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How often do you rely on your willpower?

Today is May 30 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you rely on your willpower?” Those who navigate the chaos understand the difference between relying on their will power and the false premise of willing something to happen. You cannot will something to happen. You have to leverage your willpower to help you through the years of hard work required to translate one dream after another into reality. Czechoslovak long-distance runner Emil Zátopek and African-American mathematician Gladys West relied on their willpower.

Zátopek noted “If one can stick to the training throughout the many long years, then willpower is no longer a problem. It's raining? That doesn't matter. I am tired? That's beside the point. It's simply that I just have to.” Zátopek was best known for winning three gold medals at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. In 1954, Zátopek was the first runner to break the 29-minute barrier in the 10,000 meters. Three years earlier in 1951, he had broken the hour for running 20 km. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest runners of the 20th century and was also known for his brutally tough training methods.

In February 2013, Runner's World Magazine selected him as the Greatest Runner of All Time. He redefined the boundaries of human endurance. His training sessions defied belief as he performed many in Army boots, in snow, in sand, in darkness – even, some said, with his wife on his back. His toughness was matched by a spirit of generous friendship that transcended nationality and politics in the darkest days of the Cold War. His warm heart and eccentric joie de vivre charmed the world. He dropped one of his gold medals in a swimming pool; another, famously, he gave away.

A hero in his native country, Zátopek was an influential figure in the Communist Party. However, he supported the party's democratic wing, and after the 1968 Prague Spring, he was stripped of his rank and expelled from the army and the party, removed from all important positions, and forced to work in a string of inferior and dangerous positions. The Communist Party drove him into lonely obscurity after he stood up for “socialism with a human face.” On 9 March 1990, Zátopek was rehabilitated by Václav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia.

Through willpower Zátopek won five Olympic medals, set 18 world records, redefined the limits of human endurance and became a global byword for sportsmanship and generosity. To set those world records and test the limits of human endurance he would run in heavy boots, hold his breath until he passed out, and wear three tracksuits at once while running through deep snow. For Zátopek “Pain is a merciful thing – if it lasts without interruption, it dulls itself.” That was the secret of his success as a runner: he trained himself to be tough in mind as well as body. “When a person trains once, nothing happens,” he said. “When a person forces himself to do a thing a hundred or a thousand times, he develops in ways more than physical.” As his biographer Richard Askwith noted “There really was a poor carpenter’s son from Moravia, with no special athletic talent, who built himself up through sheer hard work and inventiveness to be the most famous athlete the world had seen.”

Gladys West is another example of someone who leveraged will power to navigate the chaos and in so doing made a lasting contribution to our world with the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS). West was born as Gladys Mae Brown in Sutherland, Virginia, in Dinwiddie County, a rural county south of Richmond. Her family was an African American farming family in a community of sharecroppers. Her mother worked at a tobacco factory, and her father was a farmer who also worked for the railroad.

West realized early on that she did not want to work in the tobacco fields or factories like the rest of her family and decided that education would be her way out. At West's high school, the top two students of each graduating class received full-ride scholarships to Virginia State College (now formally University), a historically black public university. West worked hard and graduated in 1948 with the title of valedictorian.

After graduating West taught science and math in Waverly, VA for two years before returning to VSU for her Master’s degree in Mathematics, which she received in 1955. The following year, West was hired as a mathematician at the Naval Proving Ground where she analyzed satellite data. She was one of only four African American employees at the time. During her four-decade long career at the Naval Proving Ground, West used information from satellites to refine an increasingly detailed and accurate mathematical model of the actual shape of the earth – called a “geoid”. This computational modeling would prove essential to modern GPS, as the technology relies on this mathematical model to determine the position of a receiver.

West retired in 1998, after 42 years at Dahlgren, but refused to slow down – despite suffering a stroke five months after retiring. She used her willpower to regain her strength and mobility by taking classes at a local YMCA with her husband, motivated by a big goal: to finish the PhD program in Public Administration, which she received from Virginia Tech in 2018. Reflecting upon her career West noted "I strived hard to be tough and hang in there the best I could."

  • How often do you strive to be tough and hand in there the best you can?

  • How often do you remind yourself to leverage your mind, body, and spirit?

  • How often do you rely on your willpower?

  • How often do you push through being tired in order to translate one dream after another into reality?

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