How to Build Willpower: David Blaine on the Greatest Human Strength

It is November of 2000 and thousands of spectators are gathered around a glorified ice cube in Times Square, New York. Many more are watching live on television. Though it was an unseasonably warm day, one man was particularly cold.  David Blaine is an “endurance artist,” known for stunts like burying himself alive for seven […]

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It is November of 2000 and thousands of spectators are gathered around a glorified ice cube in Times Square, New York. Many more are watching live on television. Though it was an unseasonably warm day, one man was particularly cold. 

David Blaine is an “endurance artist,” known for stunts like burying himself alive for seven days while consuming only a few tablespoons of water a day or suspending himself on a pillar 100 feet above Bryant Park in New York, without a harness, for 35 hours. Blaine has performed for three acting US Presidents in the Oval Office and various other notable figures including Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali. 

When social psychologists Roy Baumeister and John Tierney asked Blaine which of his stunts he felt was the most challenging, he told them it was the nearly three days he spent inside the aforementioned ice cube.

For that stunt, Blaine was encased in a block of ice for sixty-three hours. Despite weighing six tons, the space inside the block of ice was smaller than Blaine had anticipated. Blaine had only a few inches separating him from the ice in front of him. He couldn’t sleep as he feared that his head might rest on the glass in front of him which could result in frostbite. Because it was warmer than usual, the ice began melting resulting in a slow, steady drip of water on the back of Blaine’s head and neck. 

After sixty-three hours, Blaine was excavated from the ice by a team of people wielding chainsaws. He was immediately taken to the hospital for fear that he may have been in shock. The sleep deprivation had added up. 

Recounting the hours near the end of his time inside the ice, Blaine said that he began hallucinating. He remembers seeing figures in the ice block and hearing voices. At one point, he was convinced that he was in purgatory, that the space inside the ice was the space between heaven and hell. Of the experience, he said, “I genuinely believed I was being judged, and that this was a place I was waiting to go to heaven or hell. Those last eight hours were the worst state I’ve ever been in. To go through something that horrific and not quit — that took something that was beyond me.”

So what makes David Blaine so special? 

“You’re building discipline.”

David Blaine must have something broken, right? He has to be wired…differently…than the rest of us. That’s what you might expect. 

But it couldn’t be further from the truth. 

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Despite his unusual stunts, Blaine appears to be quite normal [whatever that means…especially in this context]. 

When Baumeister and Tierney visited Blaine at his home in Greenwich Village while doing research for their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (audiobook), he was in between stunts. The pair told him about studies suggesting that you can develop willpower. Not surprised, he had this to say: 

“That makes perfect sense. You’re building discipline. Now that I think about it, when I’m training for a stunt and I have a goal, I change everything. I have self-control in every aspect of my life. I read all the time. I eat perfectly. I do good things — I visit kids in hospitals and do as much of that as I can. I have a whole different energy. Complete self-control. I eat food based on nutrition. I don’t overindulge. I don’t drink. I don’t waste time.” 

So what about when he’s not training for a stunt?

“As soon as I’m done with that, I go to the opposite extreme, where I have no self-control, and it seems to spread through everything. It seems like when I stop eating right, then I’m not able to sit down and read for the same amount of time. I can’t focus the same way. I don’t use my time the same way. I waste a lot of time. I’ll drink. I’ll do silly things. After a stunt I’ll go from 180 pounds to 230 pounds in three months.” 

Blaine admits to struggling with tasks amongst the mundane of day-to-day existence. For example, the hardest thing he’d ever done — the whole human ice cube thing — is not a Guinness World Record. Because he didn’t send in the paperwork. Despite having the requisite paperwork, he never submitted it. 

He procrastinated on doing it. 

He easily completed a fast for forty-four hours in London but openly admits he probably couldn’t have done it in his home. 

So what does that mean for the rest of us? 

Are we doomed to raid our fridges, devouring any and all snacks we allow into our home like senseless maniacs [the exact reason why I don’t keep Ben & Jerry’s around or can’t seem to make a bag of tortilla chips last for more than a few days]? 

Building your Willpower 

Willpower, simply defined, is our ability to control ourselves — our actions, behaviors, and decisions. Evidence suggests that willpower is essential to a healthy, happy, and productive life. But, as evidenced by Blaine’s story, waxes and wanes. It comes and goes. But it is also possible to build and boost your willpower. 

When Blaine was training for a stunt, he became obsessive. “I make tons of weird goals,” he said. “Like when I’m jogging in the park in the bike lane, whenever I go over a drawing of a biker, I have to step on it. And not just step on it — I have to hit the head of the biker perfectly with my foot so that it fits right under my sneaker. Little things like that annoy anyone running with me, but I believe if I don’t do them, I won’t succeed.” 

Aside from adding to the idiosyncratic personality of Blaine, is there any benefit to that?

Blaine suggests there is. 

He says, “getting your brain wired into little goals and achieving them, that helps you achieve the bigger things you shouldn’t be able to do.” 

Suuuure, David. 

Do the scientists from earlier agree?

Baumeister and Tierney have this to say:

“These exercises certainly appear to work for Blaine, but his endurance feats hardly constitute scientific evidence — or a model for anyone else. David Blaine is about as far as you can get from a random sample. A child who voluntarily takes cold baths and goes on four-day fasts is not representative of any known population.”

Was David Blaine, like Lady Gaga, born this way?

“Maybe Blaine’s feats are mainly due not to his training but to the willpower that he was born with.” #yikes (from Giphy)

So is there any hope for us normies? 

The research suggests there is. 

In one study, people who were given fitness programs, study programs, and money-management programs predictably improved their fitness, study habits, and money saving. What researchers didn’t expect was that they got better at other things as a consequence. 

Practicing discipline in one area of their life led to discipline in other areas of life. In summarizing these studies designed to measure willpower, Baumeister and Tierney concluded, “Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life.” Their willpower, as a whole, improved.

“All in all, these findings point toward the remarkable benefits of exercising willpower. Without realizing it, people gained a wide array of benefits in areas of their lives that had nothing to do with the specific exercises they were performing. And the lab tests provided an explanation: Their willpower gradually got stronger, so it was less readily depleted. Focusing on one specific form of self-control could yield much larger benefits.” 

Do we need to turn ourselves into a human ice cube [maybe I could be a cold brew coffee cube?] or bury ourselves alive or suspend ourselves high above a bustling Metropolitan area to exercise our willpower?


And you probably shouldn’t. 

So where, then, do we begin? 

Maybe we should take that age-old motherly advice. 

Make our beds. 

Our parents may have been on to something after all. 

But don’t ever tell them I said that. 

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