Self-mastery through self-slavery: obedience versus willpower

There are a lot of people who, when faced with a tough task, say to themselves “If only I had more willpower”.

We tend to view willpower as the force within us that pushes us to turn our thoughts into realities; literally as the power to enact our will upon the universe. We associate it with strong motivation and discipline, authority and high status. The best politicians seem to have good willpower. So do doctors, lawyers, bodybuilders, and anyone else in a career that requires hard work even just to reach a minimum standard.

Willpower, we imagine, is what ex-drug addicts use to finally kick their habits, what struggling actors need to make it big, what keeps endurance athletes going when others are forced to stop.

But what if I told you that it is willpower that stops us, that keeps us struggling and reverting to our old damaging habits time and time again?

The Past Self vs. The Current Self vs. The Future Self

Let’s say that you want to, for the first time, start running regularly. It’s Monday, and you’re busy, so you decide to wait until Wednesday when you have the afternoon off. For all of Monday and Tuesday, you feel good about your decision to start running on Wednesday. But when the time comes to leave the house, it’s cold, it’s raining, and you slept badly the night before. You post-pone your run until Friday, hoping for better conditions, but by then something else comes up and in the end you never even lace up your trainers.

Everyone has had an experience like this at some point.

When we make any decision about the future, our current self is essentially giving a command to our future self. When we decide to make a positive change, we get a good feeling inside.This is because our current self is playing the role of “master”. We are demanding something for which we expect to receive future reward, and right now we don’t have to give anything in return.

But when it comes to acting out something in the present, we suddenly find ourselves in the position of “slave” – forced to obey the commands of our tyrannical past selves, who have given nothing while demanding everything. Naturally, we much prefer the role of “master” to that of “slave”, and because taking back control is simply a case of not doing whatever unpleasant task we’d promised for ourselves, we almost always take the easier option.

That is, unless, we decide, against the wishes of our current self, to obey instead.


In order to choose to obey a demand from your past self, you must overcome the willpower of your current self. Your current self does not want to be uncomfortable. Your current self wants immediate gratification, because it can not benefit from the gratification of the future or the past self. Your current self is jealous of the pleasures of your past self, and wants to take it for its own.

And when the strength of your willpower overcomes your power to obey, you quit, you stop, you fail.


Military training almost everywhere in the world has one common trait: it teaches obedience, not willpower. In fact, initial training often involves techniques designed to break willpower, not build it. This is because the military needs people who will not only obey their superiors, but who will also obey themselves. They need people who can face tough tasks without quitting, who are comfortable with delayed gratification, and who have the greatest chance of success in the worst of conditions.

There are parallels in the civilian world too. A popular workplace motif is “working your way from the bottom to the top”. The idea is that by initially working for others, you will eventually have others working for you.

Self-mastery through self-slavery

Anybody can act out the role of “master” of themselves. It’s simply a matter of letting the current self take control; of doing exactly what you want in the present moment and getting immediate gratification in return. But self-mastery is something different. Self-mastery means mastery of the current self. It means overcoming your own willpower in the present to obey the demands of your past, even if it means a little short-term discomfort. It means saying, “I know that I don’t want to do this now, but I must submit to the wishes of my past self”.

This sentence is a little strange, but it’s implications are true: by working for your past self, you’ll have your past self working for you.


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