William James and The Will To Believe

William James

You may not know who William James is but you have certainly heard of the field that he helped develop.


Today he is remembered as a philosopher, psychologist and the first educator to offer a Psychology course in the United States. He has even been labeled the “Father of American psychology”.

To me he began as an directionless and privileged intellectual who was punished with painful physical ailments. He also suffered from depression and anxiety that was severe enough for him to contemplate suicide.

As American Heritage describes:

He hated the “tedious egotism” of sickness and solitude, and his natural bent was toward activity—and not simply the normal kind, but exuberant activity. 

American Heritage

Exuberant activity might be an understatement.

William James was a Cosmopolitan who spoke German and French. He started out as a painter and eventually earned his Medical Doctor degree from Harvard Medical School. Between being a painter to getting his degree he managed to almost kill himself with small pox on an aborted expedition up the Amazon River and suffered from debilitating illness.

On top of everything, despite having his Medical Degree, James still had not found a vocation.

Then came a turning point.

Inspired by French philosopher Charles Renouvier, James began an experiment that would change his life. In his diary he described it as the following:

I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.

The Thought and Character of William James

In other words, for one year he would he assume full responsibility of his thoughts and by extension his actions and circumstances. That the bedrock of his new mentality would be that he would believe in his own ability to change the circumstances of his personal life and his career.

William James would continue to suffer from physical ailments the rest of his life.

He would also marry, receive widespread acclaim for his book The Principles of Psychology (1890), become a founder of functional psychology, and a few of his students would include: Theodore Roosevelt and Dr. W.E.B. Dubois.

Both of whom made lasting contributions to American History, the least of all which were a succinct piece of advice and a Last Message to The World.

The first comes from Theodore Roosevelt–the iconic President of The United States.

To my ears, this echoes William James’ own words:

Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.

William James

As does the last words of the civil rights activist W.E.B. Dubois. Words that belonged to a letter that Dubois wrote on June 26, 1957 which was instructed to be opened after his death.

The experiment that James performed was a turning point in his life. A turning point that I was able to find because of the very field that James helped establish in America.

Discovering the story of William James after reaching this point in my life only confirmed the importance of what his experiment can teach us.

First that, you can choose to sustain a thought and mentality even when there is no reason to do so. That we can hold on to our belief and our confidence in ourselves despite what others might think. This is the fundamental mantra of entrepreneurs, artists, and innovators.

It is also why Navy Seals are expected to fully believe that they have the ability and will to complete their mission. As Howard E. Wasdin and Stephen Templin noted in their book SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy Seal Sniper :

In psychology this belief is called self-efficacy. Even when the mission seems impossible, it is the strength of our belief that makes success possible.

Which leaves us with one final thing we can learn from William James. Something that Mark Manson very succinctly summarizes in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck:

Who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for.

Mark Manson

Struggle is the currency if you want to be happy, successful, and your personal best. It’s difficult because it isn’t as simple as just spending a lot of time in it. To do your absolute best you have to practice purposefully and be prepared to fail again and again.

Most difficult of all in order to do your best, you have to love the struggle more than the reward. You have to love struggling at the gym if you want to be a world class body builder. You have to love solving puzzles if you want to be an amazing programmer, and you have to love painting for hours if you want to be an artist.

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