imagine? Our attention? Our mental discipline? Our capacity for success?

Alexander’s ideas of human capacity

When I read the passage about willpower and I thought about the possibility of choosing to persist, it brought to mind a passage from FM Alexander’s first book Man’s Supreme Inheritance. Alexander was intimately concerned with education and the prevention of psychophysical difficulties in children. Thinking about babies in particular, he wrote:

the child’s potentialities lie hidden in the mysterious groupings and arrangement of its cells and tissues; hidden beyond the reach of analysis … even at birth it is differentiated from other children; our limits may be wide but they are fixed. Within these limits, however, our capacity for good and evil is very great.[3]

Alexander is rightly pointing out that at a genetic level we might not be able to do ANYTHING – there are going to be limits. On the other hand, when a baby is born we have no idea what those limits are. I clearly remember holding my son when he was newborn, and being awestruck by the fact that I had literally no idea of what he might accomplish in the future; to all intents and purposes, his potential was limitless. [4]

As we get older we make choices about what we want to do and what we don’t. We make decisions about what we can do and what we believe we can’t. But what if we aren’t actually that different to the newborn in our potential? Obviously our brain structures are a bit different, and we may have issues with tissue repair through ageing, but what if the physiological limits of what most of us can achieve are far, far greater than the limits we place on ourselves?

Imagine what you could achieve if you had limitless potential. Imagine the levels of attention, focus and discipline you could access. Imagine the fun you could have!

Of course, I might be wrong. Our potential might be more finite than our willpower has turned out to be. But wouldn’t it be fun try holding the opposing point of view to test it out?

[1] Baumeister, R.F. & Tierney, J., Willpower, London, Allen Lane, 2012, p.28.

[2] Eyal, N. & Li, J., Indistractable, London, Bloomsbury, 2019, p.51.

[3] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, pp.69-70. 

[4] And neurological research seems to be confirming this. I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and it contains a section on this topic.