Agency Mental Model (incl Learned Helplessness, Growth Mindset, Willpower Depletion)

If this is your first time reading, please check out the overview for Poor Ash’s Almanack, a free, vertically-integrated resource including a latticework of mental models, reviews/notes/analysis on books, guided learning journeys, and more.

Agency Mental Model: Executive Summary

If you only have three minutes, this introductory section will get you up to speed on the agency mental model.

The concept in two quotes:

One of the biggest drivers of success is the belief that our behavior matters. That we have control over our future. - psychologist Shawn Achor Click To Tweet

That quote, from “The Happiness Advantage (THA review + notes), is one of my favorites of all time.  Another:

“At every moment, we are volunteers.”  – Stephen Colbert

“Agency” is my catch-all term that I will use interchangeably with “free will,”  “belief that behavior matters,” “choice,” and other terminology that implies that we have the power to choose our actions.

Key takeaways/applications:  Although willpower is not infinite and “ grit” is vastly overrated (as discussed in the “dose-dependency” interaction), a substantial body of psychology research suggests that self-efficacy and a sense of control meaningfully influence both behavior and health.  While an adaptive level of belief in agency should be obvious to most highly-educated professionals, both behavior and belief demonstrate – surprisingly – that it’s often either too low, too high, or both at the same time.

Three brief examples of agency:

COLOSSUS: Four or five moments. That's all it takes [to] be a hero. Everyone thinks it's a full-time job. Wake up a hero. Brush your teeth a hero. Go to work a hero. Not true. Over a lifetime, there are only four or five moments that really matter. Moments when you're offered a choice, to make a sacrifice, conquer a flaw, save a friend, spare an enemy. In these moments [...] *Deadpool shoots Ajax in the head. Colossus vomits.* COLOSSUS: Why?!?!?! DEADPOOL: You were droning on!
COLOSSUS: Four or five moments. That’s all it takes [to] be a hero. Everyone thinks it’s a full-time job. Wake up a hero. Brush your teeth a hero. Go to work a hero. Not true. Over a lifetime, there are only four or five moments that really matter. Moments when you’re offered a choice, to make a sacrifice, conquer a flaw, save a friend, spare an enemy. In these moments […] *Deadpool shoots Ajax in the head. Colossus vomits.* COLOSSUS: Why?!?!?! DEADPOOL: You were droning on!
Life-or-death situations.  As examined by Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival (DpSv review + notes), all survivors in life-or-death situations make a decision to live. There is, of course,  survivorship bias at play  here: plenty of people who decided to live may have been overcome by harsh circumstances.  Nonetheless, it’s very much a case of the “missing bullets” as discussed by Jordan Ellenberg in How Not To Be Wrong (HNW review + notes) – just like planes shot in the engines or fuel lines don’t return home for observation, neither do the people who gave up and didn’t believe they could do it.  The desire to live is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Health and wellness.  As discussed in more depth in the stress mental model, numerous studies have demonstrated that – controlling for other factors – having a sense of control over one’s life (i.e. agency) leads to better health and happiness outcomes.

Prediction and business.  One surprising and often overlooked conclusion of Philip Tetlock’s research, as discussed in “ Superforecasting ( SF review + notes), is that believing in fate makes you worse at making predictions.  Unfortunately, this sort of deterministic viewpoint is often considered trendy and even intellectual.  Tetlock goes on to break down how and why many popular “intellectuals” with quasi-deterministic/nihilistic views (Daniel Kahneman and Nassim Taleb) get it wrong on the scope of our control.  Peter Thiel has a better perspective in Zero to One (Z21 review + notes):

If you expect an indefinite future ruled by randomness, you’ll give up on trying to master it. - Peter Thiel Click To Tweet

If this sounds interesting/applicable in your life, keep reading for unexpected applications and a deeper understanding of how this interacts with other mental models in the latticework.

However, if this doesn’t sound like something you need to learn right now, no worries!  There’s plenty of other content on Poor Ash’s Almanack that might suit your needs. Instead, consider checking out our learning journeysour discussion of the path-dependency,feedback, or sunk costs mental models, or our reviews of great books like “The Vaccine Race” (TVR review + notes), “To Engineer is Human” (TEIH review + notes), or “ Zero to One” (Z21 review + notes).

