The Difference Between Willingness and Capability
In the religious tradition I grew up in (and in society as a whole), there was and is a strong focus on the will.
The phrase that best embodies the idea of the will is “Just do it.”
Nike — just do it.
Nancy Reagan — Just say no.
It’s quick, simple, and has the appearance of common sense.
“I’m really struggling to stop drinking.” “Well, it’s important, isn’t it? Just do it.”
“I’m starting to have serious questions about God and faith.” “Just keep believing. Belief is a choice. Just do it.”
“I know I should be nicer to my wife and kids but it seems like no matter how hard I try, stupid and hurtful things keep coming out of my mouth.” “You don’t want to be a jerk, do you? Just be nice.”
But it’s not common sense at all. The fact is, there are many things we need to do, and many we need to stop doing, that we just aren’t capable of doing or stopping.
No less a figure than Jesus Christ himself seems to have acknowledged the gap between willingness and capability when he made a difficult request of his friends and commented, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41). In other words, our willingness often isn’t the problem — it’s our capability. There are things we want to do and be, but we’re not capable of doing or being them.
So what would it mean if pastors, parents, teachers,bosses, and all authority figures focused not on will, but on capability? What if it wasn’t about just “doing it,” but about becoming a certain kind of person who is capable of doing it?
Coaches know this instinctively. Coaches realize that their teams will often be full of people willing to score touchdowns, 3-point shots, and home runs. But they also realize the difference between being willing to do those things, and actually being capable of doing them. A coach’s job is to take willing people and gradually turn them into capable people. Coaches also realize that out of the 20 people on their team who are willing to do great things, they are lucky to find a handful who are willing to become capable of actually doing them.
Because no matter how willing you are, you will get nowhere if you lack capability.
We understand this when applied to coaching, but no so much when applied to kindness, to empathy, to compassion, to love, to a sense of justice, to faithfulness, to loyalty, dedication, and virtue. We just think people should “do” these things. But many people are willing to be kind, empathetic, compassionate, loving, etc., but are simply not capable of doing so at the level they aspire to.
Because they are bad people?
That’s almost never the reason.
It’s because the number of people willing to do something will always be a lot bigger than the number of people actually capable of doing it.
That’s why good therapists tend to focus much more on capability than on will. A therapist’s goal is not to “get” someone to do something they need to do, but to help them decide what they need to do, then help them actually become capable of doing that thing. We realize the issue is usually capability, not unwillingness. Of course there are also times when the issue is unwillingness and, when that’s the case, capability is moot.
This approach doesn’t make us weak or soft. It comes from our hard-won study and understanding of human behavior and emotions. There are some small things I can just ask you to start doing and you can do them right away. But the most important changes we need to make in our lives usually aren’t just things we can start doing in an instant — they are things that will require us to cultivate capability.
When people say counseling is useless because we all just need to suck it up and do what we need to do, they simply don’t get it. They think, “That’s what I’ve always done — suck it up.” Of course in that moment, they are taking stock only of a few things they’ve been capable of doing, not the plethora of things they’ve been willing but not able to do.
If a client comes into my office and tells me he has committed two felonies and if he commits one more he’ll go to prison for life, and he’s scared to death that he might commit that third crime, I don’t assume that he’s not willing to be a law-abiding citizen (if the issue were that he’s not willing, he probably wouldn’t be in my office to begin with). I assume that, for many possible reasons, he has simply never cultivated the capability of being the person he is willing to be. The question for him isn’t how can he not break the law, but rather how can he become the kind of person who is capable of abiding by it.
That ex-con, like you and me and everyone else, is led primarily by his feelings. That ex-con, like you and me and everyone else, usually does not do what he knows he should do, but what he feels he wants to do. That’s why it’s critical that what you should do and what you want to do line up as much as possible.
So what would it take for that ex-con to be capable of resisting the quick and easy money that comes with crime?
I’ll tell you what wouldn’t work. Someone telling him “Just obey the law. Just do it.” Willingness isn’t the issue, capability is.
The ex-con would have to change his relationship to society and the legal system and himself. He’d have to see deeply into the person he has become and develop a powerful distaste for that way of living and being. He’d have to see how his life of crime has diminished him in his own eyes and the eyes of society and people he loves. He’d have to come to desire to be a law-abiding citizen more deeply than taking the easy path.
And whether it’s the law, relationships, sex, religion, virtue, or anything else, becoming capable of doing, or capable of resisting, takes time. It’s a process, not an event. It requires investment and hard work. It’s a journey full of stops and starts. One I’ve been on all my life. One we’re never meant to get off.
What do you want (will) to do but are apparently not capable of doing?
What do you want (will) to resist, that you’re struggling to become capable of resisting?
How can you focus less on doing or not doing things and more on becoming capable?
What lack of capabilities have you most tended to judge in other people?