In 1940, researchers at Harvard set out to determine what characteristics led to happier, more psychologically well-adjusted lives. In one study, 130 sophomore males were subjected to the Harvard Treadmill Test. In addition to a battery of other metrics, each subject was put on a steep, fast treadmill and told to stay on for five minutes.
The average man lasted four; some made it only a minute and a half. While level of fitness certainly accounted for some of the outcomes, what researchers were really interested in was the “extent to which a subject is willing to push himself or has a tendency to quit before the punishment becomes too severe.”
Participants were contacted every two years for interviews and took lifestyle questionnaires so researchers derived a more accurate picture of their career advancement, relationships, marriage quality, social activities, physical health, dependency on drugs and alcohol, and other indicators for psychological adjustment. Unsurprisingly, those who lasted longest on the treadmill tended to score higher. In other words, your ability to persist through a physically arduous challenge was a good predictor of future happiness.
Intuitively, this makes sense. Those pursuits that are truly gratifying in life, whether building a strong marriage, creating good financial habits, practicing balanced nutrition, finishing a triathlon, or writing a book require discipline, sacrifice, and persistence.
Successful people consistently enter temporary discomfort to achieve a greater long-term benefit. Oreo binges, Fortnite benders, and irresponsible spending sprees are all tempting, short-term pleasures, that, if done habitually, guarantee distress and while preventing more fruitful pursuits.
After 75 years the study’s director George Valliant, concluded that when taking all the factors together, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Valliant analyzed everything from the treadmill scores to athletic excellence and academic success only to conclude every factor only made sense insofar as it helped those individuals foster better relationships.
Willpower and self-mastery are essential, but you must direct them at conducive ends. For example, exercise and meditation tend to reduce stress and promote more positive, social behavior. An ability to delay the impulse to angry inflammatory response and consider other perspectives will help resolve conflicts and promote stronger relationships. Having the willpower to clean up your own messes and anticipate the needs of others will improve all relationships.
The Concept of Evaluating Your Self-Mastery
The Harvard study was not primarily concerned with testing self-mastery and willpower. This was a single prong of many indicators it examined to predict future happiness. I, on the other hand, am extremely interested in testing self-mastery.
I look at the environments and see an epidemic of health, relationships, and consciousness being shattered by an inability to delay gratification and will oneself towards fruitful action and away from the destructive. An entire generation is immersed in isolated, alienating smartphone distraction, entitled to comfort, while losing interest in topics of any depth.
We’re losing the capacity to communicate and to work towards a purposeful challenge as we are pulled to constant consumption of trash social media, trash food, and millions of material goods certain to become tomorrows trash. The only way to relationships, health, or meaningful work is to develop an ability to withstand discomfort in pursuit of greater ends and to foster self-mastery and the mindful reflection that follows.
So, how do you know if you have strong willpower? Are you self-mastered, acting as you’d logically desire regardless of emotion, or are you a pawn pulled along at the whim of your impulses? Like a muscle, willpower and self-mastery are trainable. Just as an athlete tests themselves to set goals prior to an athletic development program, we should assess our current levels of self-mastery to direct future training efforts.
In an effort to help people determine a more accurate snapshot of their current self-mastery, I’ve created the following four categories of self-mastery.
Category 1: Active Physical
“If it is important, do it everyday.”
Definition: The ability to will yourself into physical discomfort for a greater end like health or protecting others.
- Daily Utility: In your busy schedule exercise only fits first thing in the morning. There is a great contrast between that warm, cozy bed and today’s planned gut check. Yet you know, you’ll feel empowered and vitalized all day because of this workout. Furthermore, you know that this habit is the cornerstone that all your productive habits lie upon. You go.
- Daily Utility 2: Your wife and her friends have organized a town fall festival, but it is slammed by a torrential downpour. With no one else acting, it’s up to you to help run into the rain to retrieve anything that can’t survive the storm. Smile and run. She’ll always remember how you came through for her.
Active Physical Test: 1-Arm Kettlebell Swing Test
Unfortunately, this only works for people who are very safe in their kettlebell swing form. Pick up the test size kettlebell and continuously do 1-arm swings. You may switch hands by transferring in the air, as often as you like, but you cannot put the bell down or interrupt the continuous swing pattern by holding it in place.
- Women’s test bell – 16kg
- Men’s test bell – 24kg
- 200+ swings – You are Dan Gable/Ronda Rousey tough.
- 150-199 swings – Jocko Willink/GI Jane tough (As Willink will attest, throughout SEAL training he was never first, but always close, regardless of criteria.)
- 100-149 – High school varsity.
- 75-100 – Paris from the Illiad. You’d like to be tough, but you need your big brother to do the dirty work.
- 74 and below – We’re heading towards the Wall-E future.
Test for non-kettlebellers – The Airdyne or Assault Bike Test
Jump on an assault bike and pedal as hard as possible for 5 minutes. Your goal is to get the calorie gage as high as possible.
- 100+ calories – You are also Dan Gable/Ronda Rousey tough.
- 85-99 calories – Jocko Willink/GI Jane tough.
- 75-84 calories – High school varsity.
- 60-74 calories – Paris from the Illiad.