Agency Mental Model: Deeper Look

“Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.”  

– Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (7H review + notes), originally from Viktor Frankl

What does famous comedian Stephen Colbert share with the late, great Stephen Covey, and the people who psychologists find time and time again achieving the most success and happiness? A strong belief in agency. Image attribution: CC-by-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons.
What does famous comedian Stephen Colbert share with the late, great Stephen Covey, and the people who psychologists find time and time again achieving the most success and happiness? A strong belief in agency. Image attribution: CC-by-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons.

requent readers are likely aware that Poor Ash’s Almanack focuses on identifying and utilizing  mental models to help us all be happier and more successful in whatever we choose to do.  As such, I think it’s important to note that this discussion of agency is not philosophical or biological in nature.  

I view it as largely irrelevant whether or not free will can be proven to exist and take it as an axiom (i.e., a self-evidently true first premise requiring no support) because it is clearly an adaptive belief.  By inversion, nihilism is the only alternative to believing in free will, which is clearly nonsensical for anyone following the mental models approach.  It is impossible to reconcile determinism with any useful approach to the world.

Although I won’t get into the historical background, it is interesting to note that most deterministic strains of thought in America trace back to Calvinism in one way or another, which also (as discussed by Olds/Schwartz in The Lonely American – TLA review + notes) has the paradoxical effect of leading people – even and sometimes especially highly intelligent, educated ones – to utilize agency under circumstances in which it makes no sense (brute force willpower, like memorization), and not utilize it under circumstances where it absolutely makes sense (modifying schema / ideology).

As Stephen Covey might say, “wrong jungle!”  Let’s go mythbusting and find the right jungle, y’all.  (We’ll get to the idea of wrong jungles a bit later.)

Agency x Schema / Selective PerceptionIdeology

If you’re not familiar with the schema / selective perception mental model, a) you should be, but b) that’s okay.  The general idea is that, as psychologist Shawn Achor notes in the interesting/unique Before Happiness” (BH review + notes),

“the human brain receives eleven million pieces of information every second from our environment, [but] can process only forty bits per second, which means it has to choose what tiny percentage of this input to process and attend to, and what huge chunk to dismiss or ignore.”

The exact numbers don’t matter here and this is likely a simplified view in some senses.  The point here is that a wide body of psychology research (cough gorillas cough – see the selective perception model) demonstrates that we do not actively notice every bit of stimulus we receive from the environment.  (Megan McArdle, in The Up Side of Down – UpD review + notes – provides an interesting twist on the classic gorilla-experiment example: one person she interviewed didn’t even notice his own brother in the video!)

It would be difficult to synchronize our dance moves if we were nonselectively perceiving everything about the audience while deciding what to do next. Left Shark, clearly, missed the memo and needs to read this mental model... although in his defense, I couldn't dance better than him if I tried! Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons, CC-By-SA-2.0
It would be difficult to synchronize our dance moves if we were nonselectively perceiving everything about the audience while deciding what to do next. Left Shark, clearly, missed the memo and needs to read this mental model… although in his defense, I couldn’t dance better than him if I tried! Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons, CC-By-SA-2.0

How, then, do we decide what to notice and focus on, and what to ignore?  It isn’t a conscious process: we aren’t looking around our room and saying “oh, there’s that picture of my family that’s been on my desk forever, that’s not relevant to this project I’m working on, so I won’t look at it.  Oh hey, there’s my diploma from grad school, but that’s not relevant either…”

Obviously, it would be cumbersome and impractical to consciously filter out irrelevant information, so we do it subconsciously.  Much of that process is outside of our control, but much of it is within our control: as I go into in more detail in the schema / selective perception mental model, our existing beliefs and worldviews act as a “filter” or “lens” through which we perceive the world.  (“ Confirmation bias” is a subset of this phenomenon).

From an agency perspective, the important corollary to the above reality is that by changing our beliefs or worldviews, we can, in fact, have a much more effective perception of the world with limitedinvestment.  I’m fond of paraphrasing/quoting Dr. Judith Beck’s “ Cognitive Behavior Therapy ( CBT review + notes) to this end. The premise of cognitive behavioral therapy (an empirically-validated approach that can, in some circumstances, outperform medication for depression/anxiety and several other conditions) is that we all have “automatic thoughts” of which, Dr Beck notes, we may be:

“barely aware [… and if we’re aware of them,] you most likely accept them uncritically […] you don’t even think of questioning them.”

