Willpower: Part 4 of the Power Grid Series

The fourth source in the power grid of successful organizations is willpower. Willpower is a synonym for stamina, perseverance, digging deep, staying the course. People who have it never give up, never give in, never give out. Similar to the Altoids slogan, these folks are curiously strong.

Author Katie Morton believes willpower is a learned skill. “I allocated two years to researching the topic of willpower in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. I discovered that willpower, a quality I thought was reserved for a certain set of people, can be learned.”

She goes on to explain that people with willpower solve problems instead of giving up, take full responsibility for their actions and habits and are willing to pay the price. “People with extraordinary willpower look objectively at other people’s success, admire the hard work that went into it and use that as inspiration.”

While “willpower” brings lot of historical figures to mind, no one has tapped into this power source better perhaps than George Washington Carver. Carver was born a slave on a farm in Missouri – not the most promising of beginnings, but Carver wasn’t one to be held back. At the end of the Civil War, he applied and was rejected from college in Kansas. But while living in Iowa, Carver met John and Helen Milholland, who befriended him and encouraged his ambitions. They pushed him to attend Simpson College and assisted him throughout the application process. From a life of bondage in Missouri to a newfound freedom in Iowa, Carver was tapping into willpower every step of his way.

After graduating from Simpson, Carver enrolled in the Tuskegee Institute where he would further his education and eventually go on to lead the agricultural science department. Over the next four decades, Carver reimagined what was possible for agriculture, inventing new uses for conventional crops and helping poor families take care of themselves. By the time he retired, Carver had developed almost 300 new products out of sweet potatoes, soybeans and peanuts — everything from laundry soap to cooking oil. It was a far cry from where his story started.

A little before Carver, another American legend was relying on willpower to gain an audience for his words.

It has been called the first soundings of a truly American literary voice, but the initial publication of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” on July 4 of 1855 was not auspicious. As Michael Inman, the Curator of Rare Books at the New York Public Library, concludes, “it was anything but a success.”

Inman underscores that it was Whitman’s dogged determination that made “Leaves of Grass” the national treasure it is today. “Relatively few of the first edition’s 795 copies sold. It was, perhaps, too different. The language too coarse or idiomatic, the structure too unusual, the subject matter at times too sensual.”

But Whitman was not a man to be stopped. “Undeterred,” Inman goes on to explain, “Whitman continued to seek an audience, enlarging, reordering and redesigning the volume for subsequent edition that appeared in 1856. When it, too, failed to capture the public’s imagination, he stayed the course, bolstered by the attention of certain perceptive writers such as Emerson, who privately, but not always publicly, lauded Whitman’s creation.”

Two very different stories. One shared source of inner strength. Willpower is a quintessentially American idea, which both Carver and Whitman embodied so well.

In the words of Mr. Whitman, “what cities the light or warmth penetrates, I penetrate those cities myself. All islands to which birds wing their way, I wing my way myself.”


To learn about the other sources of power that successful companies tap into, read Glen’s pieces on brainpower,  horsepower, and power of the heart