The Aspiration-Driven Life: Part 7 — Determination is the Key7 min read

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The three pillars of self-discipline—Aspiration, Awareness, and Action—culminate in determination. That is their essence and their ethos. With determination you naturally have focus, confidence, and power. It is the synthesis of motivation and commitment.

What exactly is determination? It is a strong decision, made calmly and purposefully, that you hold on to no matter what.

Borrowing terms from the chariot metaphor, we have a lower mind (the horses) and a higher mind (the charioteer). Having determination is like the charioteer knowing exactly where he wants to go, and guiding the horses accordingly. Without it, the horses might go astray, stop moving toward the destination, or choose to take the wrong road (because it’s more comfortable).

Without strong determination, it is easy to procrastinate, get distracted with less important things, feel a loss in motivation when the journey gets tough, or tell yourself excuses not to take action. Without determination, the lower mind will run the show, and it won’t take you to your aspirations.

When you are determined to make a change in your life, to achieve a certain goal or transformation, you naturally start practicing the three pillars—you embrace your aspirations, live with more awareness, and take consistent action. Determination leads to self-discipline. It also makes your path smoother, and your journey shorter.

Determination Overcomes Obstacles

Whatever journey you are in, you are bound to meet many challenges, obstacles, hindrances, and setbacks. When you do, remember this key mindset: “The obstacles in my way are to make me, not break me.”

Let me attempt to make this measurable, so we can fully understand what this means.

Imagine that we can attribute a number to every obstacle we face. The higher the number, the bigger the challenge. For example, if you want to wake up early every day and work on your side project for an hour, you will meet obstacles of different nature and strengths.

  • The temptation of snoozing the alarm might be a challenge of power 5
  • Getting distracted by social media might be a challenge of power 7
  • Procrastinating on a boring task might be a challenge of power 10
  • The self-doubt that tells you “This is not going to work” might be power 30.

The challenges will be different from person to person, and from goal to goal. Yet one thing is certain: to overcome a particular obstacle, you need to become more powerful than that obstacle. Where does that power come from?

From determination.

Your determination is the measure of how committed you are to your aspirations—it’s your personal power. It determines how much effort you are willing to put, and how resilient you will be. It shows where is your breaking point.

Every obstacle, then, can be seen as an invitation for you to hold on to your values, and increase your personal power. Every obstacle is here to make you stronger, wiser, and more determined.

If your determination is power 30, then the challenges of power 5 are simply non-existent for you. You don’t even need a technique to overcome them, just a minimal application of your will. If the challenge is in the range of 20 to 30, you will struggle some, and then overcome it. But if it is above 30, then you have only three options: increase your determination, get a better tool, or give up.

Determination vs. Tools

Using effective tools do make it easier for you to overcome certain obstacles, and can diminish the amount of determination you need to stay on track. That is why they are shortcuts. For example, if you consistently struggle with procrastination, you can use the Baby Steps technique to make it easier for you to move forward, instead of pushing through by sheer willpower.

Yet there are two things we need to bear in mind when considering to rely on techniques:

  1. Applying the techniques already requires some level of determination—which means that if a tool is not working for you, the problem could be that you are not committed enough to your goal and to making that technique work.
  2. For the biggest challenges you will face, increasing your determination is the only way forward. At this point, all techniques will either fail or be insufficient by themselves.

A perfect example of this second point is meditation practice. You may have the best meditation technique in the world (the tool), but in the absence of strong determination, your meditation will never deepen. The distractions are persistent, tempting, and never-ending. The monkey mind has a lot of momentum to it, and it constantly pulls you.

It is only when you have an unwavering determination to remain focused moment after moment that you will start taming the monkey. When your determination to stay with the breath is stronger than the pull of your thoughts, then you bypass the noisy mind and get established in stillness. This is true for all types of concentration meditation—it’s the secret ingredient. The one that few modern teachers talk about.