These automatic thoughts are, in turn, caused by deeper “core beliefs.”  Dr. Beck further notes “the quickest way to help patients feel better and behave more adaptively” is to help them build more adaptive core beliefs (i.e. modify their schema.)  Why? Because:

“once they do so, patients will tend to interpret future situations or problems in a more constructive way.”

All of this, of course, requires agency: you have to choose to abandon untrue or maladaptive beliefs, and replace them with adaptive ones, even if doing so is painful or inconvenient – and as a variety of books drive home, perhaps none more prominently than Tavris/Aronson’s Mistakes were Made (but not by me)” (MwM review + notes), this is a hard thing to do.  A very hard thing to do.  It is the sort of thing that, as Charlie Munger once said about physics,

“Another thing you have to do, of course, is to have a lot of assiduity. I like that word because it means: sit down on your ass until you do it.”

A lack of such assiduity is the most common reason, in fact, that I’ve seen people fail to apply mental models: they simply refuse to utilize their agency to choose to abandon their own existing ideology.  But as Brene Brown puts it in her book “Daring Greatly” (DG review + notes), quoting the band Rush:

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. - Rush, 'Freewill' Click To Tweet

This, of course, is the foundation of the  mental models approach; techniques that help depressed and anxious patients cope more adaptively by adopting more  useful beliefs are equally applicable to help everyone respond to external stimuli more effectively.  As Stephen Covey put it on ~page 25 of “ The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ( 7H review + notes):

we must look at the lens through which we see the world […] the lens itself shapes how we interpret the world.  […] if we wanted to change the situation, we first had to change ourselves. And to change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.”

Later in the book (~ page 78), Covey notes:

“the history of mankind and our own self-awareness tell us that this map [determinism] doesn’t describe the territory at all!


Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility [to choose your response].  They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.”  

If you want a vivid, concrete example to appeal to your salience bias: Stephen Colbert’s rise from a very challenging childhood – during which his father and two of his brothers tragically perished in a plane crash – to one of the world’s most famous comedians is in many ways attributable to this exact attitude, as he goes into extensive detail on in the (phenomenal) GQ cover story from 2015 written by Joel Lovell.

Another practical example of this, as I go into in more depth in the  probabilistic thinking /scientific thinking / counterfactuals / intellectual humility  mental model, is the idea of attempting to counteract our natural  storytelling tendency by following Darwin’s advice to observe first, judge later.  Philip Tetlock hits this in “ Superforecasting” SF review + notes):

“My sense is that some superforecasters are so well practiced in System 2 corrections – such as stepping back to take the outside view – that these techniques have become habitual.  In effect, they are now part of their System 1.”

Application/Impact: the return on investment for modifying our worldview to be more adaptiveand correct is huge; the required first step is agency: choosing to believe that we can interpret the world differently and more effectively.

Agency Inversion x HabitConditioningLearned Helplessness (Fixed Mindset) vs. Belief Behavior Matters (Growth Mindset)

Another powerful mental model that interacts with agency is habitconditioning: smart people ranging from Benjamin Franklin to the creators of Febreze have harnessed the activation energy lowering power of habit to create and reinforce desired behaviors.

Ever since Pavlov, we’ve been conditioned to associate dogs with classical conditioning. This is the taxidermy of one of Pavlov’s dogs, with a surgically implanted device to measure salivation. Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons, CC-By-SA 3.0

Habits, of course, can be good (exercise, afternoon naps) or bad (smoking).  Nor does conditioning have to be intentional to create bad habits.  The flip side of agency is a particularly gnarly condition called “learned helplessness,” created by conditioning people to believe that they have no control over their environment.

Some of the classic research on this topic was conducted by Martin Seligman before he became a pioneering positive psychologist.  His 1972 paper “Learned Helplessness” notes, unsurprisingly, that the vast majority of dogs will learn, through trial and error, to rapidly escape from a harsh negative stimulus (a painful electric shock).  

