The habits of the mind and heart

BBC sports journalist David Coles recently published a list of the 50 greatest soccer players of all time. Along with renowned stars such as Pelé, Maradona and Cruyff, a guy named Robin Friday somehow made the cut. 

If you were to search YouTube for this extraordinary player, you would not find even a single video, much less a collection of his highlights or his best goals. There are two simple reasons for that: Friday played professional soccer from 1967 to 1977, and he never got past the Second Division.

What makes a player who never competed in the Premier League or European Cup, or any international competitions, break into the list of the 50 greatest players in history? David Coles decided to prioritize quality above all else. And that is something Robin Friday had no shortage of. As one might say, he single-handedly brought Reading up to the Third Division, then signed with Cardiff, a mediocre team in the Second Division, and made it good... then retired from the sport at age 25.

Much could be said about the life of this storied individual. Including the fact he hardly ever practiced, or showed up to many matches staggeringly drunk. Despite that, once the opening whistle blew, he was the undisputed star of the game, and his ability to withstand challenges from opponents was impressive (defenders pretty much hunted him down in an almost violent fashion). No one can say for sure what heights this prodigy would have reached if his life away from the playing field had been a bit less turbulent.

Addicted to pills from age 15 on, Robin Friday was given to all kinds of “pleasures” without any control — like so many that tragically get lost in the world of immediate gratification without weighing the possible consequences. In the case of Robin Friday, however, even more painful was the fact that he had obvious talent and the passion to match it. You could even say he had a certain degree of discipline on the field. But it seems that was not enough to make good decisions in other areas of his life.

The purpose of this article is not to explain the downfall of this promising young star. Instead, it is a story (like so many others of a similar nature) that helps support the underlying theme: self-control and discipline are not habits or mere capabilities; they require a careful, systemic approach that steers clear of explanations like “they lacked the willpower.”

“Where there is not distinction, there is confusion,” said Thomas Aquinas eight centuries ago. And this maxim always rings true: dialogue and learning cannot take place when there is a lack of clarity regarding the words and ideas that are on the table. Thus, it is a good practice to address such a problematic issue by providing clarity about self-control.

Challenges of willpower are a constant in our lives, no matter what stage we find ourselves in. They arise from the human condition itself: We never stop making decisions... or deciding that others (people, circumstances, impulses) ought to decide for us. The will is part of being human. In fact, it is responsible for one of our most distinguishing traits: we are free.

It is important to understand that the use of the will, as with the use of intelligence, is shaped throughout our lives. The decisions we make gradually configure the neural connections in our brain. Although they do not determine everything about us, we can see how a person who lets their body go has a much harder time exercising than someone who has the habit of going jogging on a somewhat regular basis. This is just one trivial example.

We have introduced a key word for understanding the decision-making process in our brain: habit. A habit is a pattern of behavior that becomes automatic when it has been repeated many times. While we all have some notion of what a habit is, we may not be aware of the magnitude of its power.

Anyone can attest to how strong a habit can become: someone who has always brushed their teeth before bedtime will know how uncomfortable it is to be on a trip and forget their toothbrush and have to wait until the next day to buy another one. They will probably go to bed feeling uneasy, as if they were missing something, and the next morning they will go right out and buy a new one.

Another important distinction is the difference between vice and virtue: both are habits, but one makes us “worse” by predisposing us to dysfunctional decision making, while the other contributes to our personal growth, to making smarter decisions. To paraphrase the previous article, one behooves us (virtue) while the other does not (vice). Here there is considerable gray area, and each one of us must reflect on the habits we have acquired to identify the ones that help and the ones that do not.

As always, the key is to expand the criteria for decision making. Decisions that only consider the short term and personal interests tend to be more dysfunctional than those that also factor in the long term and the interests of people close to us.

We can probably all remember how hard it is to develop a new habit, but we may not all realize just how much we need to do so. To understand this, we can look at the following experiment conducted at MIT in the 1990s: a mouse was hooked up to a bunch of sensors to measure its brain activity, and was then placed in a dark T-shaped enclosure. The mouse started at the base of the T, and a bar of chocolate was placed at one end of the shorter crossing section. In the first tests, the mouse took its time exploring the course, seemingly wandering aimlessly, and registered a high and continuous level of cerebral activity. Everything was new and the mouse did not always head for the corner where the chocolate was. However, when it had repeated the same exercise a number of times, the result was quite different: as soon as it was placed in the enclosure, it would head straight for the chocolate, without stopping or exploring at all. It had developed a habit, and associated entering the enclosure with finding chocolate in a particular corner.

However, the interesting part was observing the brain activity graphic: once the mouse had developed the habit, its brain only registered peaks of activity at the beginning (the scientists believed it was time that the brain was looking for the possible repeated pattern of the situation) and when it ate the chocolate (activity associated with pleasure). In between, the mouse’s brain had minimal activity.

What can we learn from this? The brain is an organ, one that consumes a relatively high amount of energy. So it constantly looks for ways to enter “energy saver” mode. This is where habits are formed. What the experiment shows is that when we activate a habit, our brain “rests” and goes on autopilot. We can illustrate this with an everyday example: every morning when we take our car from where it was parked, we do a lot of things at the same time, almost unconsciously: start the car, put it in gear or reverse, look through the rearview mirror while accelerating slightly and perhaps releasing the clutch a little, and so on. It is a series of rather complex simultaneous activities, which we concentrated on when we took the test to get our driver’s license, but we now do almost unconsciously, allowing the “unoccupied” brain to manage unforeseen occurrences on the road. That is the power of a habit, and the explanation of why it is so difficult to establish new ones and “unlearn” those that are not useful to us (or were vices from the start, that we now want to get rid of). 

Habits form when three variables come together. The first is desire, the heart, sentiment. The second is knowledge, thinking about what is best, methodology. The third is repetition, which is where self-control and willpower come into play. Without the third variable, the “energy saver” mode is not possible for the desired use.

Revisiting the story we opened the article with, we can put ourselves in the shoes of Robin Friday, and understand a little better why his passion for soccer was not enough to keep him away from drugs. The first ingredient was there, but the other two were missing: awareness of himself, his fears and his deepest desires, and therefore a lack of knowledge of how to overcome them, with nothing stable to hold onto; and when this element is missing, it precludes the third one. The actions he repeated went in the opposite direction of what would have led him to a career in soccer, a life of meaning beyond instant gratification. This is why the first, crucial step toward self-management is to gain a deeper self-awareness.

In other words, to develop or destroy ingrained habits, we need to better understand how they work, and recognize the extent to which they can enslave us. For better or for worse. We aren’t what we do; though our decisions reveal what we aspire to become. On many occasions, it boils down to being aware of what decisions we are making here and now, and what habits they lead us to. And deciding if that is the direction we really want to go, and if they are going to make us the person we really want to be.