The Problem of Self-Control

By Leo Gura - June 28, 2013 | 2 Comments

Learn what personal development really is, and why self-control is inherently challenging for any organism found in nature — especially your brain.

Big Ideas

This is a philosophical post about what is really happening to you on a deep level when you engage in self-development, and the analogue between you and other organisms found in nature, like the American government.

Ultimately, personal development is the process of making yourself more stable by building additional layers of self-regulation into your brain. This is done through self-reflection, acquisition of knowledge, building new habits, and training up your pre-frontal cortex.

Self-regulation is inherently challenging because no system in nature can appeal to an “outside authority.” All governance — whether it be American public policy or getting your lazy ass to the gym — is self-governance. Too often we fail to appreciate this fact.

What You Really Are

I don’t want to go into a lengthy explanation of entropy, but to sum it up: you — and all of life — are fighting a battle against the forces of chaos that you ultimately cannot win.

Moreover, you are not you. You are human being. And at the big-picture level a human being is a vast, extremely complex network of tiny organisms trying to maintain stability: stable body temperature and weight, stable chemical reactions necessary for life, and stable behavior.

The human body is composed of about 100 trillion cells. Think about this! Your body is a highly organized network of living entities — cells, organs, and sub-systems — that need to preserve a delicate and fragile balance in order to survive. Yet at the same time each of those parts is selfish. Each of those parts has its own agenda. Each of those parts only cares about preserving itself.

The human brain is composed of about 100 billion neurons. With each neuron forming 20,000 connections on average, your brain is a network of 100 trillion connections. This is orders of magnitude more complex than the entire internet, which is only about 20 billion web pages with 10 links per page on average.

You are not you. The neurons in your brain make all sorts of connections, sub-structures, and channels that produce the “you” we like to talk about. But this “you” doesn’t really exist. There is constant war being wagged in your mind by various neural networks that want to dominate over others. How well your brain is able to manage this complex opposition of forces determines how much happiness and success you experience in life.

Why Care About Stability?

Stability is the defining characteristic between being successful or being a failure, between living a happy life or living a miserable life.

All the great things that you want to feel and have in your life are made possible by cultivating a certain inner psychological stability. Whether you want to hold down a high-paying job, run a business, own a beautiful 5-bedroom house in the suburbs, travel the world, settle down with your soul-mate and raise a family, contribute to society, stay in shape, or retire as a meditating hermit on a mountaintop, all of these things require a stable mind to achieve.

But there’s more! How many stories have you heard, or people do you know of, who, despite having achieved the things above, still felt miserable and unhappy?

As you mature you notice more and more that a certain degree of self-governance is required to truly be happy in life. Mental stability is synonymous with happiness. The better you are able to control yourself, the better you are able to control the world around you to get what you want. Lacking this, you make poor decisions, succumb to addictions, develop neuroses, and lose anything great that you happen to accumulate, whether it be tangible things like money or abstract things like mental focus.

The art of success — and personal development — is the art of balancing a pencil straight on its tip.

Your Internal Governance Hierarchy

Self-governance for a complex, moving system is a tricky thing. Forces must oppose each other in just the right amounts to keep everything even. Feedback loops must be in place to ensure that no one part can dominate the whole.

Think of your mind as being formed of various networks of neurons that create behavior patterns. You might have one network in your brain that causes you to over eat, another network that allows you to drive your car, another network that keeps you going to the gym, and another network that makes you say “I love you” to your spouse.

These networks, taken together, form the bulk of who you are. There is not magical “who” inside of you. Who you are is just the collection of all the behaviors that you play out every second of your life.

For sake of simplicity there are two types of people in the world: 1) a typical, undeveloped person stuck in low-consciousness thinking, and 2) a developed, self-actualized person engaged in high-consciousness thinking.

The undeveloped person triggers his neural networks automatically — without much reflecting — just like an animal. This may sound mean or derogatory, but he in fact acts very animal-like. He can be successful and happy, but this is mostly as matter of accident because his behaviors tend to rule him. This person finds it very difficult to break out of existing patterns, even if they are self-destructive. This person tends to be at the effect of life.

To achieve, you need thought. You have to know what you are doing and that’s real power.

— Ayn Rand

On the other hand there is the self-actualized person. He triggers the same behavior networks, but with added awareness. The developed person has additional “management” layers of neural networks in place that modulate the firing of the lower networks. As a result, he is master of himself and his environment. His behaviors and emotions are more consistent and auto-correcting, which tends to produce lasting success and happiness.

Think of your brain’s neural networks as low-level employees within a company. Employees are good at executing specific tasks but need oversight and management for a company to thrive. A certain harmony and coordination is necessary between all employees in a company to produce good product. Lacking this, the company is dysfunctional.

Just like a company needs management to unify diverse agendas and keep people in line, so does your brain. The more additional layers of management networks you build in your brain the better your results in life will be. The pursuit of personal development is the building of these management networks.

No Appeal to Outside Authority

The trick, of course, is figuring out who will run the show. Who’s the boss? Who’s the CEO? Who’s the Big Kahuna? Who’s in control of you?

The really interesting question is, How can one part of the hierarchy control the rest? Where does it get its authority? And even if one part can exercise perfect control over the others, how can it properly control itself?

Sadly, there is no clean answer. Balance is war. There needs to be a certain amount of collision and opposition for things to resolve themselves. This is as true in the case of your mind as it in the case of corporate management or American government — which I’ll talk about shortly.