But there’s an interesting twist when you change up the experimental M.O. and repeatedly subject dogs to an inescapable negative stimulus.  Once they’ve learned they can’t escape, most stop trying, and won’t start trying again even if experimental conditions are changed such that they can escape.  Per Seligman:

in dramatic contrast to a naive dog, a typical dog which has experienced uncontrollable shocks before avoidance training soon stops running and howling and sits or lies, quietly whining, until shock terminates. The dog does not cross the barrier and escape from shock. Rather, it seems to give up and passively accepts the shock. On succeeding trials, the dog continues to fail to make escape movements and takes as much shock as the experimenter chooses to give.

Seligman goes on to note that similar results have been observed in rats, cats, fish, mice, and men.  Most psychological effects are, of course, multicausal, but learned helplessness pops up in a lot of places.  

The earlier-referenced belief-modification approaches discussed by Dr. Beck can be applied in many situations beyond a mental health context. Here, a hypothetical student replaces a core "learned helplessness" belief (a "fixed mindset" related to math skills) with a more adaptive agency-based belief... and a feedback loop of positive conditioning will help reinforce that belief over time.
The earlier-referenced belief-modification approaches discussed by Dr. Beck can be applied in many situations beyond a mental health context. Here, a hypothetical student replaces a core “learned helplessness” belief (a “fixed mindset” related to math skills) with a more adaptive agency-based “growth mindset” belief… and a feedback loop of positive conditioning will help reinforce that belief over time.

This phenomenon is not only point-in-time, but also occurs longitudinally across the course of our lives: the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” are often used to describe, respectively, learned helplessness as it regards our abilities (i.e., viewing our competency as fixed), and the belief that our behavior matters, and with effort we can improve upon our abilities.

Research on the growth mindset by psychologist Carol Dweck has revealed, for example, that equally-ranked students who believe they can improve their abilities tend to get better grades over time compared to peers who don’t hold that belief.  Those who hold a “fixed mindset” – i.e., those who believe that their talents (say, mathematical ability) are fixed and unimprovable – do not show much improvement (unsurprisingly).

Now, Dweck’s “Mindset” mndst review + notes) drinks a little too much of the egalitarian kool-aid (extrapolating unrealistic lessons such as “talent doesn’t exist / is mostly irrelevant”), seeming to miss the idea of trait adaptivity completely.  As such, in my opinion, the book isn’t worth much more than the jacket copy, but the point and her research nonetheless remains valid and hugely important.  It pops up a lot across multiple domains.

Here’s a vivid real-life example of the fixed mindset / learned helplessness at work.  In The Lonely American” (TLA review + notes), Olds/Schwartz cite a research study in which college students were put together in groups for 15 minutes then randomly assigned to be accepted or rejected by the group… then, one group is told that they’ll be alone for life and won’t have successful/lasting relationships (aww, look!  it’s my future self :P).

The experimenters (Twenge and Baumeister) found that this led to self-defeating behavior such as being “more likely to […] procrastinate […] when given the opportunity to prepare for a test.”  There was a decline in effort on cognitive tests and a state of mind that “avoids meaningful thought […] and is characterized by lethargy.”  And quitting sooner on challenging tasks.

Although Olds/Schwartz cite focus on the social exclusion angle, I view it as a clear example of learned helplessness (with potentially other factors interacting).  If you were told – with a dose of authority bias tinting your perception – that you’ll be alone for the rest of your life (with the implication being that you can’t do anything about it), that’s a pretty strong fixed-mindset, anti-agency, pro-learned helplessness framing.

Bringing it all back to where we started, one of the intriguing things about agency is that, as with most things that are mediated by our selective perception, it’s more about what we perceive than what’s real.  I haven’t even gotten into the interactions between agency and  stress – see the stress  mental model for those – but reviewing various studies about the effects of an “internal locus of control,” psychologist Shawn Achor comes to the following conclusions:

“Feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our own fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance

[…] interestingly, psychologists have found that these kinds of gains in productivity, happiness, and health have less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have

[…] the most successful people, in work and life, are those who have what psychologists call an ‘internal locus of control,’ the belief that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes.  People with an external locus, on the other hand, are more likely to see daily events as dictated by external forces. It’s easy to see why the former is more adaptive

[…] after all, if we believe nothing we do matters, we fall prey to the insidious grip of learned helplessness.”

