The Power Of Resolve

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People all over the world know the story of Helen Keller, the deaf-blind girl Annie Sullivan taught to communicate by spelling letters on her hands, whose story was depicted in the play and movie The Miracle Worker. What most people don’t know is the story of how Helen’s parents found Annie Sullivan in the first place: Helen’s mother, Kate (who happened to be a cousin of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general), had been inspired by a story of the successful education of another deaf blind girl, Laura Bridgman, which she read in Charles Dickens’ American Notes. So in 1886 she and Helen’s father, Arthur, traveled from their home in Alabama to Baltimore to find Dr. J. Julian Chisolm, an otolaryngologist, for advice.

He, in turn, referred them to Alexander Graham Bell (the one who invented the telephone), who was working with deaf children at the time. He, in turn, advised them to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind where Laura Bridgman herself had been educated. So they traveled to Boston and found Michael Anaganos, the school’s director, who asked a former student, Annie Sullivan (herself visually impaired and only 20 years old), to become Helen’s teacher.

If we pause for a minute to consider all the obstacles Arthur and Kate Keller had to overcome to find and follow this convoluted path to Annie Sullivan—in the late 1800s no less—we’re led to conclude that they must have had an abundance of the very same stuff that enabled Helen herself not only to learn to communicate but also to become the first blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree ever (at Radcliffe), to read Braille (not only in English but also French, German, Greek, and Latin), to write and publish numerous books, to campaign for women’s suffrage, for worker’s rights, for socialism, and even to help found the ACLU—namely, resolve.


Wish-making is a passive activity in which the wisher hands responsibility for the achievement of the wish to an outside force—either God, Fate, destiny, or luck. Not that wish-makers don’t also take action to achieve their desires—but if their desires remain wished-for only, their drive to achieve them tends to encounter limits beyond which it will not go.

Prayer in most Western religions usually comes in the form of a wish, or a request, of God to grant a desire. Prayer in Buddhism, in contrast, occurs as a vow, or a determination, you make to yourself. When you firmly resolve to accomplish something the experience is quite different than when you merely wish for it. When you firmly resolve to accomplish something—even something you have no idea how to accomplish—you immediately become charged with the intent to act.

“At such a time, the three obstacles and four devils will invariably appear, and the wise will rejoice while the foolish will retreat.” That is to say, people of wisdom know to anticipate obstacles when they begin actively striving toward a goal. Confident people welcome them, recognizing them as signs of a strong resolve and therefore likely success. Obstacles arise in the face of strong resolve because strong resolve motivates powerful, effective action—which foments resistance because most people, places, and things are waterlogged with inertia.


If a powerful resolve is the key to victory, then, how can you best summon it up? You have to do three things:

  1. Care about your goal passionately. How do you think Arthur and Kate Keller summoned up the resolve to find help for their daughter when they had to travel across the American country wilderness of 1886 without really having any idea if they’d find the answers they sought? If you don’t or can’t care about your goal passionately enough to summon up the resolve necessary to accomplish it, you should re-evaluate why it’s your goal in the first place. If resolve is the key to victory, motivation is the key to resolve.
  2. Ignore the odds against you. In this, incompetent people actually have a paradoxically significant advantage over competent people, which is an inability to recognize their own incompetence. How is this an advantage? Because the incompetence of incompetent people extends to their ability to predict their likelihood of success. Incompetent people tend to believe they can accomplish things that they most likely can’t, which enables them to ignore the voices in their heads that tell them their goal is unattainable. If in the process of striving toward their goal they actually acquire the competence they need to achieve it (admittedly, a big “if”) they may ultimately have a better chance of accomplishing their goal than someone who started out with enough competence to recognize how unlikely achieving his or her goal was in the first place and so never tried. Sometimes it takes the kind of blind optimism of the incompetent to outlast the obstacles that confront you.
  3. Prepare yourself to endure. How many times should you get up after being knocked down? Once, twice, three times? How about until you’re dead. If one strategy doesn’t work, rack your brain to find another. And another. And another. Resolve, like belief, is a force that lives in every single one of us. We all have the power to summon up the inflexible will to win. Even when you lack a plan or can’t find the path to your goal, take solace and encouragement from the fact that resolve is the fuel that drives the engine of accomplishment and that we all have an enormous supply. It will only stop flowing when we shut it off ourselves. People often make the mistake of allowing their resolve to fade when they fail to accomplish a goal in a particular time frame. But people who succeed often do so because they continue past the point where they expected to have already succeeded but didn’t. As bad as our current healthcare system is, it was even worse when Annie Sullivan’s parents were trying to get Annie help, but driven by their love and care for her, they summoned a great resolve, never gave up, and were ultimately victorious.