Determination is the key to overcoming any obstacle in your path. It’s what will make all techniques work. And as your determination increases, you will find that you don’t need many techniques anymore. The fire of determination itself will carry you forward, and burn all obstacles on your way.

Whenever you face an obstacle, be determined to be stronger than that obstacle. Then the obstacle will have fulfilled its purpose and will leave you alone.

Your Pain, Your Determination

Determination, as that unwavering and energetic commitment to your goal, is sometimes born out of a strong emotional experience—usually one of pain. When a child gets beaten up by a heartless parent for having performed poorly at school, or a person witnesses the devastating effects of poverty in her community, a strong and lasting sense of determination can arise, and fuel one for life.

There is an important element that will make the whole difference, here. If you believe that you can do something about it, your pain will turn into determination. If you believe that there is nothing you can do but suffer, your pain could turn into a trauma.

So one way of kindling motivation, then, is to get in touch with your pain—the things you experienced or witnessed that are simply unacceptable for you. The key word here is “unacceptable”. If it’s something that you can rationalize, water down, or learn to be at peace with, then what you get is a lot of peace, but no fire.

This exercise (of turning your pain into determination) is something that you may feel attracted to, but deep down dread. It is quite possible that you have protected yourself away from such painful experiences as a means of managing difficult emotions. It is also possible that getting in touch with those experiences, without the right guidance or support, could be traumatizing instead of empowering.

Luckily, there are other ways of generating determination that are safer and easier to set up.

Cultivating Determination

You can gradually cultivate determination by working on the three pillars in Mindful Self-Discipline. In particular, you do that by:

  • Fine-tuning your goals and aspirations, so that they are really an expression of your core values (the things you care about the most)
  • Linking your aspirations to avoiding pain and experiencing rewards in multiple areas of life, by using the Black and White Exercise (included in the free workbook)
  • Constantly being in touch with your aspirations by implementing the Key Practices of Awareness (meditation, planning, integration, and reflection)
  • Avoiding distractions and instant gratification, which deplete your inner fire by giving you comfort and easy sources of satisfaction
  • Making uncompromising commitments by using the Never Zero and Remove Your Options techniques. What these two techniques have in common is a strong and empowering self-talk that will accept no excuses, no exceptions, no self-doubt.

To experience the state of determination, frame your commitments to yourself using strong words, such as “I have to ____”, “it must work”, “I will never again ___”. You generate strength from the intonation, energy, and volume in the italicized word.

I’m aware that this goes against some popular advice that tells us to avoid so called “absolute words”. While I feel that there is a time and place for applying that way of thinking, one thing is certain: mild words won’t lead to determination. That approach is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The words you use to frame your goals and habits represent different levels of commitment.

  • “I’d like to” is a preference.
  • “I’d love to” is a wish.
  • “I want to” is a desire.
  • “I must” a commitment.
  • “I will” is a resolution (determination).

Unlike the method explained in the section above, this one relies on your aspirations rather than your fears. It is moving toward a reward, rather than moving away from pain.

Some people argue that the approach of relying on pain will always be more powerful, due to the negativity bias of the brain; others argue that we should focus on pursuing what we want, because that is nobler. I suggest being pragmatic: use whatever works for you.

There is also a third approach to cultivating determination, and that is using embodiment techniques to re-kindle that state. I will explore this topic in a future article.


Think of a change you want to make in your life. It could be a habit you’ve tried to build for a long time, a particular goal you want to achieve, or a radical self-transformation.

How would you rate your determination in that journey, from 1 to 10?

Take a moment to reconnect to your why, re-energize your commitment, and increase your determination a notch or two. That will remove obstacles, and make your journey much easier.

This is the final article of this series, The Aspiration-Driven Life, where I summarized and simplified the framework of Mindful Self-Discipline. To go deeper you can get the book, and try the tools and meditations in the app.

May your life be driven by your aspirations! May you touch your deepest potential, your essence, so you live and serve from your higher self!


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