That quote is from The Happiness Advantage” (THA review + notes), a phenomenal and compact book on agency, schema, and a plethora of other mental models.  It squares up with Laurence Gonzales’s observations in Deep Survival: quasi-paradoxically, in harsh environments where we have very limited control objectively, it’s all the more important to be captains of our own destiny.

It’s back to the self-fulfilling prophecy.  Deciding you’re going to live when you’re stranded in the middle of the ocean on a tattered raft, surrounded by sharks, certainly doesn’t make potable water fall out of the sky into your parched lips.  There is still a sizable chance that you’re not going to make it. But if you don’t believe you’ll beat the odds, you won’t have the fortitude to do so.

What’s the antidote?  Both Achor and Gonzales (generally) seem to suggest the “Serenity Prayer” approach – focus on controlling what you can control, and have a sense of equanimity towards the rest.  

Both also suggest taking small steps to reestablish control – Achor uses the example (among others) of focusing on keeping a small part of your desk clean if you feel like clutter is ruling your life; Gonzales keys in on how pilots, mariners, and others in dangerous situations calm down their amygdala using humor.  

As I discuss in more depth in the salience / vividness / availabilitymental model, Achor notes some of the cross-pollination effects oflearned helplessness: feeling a lack of control in one area can cause you to feel lack of control in other areas.  Of course, this works equally well via inversion, so if you’re facing intractable personal problems, doing well at work really can help.

Finally, both also suggest a structural problem solving approach: Achor suggests tuning out noise (news) about tragedies you can’t control or affect, while Gonzales suggests some of the underlying neuroscience behind “don’t look down.”

Application/impact: A belief in agency can be habitually reinforced via conditioning, positively or negatively.  Therefore, it’s important to avoid or mitigate exposure to stimuli that promote learned helplessness, and maximize exposure to stimuli that promote a sense of control.  Adopting a growth mindset: the idea that behavior matters, that we can improve our abilities, that setbacks are just temporary and not permanent – is an empirically-validated approach to better outcomes in all domains of life.

Agency Nonlinearity ( Dose-Dependency) x Structural Problem Solving: Why Grit is Bullshit

At this point, I’m sure many smart readers might be thinking (consciously or subconsciously) something akin to Dan Harris’s viewpoint on “positive thinking.”  As he noted in a Talk at Google with impeccable comedic timing:

“Positive thinking, there’s actually a scientific term for it … I believe the scientific term is: bullshit.  The idea that you can get anything you want […] if you just think positive thoughts all the time. It’s just demonstrably untrue.”

Similarly, Megan McArdle dryly quips in “ The Up Side of Down ( UpD review + notes),

“There’s a scientific name for people with an especially accurate perception of how talented, attractive, and popular they are – we call them ‘clinically depressed.”

One of my mentors used to quip “have fun and wear a helmet!” It’s good advice. Image attribution: State Farm via Wikimedia Commons, CC-By-SA 2.0

McArdle and Harris, it should be noted, both clearly believe in agency.  But like Shawn Achor, they too recognize the limits of agency: or, in other words, the idea that the adaptivity of our belief in agency is nonlinear: specifically, like Tylenol when you’re in pain, it’s dose-dependent.  None is bad, some is much better, too much and you may literally die.

Why?  Because, obviously, there are things we can control, and then there are things we can’t: like the physics of going through a windshield at 70 miles an hour.  And thinking we can control those things when we can’t isn’t a good idea. As Achor notes in deadpan horror in the introduction to “ Before Happiness ( BH review + notes), not wearing a seatbelt doesn’t make you an optimist: it makes you an idiot.

Similarly, Laurence Gonzales notes in “ Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes) despite his mantra of “Positive Mental Attitude” and focus on agencythat, counterintuitively, “Rambo” types are the first to go in survival situations: there’s a very Charlie Munger-like inversion phenomenon where a big part of staying alive is not doing anything stupid.  “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I never go there.”  Being a hero gets you killed.

n fact, Gonzales spends a great deal of time discussing how fatigue is a very real and very dangerous phenomenon; in survival situations, you should minimize rather than maximize your exertion.  It’s a local vs. global optimization problem: getting a little farther in the short term is completely pointless if it wears you out over the long term.