Good vs Bad Management

To me, personal development boils down to how well your brain is able to mediate between the various waring parts within itself. A self-actualized brain is a master negotiator, able to find common ground and integrate all parts fully, which minimizes violence. An undeveloped brain is an inept negotiator, unable to reign in all the parts, which generates violence.

The choice, then, is to develop self-mastery or be tugged by whims, desires, and pains, like a marionette.

Whether the hierarchy model I’m proposing here is grounded in biological fact is not especially important. But if you examine your own behavior (may take a while) you will notice that some sort of hierarchy like this exists within you. You will also notice that there is no master “you” — no Big Kahuna running the show — and that this is necessarily so. Appealing to a Big Kahuna would beg the question. That is, how would the Big Kahuna manage itself?

Why Corporations Rule American Public Policy

There is a striking isomorphism between governing a country and governing oneself. The fundamental problems are the same.

Watching American presidential elections I can’t help but lament the state of American politics. Nothing seems to progress. One election cycle the Republicans are in power. They stay in power a few terms until they fuck up badly enough that people get fed up and replace them with Democrats. Then the Democrats stay in power a few terms until they fuck up badly enough that people replace them with Republicans. And amidst this back-and-forth corporate influence runs amok.

All of this is wearying to those of us who want a government for the people, by the people — not in word, but in action. We want a government that evolves and improves every year: more freedom and rights, better policy, better public programs, better infrastructure, more efficiency, more stability, etc.

So why can’t we have what we want? Why is government not doing more to look out for the individual? Why do things seem stagnant? Why do corporations have so much sway? Why is policy not progressing?

Sometimes I tend to say to myself, “It sucks that corporations influence public policy to the detriment of individuals. Why can’t government work strictly for individuals and why is there so much corruption and back-room deals?”

As much as I wish that certain progressive issues, like gay-rights, were adopted by government long ago, this kind of reasoning is ultimately naive because it fails to appreciate the inherent challenges of governance.

This view fails to acknowledge government for what it really is — a vast, complex organism struggling to self-regulate, just like the brain!

My relationship to power and authority is that I’m all for it. People need somebody to watch over them. Ninety-five percent of the people in the world need to be told what to do and how to behave.

— Arnold Schwarzenegger

The US government is actually a collection of 300 million citizens who vote individually, but who also create hierarchies like families, corporations, special interest groups, political parties, and armies. These hierarchies complicate the issue by creating new organizations that have their own agendas and seek to survive no less than individual human beings.

Corporations are living beings within American society. Corporations have survival needs and corporations use money to promote their own survival. In this case, power comes from money — money that can be used to influence and downright dominate.

From this perspective I’m actually quite amazed that we’ve come as far as we have.

From Dictatorships to Democracies

Any student of history can see the long-term trend of governments to evolve from dictatorships to democracies. Why? Because dictatorships are ultimately unstable.

The ineptness of American politics is actually a sign of its advancement. American government has become ultra-stable — and this is a very good thing despite what we tend to think during the election cycle.

Think about the alternative. Think about unstable regimes in the Middle East, Africa, or South America. These governments don’t foster optimally thriving societies because they are too erratic — often unable to guarantee human rights, water, food, shelter, currency, education, or basic public services. They also tend to self-destruct.

What good fortune, for those in power, that people do not think.

— Adolf Hitler

In an undeveloped society, elements exert forces on each other and vie for power, often violently. In a developed society, the same elements vie for power, but are moderated by higher-level structures which increase stability and reduce collateral damage. In this way a violent coupe is transformed into a civil debate.

Power in government is made up of forces coming from within, not without. Despite appeals to the Constitution, there is no external, objective authority that grants government power. The Constitution is meaningful only in so far as it is believed and enforced through physical force. The faith we place in the Constitution today is really made possible by a long history of violence, and the fact that right now, forces within our society are well-balanced.

All enforcement ultimately comes from physical force, yet this doesn’t mean that all governments must be violent. In fact, as a government matures it tends to stabilize and use higher-order forms of enforcement — like appeal to the Constitution. This luxury has been won through violence at some point in the past.

Successful governments tend to be stable, democratic, and peaceful while unsuccessful governments tend to be unstable, dictatorial, and violent.

It’s interesting how exactly the same can be said of human beings. Angry, violent people are generally associated with immaturity. Intelligent, calm people are generally associated with maturity. It’s also hard to see violent people as generally success or happy.

Hard-Won Stability

Stability seems to be the common thread between successful and happy governments, and successful and happy people. But, stability tends to be hard-won.

Think about the parts of your life that are now stable. What kind of struggle did you have to go through to attain stability? Was there an argument with a friend, family-member, or co-worker? Was there a descent into substance abuse? Were you scammed? Did you get fired from work? Did you declare bankruptcy? Did you gain 60 pounds? Did you get cheated on?

In life, stability comes as a by-product of struggle. Violence and disorder is a feedback loop. Too much violence creates an awareness of its heavy costs, leading to mediation via some kind of new structure. Quite simply, when you become sick of hitting your head against the wall, you buckle down and put a mechanism in place to ensure it never happens again. This is ultimately how governments and human beings grow.

Bottom Line: Self-control is inherently challenging because there can be no appeal to outside authority. It is also the secret to lasting success, and the aim of personal development.

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karo says:

Hi Leo,

this video seems to get stuck. All the other ones work perfectly so was wondering if there is an issue?

Sara says:

Such a funny video compared to the new ones. You have really grown!!

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