- 59 and below – Again, we’re heading towards the Wall-E future.
How to Improve:
Category 2: Active Mental
“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
Definition: The ability to focus and persist through mental work, despite complexity, monotony, or scope.
- Daily Utility: This is the skill necessary for every task and skill you’ve ever come across, from college studies to learning to cook, to read that book, to mastering a new language. Learning makes the world more vivid and interesting, but it isn’t always easy.
Active Mental Test: Do Einstein’s Riddle
Start a timer and work through Einstein’s riddle. It is fine to stop and re-start later if you can’t find time to finish in one sitting, but whenever the timer is running, you should be working on the riddle and nothing else. No matter what, after one week, the challenge is over.
- You confidently solve the riddle, no guessing – You have Einstein tenacity.
- You work for 4 or more hours – Marie Curie persistent.
- 2 or 3 hours – Honor roll.
- 1 hour-1:45 – Let me guess. It wasn’t your fault. Your teachers just didn’t like you.
- Less than an hour – Johnny Manziel.
How to Improve:
“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will.”
Definition: The ability to endure a physical nuisance for a greater end like patience or protection.
- Daily Utility: It is freezing outside for the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot. Your wife and child are miserable waiting for the race to begin. You give your wife your warm gloves and wrap your child in your jacket like a blanket. They are now primed to enjoy the Trot and you are now freezing. Don’t let it ruin your fun.
Passive Physical Test: Intermittent Fasting
The test: How many days in a row can you intermittent fast for 17 hours? That means once you finish dinner, no eating or drinking anything but water, tea, or coffee for the next 17 hours. That nagging hunger is just the whining of a petulant child. Ignore it.
- 7 days – You have Gandhi Temperance.
- 4-6 days – On the level of US citizens in 1942. They all sacrificed.
- 2-3 days – You wouldn’t have eaten the marshmallow.
- 1 day – The New Year’s Resolution Dieter. You are awesome, for a day.
- You couldn’t do day 1 – Cookie Monster. Time to grow up.
How to Improve:
- Pick a fasting day and begin extending your time between dinner and the next meal by 30 minutes until you reach 17 hours. At that point, begin doing a weekly 17-hour fast. Or take a three-minute cold shower three days per week.
“To know the mind is to know oneself. To know oneself is to discover a place of quiet confidence within. To know this confidence is to be able to fearlessly express our potential in life.”
Definition: The ability to endure mental agitation.
- Daily Utility: You wake to find your dog threw up everywhere. The day’s chaos continues with a very rough day at work. Leaving late, you rush to pick up your kid from daycare. It takes longer than you’d like and the next thing you know you are stuck in a 45-minute traffic jam. Your two-year-old little boy is making spastic, loud noises just for fun. Do you let your blood boil over into toxicity or find a way to feel joy?
Passive Mental Test: Meditate
Clear a two hour (120 minutes) block of time. Go somewhere quiet and where you won’t be interrupted. Turn off your phone, close your eyes, and follow your breath. Every time you notice that your thoughts have wandered, let go of thinking and return your attention to the breath. Your goal is not to engage in an internal dialogue. If you can’t make the entire 120 minutes in a day, just count the minutes that you were able to sit in silence.
- 120 minutes – You have the mental fortitude of Sapiens author, Yuval Noah Harari, and Weezer lead singer, Rivers Cuomo. They do 2 hours, every day.
- 90-119 minutes – Novak Djokovic level focus.
- 60-89 minutes – ABC news crew solid. That’s right George Stephanopoulos, Robin Roberts, Dan Harris, and Elizabeth Vargas are all daily meditators.
- 30-59 minutes – Feeling a little FOMO?
- 29 minutes or less – Puppy focus.
How to Improve:
- Meditation is seriously hard. I’ve not encountered a better method of changing perception and training the mental discipline that precedes physical discipline. It is not a magic bullet, but daily meditators have a mastery of their emotions that few can rival. That is why I’ve called it the essential antidote to 21st-century norms. Start with 5 or 10 minutes a day.
Give the Tests a Try
For those of you with high-schoolers and young adults, I encourage you to try some of these tests with them. I’m confident they are a much better indicator of future success than the standardized tests common today.
Rather than only looking at active-physical self-mastery, like the treadmill test, this battery of tests creates a broad, multi-dimensional snapshot of your current self-mastery in four different domains. It is hard to account for natural talent or prior training. For example, a less resilient kid forced to do high school track might do better on the Airdyne test than a scrappy high-achiever coming off an ankle injury. Still, by looking at your current self-mastery levels from four different angles, you’ll be best able to apply strategies that develop your weaknesses.
Your Environment Plays a Role
It is important to remember that environment is crucial. We would all exercise more discipline at marine boot camp than at a vacation resort. Take the time to eliminate temptations and consider enlisting friends in any change efforts. Shaping your environment to promote success, can be the difference. Still, we can’t always depend on an optimal environment.
Remember that our environment has normalized extreme impulsivity. Relationships matter, but I’d suggest seeking quality of relationships rather than Facebook friend quantity. In an environment that will often pull you towards the opposite of your desired action, you must take the time to train willpower and self-mastery. For more direction, consider my Willpower and Resilience course.