If you value your life, Gonzales specifically recommends going at “60%” of normal activity levels, encourages frequent hydration/rest, and discourages sweating – and, of course, echoes the Covey “wrong jungle” mantra.  For those who aren’t familiar, one of my favorite quotes from 7 Habits is:

“envision a group cutting their way through the jungle with machetes […] the leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “wrong jungle!”  […] as individuals, groups, and businesses, we’re often so busy cutting through the undergrowth we don’t even realize we’re in the wrong jungle.”

Covey was more spot-on than you might think: Gonzales discusses extensively how many people who are lost exert a lot of effort getting themselves more lost, which is a lollapalooza of badness: not only are you now farther away from where you should be, but you’re also more exhausted.  The first rule of holes is “stop digging” – thus, paradoxically, incremental effort or grit can actually be bad if it’s exerted in the wrong direction.

Covey also provides a fantastic analogy to pathfinding during a trip:

“If you have the right map of Chicago, then diligence becomes important, and when you encounter frustrating obstacles along the way, then attitude can make a real difference.  

But the first and most important requirement is the accuracy of the map… correct maps will infinitely impact our personal and interpersonal effectiveness far more than any amount of effort expended on changing our attitudes or behaviors.

Our attitudes and behaviors grow out of those assumptions. The way we see things is the source of the way we think and the way we act.”

So rather than blindly succumbing to activity bias, taking the time to stop and think (figuring out if you’re in the right jungle) can have a huge payoff.  Gonzales uses the acronym “SOTP” (stop, observe, think, plan) and investors/businesspeople can easily remember this as “sum of the parts” – you’ll achieve synergies and the whole will exceed the parts!

As explored by Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival, a "Rambo" tough-guy approach is profoundly maladaptive and irrational. Similar lessons translate to non-life-or-death situations: willpower should be viewed as a finite resource to be used strategically, not something to be used when the opportunity cost relative to a structural problem solving approach is high. Image attribution: @Jake Likes Onions
Willpower should be viewed as a finite resource to be used strategically, not something to be used when the opportunity cost relative to a structural problem solving approach is high. Image attribution: @Jake Likes Onions

Unfortunately, these lessons haven’t translated into popular culture.  Amidst the popularity of Crossfit and ultramarathons, America seems to be experiencing a “grit” revival, wherein “grit” is something directionally equivalent to “never quit.”  I have friends who enjoy such pastimes and have nothing against them if you do, too, but elevating them to an exalted platform of moral superiority is nonsense: if extreme exertion brings you utility, great!  Have fun (and wear a helmet.)  But it’s not the always-and-everywhere approach to life that’s most adaptive.

We’ll touch on the business angle momentarily; let’s start with a fresher one.

The ultimate “tough guy” Navy SEALs, catapulted into the spotlight by books like “Lone Sniper,” movies like “Zero Dark Thirty,” and TV shows like “SEAL Team,” became the epitome of the “grit” mindset.  Anyone who’s read about “hell week” probably comes away inspired to stop wimping out on the last rep, if nothing else.

Which is why I was astonished to learn that, as is often the case, pop culture got a few brutal things awfully wrong.  I had the privilege of meeting former SEAL Team Six operator Michael Zapata, who went on to to become a professional value investor / fund manager after the conclusion of his special forces career.  In a fascinating interview with the Manual of Ideas, Zapata noted:

“From a military side, from the special operations side: My first commander, Tim Szymanski of Seal Team 2, the first team that I was at, discussed ‘stacking the odds in our favor.’ He looked at it from a combat perspective which is (i) operationally, (ii) tactically, from our preparation, and (iii) technically, whether that is night-vision or air-assets.  

People think that special forces operations are dangerous and high risk — we didn’t see it that way.  We saw it as incredibly low risk because we stacked the odds in our favor. We used all these advantages to our benefit and I would much rather have been in our position — conducting our operations — because we de-risked a lot of it.”

The takeaway from this is that the sort of rugged man-against-the-world heroism described in books like “Fearless” is not the norm.  SEAL Team operations are supposed to be surgical and low-risk, not daring and high-risk. 

The de-risking process discussed is a perfect example of  structural problem solving: they’re trying to set themselves up for success by identifying and exploiting every advantage, rather than going mano a mano on an even playing field.  It’s perhaps less cinematic than a movie climax, but it’s certainly more effective.

Of course, it’s also worth using inversion here: how far can willpower get you?  The dropout rate during Hell Week, even among dedicated, driven young men in the peak of their physical prime, is enormous.  Similarly, any dietician or nutritionist can tell you that “cold turkey” willpower approaches fail spectacularly.

Cal Newport has a good section in “ Deep Work ( DpWk review + notes) explaining why willpower isn’t the answer:

“Your will […] is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.  This is why the [studied subjects] had such a hard time fighting desires […] the same will happen to you, regardless of your intentions, unless, that is, you’re smart about your habits.”

Similarly, in “ The Power of Habit” PoH review + notes), Charles Duhigg cites Mark Muraven, the professor doing the willpower studies:

“When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons – if they feel like it’s a choice […] it’s much less taxing.  If they feel like they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster.”

One important takeaway from this should be  local vs. global optimization – among other things, if you’re using “grit” all the time, you’re spending your whole life doing stuff you don’t want to do.  If you’re at the point where every day you get up and spend all day doing stuff you don’t want to do, then grit is pushing you farther in the wrong direction.  You are in the wrong jungle.

You need a career change or something – a life comprised of nothing but misery seems like it’s missing the point.

The concept of “ willpower depletion” is contested somewhat in the psychology literature, but I’ve generally found it adaptive to act as if willpower is a finite resource, to be used sparingly when reallyneeded, rather than as the default, brute-force problem-solving option.  If you find yourself moving a beach with your bare hands, go rent a bulldozer.

Even if it takes you all day to find one and a bunch of money to rent, it’s well-worth the  opportunity cost.  Indeed, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein spend much of “ Nudge ( Ndge review + notes) discussing the clear existence of self-control problems (ranging from our too-big diets to too-small 401(k) savings plans) and various ways to solve them structurally; as I discuss in the  hyperbolic discounting / planner-doer mental model, we vastly overestimate the extent of our willpower until it comes time to actually use it.

Indeed, even Carol Dweck – a champion of effort – notes toward the end of Mindset (Mndst review), relaying a story of a friend who tried and failed to lose weight – that she:

“isn’t sure how [relying on willpower and failing] was being strong, and how using some simple strategies was being weak […] willpower needs help.”

David Denby, formerly a film critic for the New Yorker and the author of “Great Books,” penned a wonderfully insightful essay called “The Limits of Grit” that is profoundly more thoughtful and useful than Duckworth’s book (which isn’t worth reading under any circumstances.)  Image source: Long Island Lit Fest.

And yet, perhaps thanks to the aforementioned strains of Calvinist thinking that still permeate our culture, willpower and effort are celebrated, even exalted… doing anything the “quick and easy” way, whether it’s workouts or dinner, is seen as some kind of a moral failure, even if the marginal utility of effort is close to zero (or even negative).

The epitome of this maladaptive ideology is Angela Duckworth’s “Grit,” which – as I discuss elsewhere (Grit review) – is chock-full of credulity-straining examples, seems to fall prey to selection bias, and comes to the equivalent conclusion of driving down a highway while not wearing your seatbelt. 

Research already indicates that many white-collar professionals are sleep-deprived and burning out on lack of vacations; effort is of course important, but it’s dose-dependent: more is not always better.  Grit is classic  man-with-a-hammer syndrome: Duckworth isn’t only in the wrong jungle, but she’s heading deeper into it.

The better, mental models approach is using structural problem solving techniques like tweaking activation energy to accomplish things.  A specific example is cited in the memory mental model: brute-force, willpower-based approaches to improving memory are completely maladaptiverelative to structural problem solving solutions. 

Why would I waste willpower (and time) trying to memorize things when I can spend a much tinier amount of effort getting my computer to do it much more efficiently for me, with perfect recall?

Application/Impact: while agency is phenomenally important, it’s also dose-dependent: believing you can do some things (even, maybe, a little more than you can actually do) tends to have hugely positive impacts relative to not believing you have any control at all.  Conversely, believing you can believe or will your way to any outcome is no bueno, and willpower should be treated as a finite resource to be applied strategically where it’ll have the biggest return on investment.