We don’t need our determination to reach out into the universe invisibly through the power of “The Secret” or some other imaginary mystical force to succeed. We only need it to respond to our actions, and the determination that resides in our minds and hearts is enough to accomplish that. Determination in the hearts and minds of two parents was all that was needed to find a teacher for a deaf blind girl. And determination in the heart and mind of that deaf blind girl was all that was needed for her to learn to speak.

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  • Resolve allows us to surpass the inertia of good intents. Will in the world is the result of strong resolve.

    As for the resistance met—I do believe our thoughts and actions constitute energy fields, so yes, it is possible that we attract or repel actions in a cause-and-effect circuit.

    That would, it seems to me, be within the realm of physical possibility. Unfortunately, we label the idea of our thoughts impacting upon real world manifestations as hocus-pocus. To me, it just seems obvious.

    That does not mean we can necessarily harness any result we wish, because we do not the many manifestations of energy in the world.

  • Beautiful article. I really enjoyed it. Yes, determination makes all the difference…the intention. I believe that when we seek something, then that specific things seeks us also.

    Thank you,

    Love and Gratitude,

  • Thank you for your blog. I’m struggling with something myself at the moment, and this week’s post made me realize that I’m not failing just because I’m not there yet. I know that I can’t quit. Ever. I didn’t realize how important that was in itself. Thanks!

  • Thanks for this. I had an epiphany of sorts when I read your observation that we encounter resistance to our resolve because of the interia of “others” (people, places, things). This is so logical, but it seems hard to comprehend when we start out on a journey towards a goal. Recognizing that we will encouter inertia makes the planning for what path(s) we might take as we move towards our goal much more interesting. It also seems to depersonalize the setbacks we encounter because there are some things on a particular path that we just cannot overcome. When we encounter that inertia; choose a different path.

    Thanks for sharing this.


  • Keep in mind the innate human tendency to see patterns even when they are not there. This comforts us.

    But I think you are right that obstacles invariably come up, seemingly proportionate to our level of resolve, and that it takes a special kind of blindness, or ability to focus on the distant horizon, and not be thrown off by what’s coming at us in the near frame, to keep thrusting forward toward that which our vision tells us should be accomplished.

    Press on! Keep writing.


  • I must commend you on another good post. I personally do not believe in a higher governing power, though I do believe in the power of resolve and the will to actively change circumstances. Furthermore, your article has reminded me of several strategies that aid will, namely envisioning yourself completing your task, and the power of motivation to make things easier. Everybody seems to associate willpower with some form of negative enforcement, such as dieting, quitting smoking, staying focused at work, etc., that they fail to notice that a strong will is a very positive aspect to have in respect to your long term goals.

    I, personally, must take issue with the idea of energy. The scientific method allows for the possibility of current theories to be proven false, but also requires that the best theories available be the ones currently followed.

    For example, e=mc squared is a theory by Albert Einstein that could be proven false in the future.

    In this case I want to point out that although matter is made of energy, and yes, it vibrates at a frequency, our thoughts cannot “attract things from the universe.” Electric power doesn’t work that way, it violates every possible rule of causation, and is extremely egocentric.

    In this case, what evidence is there that being good and having good things happen to you (and the counter, being bad and having bad things happen to you), actually happens? What causes it? We don’t add “negative energy” to the universe by doing a bad deed. Hell, nothing is inherently good or bad; thinking makes it so.

    For example, there are thousands of classic ethical questions that have never been successfully resolved to everyone’s liking, such as:

    “If you knew that 10 men were going to die but could save them from dying if you yourself had to kill a man, what would you do?”

    People disagree about which is the most moral action all the time. So what negative energy gets sent out “to the universe?” Who decides the ultimate in what is bad or good in every situation?

    Here’s where I’m supposed to say that nobody decides bad or good for everybody, and by doing so claim that there is no God or karmic force. However, those who read this who do believe in a higher governing power are probably not going to be convinced by my words, so I’ll just say this:

    We are alone in an uncaring universe. We find ourselves conscious beings with a limited lifespan. Instead of trying to escape life through transcendental spirituality or religion, one should realize that we each decide our own meanings and values for ourselves. Our actions do not send out any universal forces. However, we do recognize that positive thinking, optimism, good deeds and character are nigh essential to living a happy life.

    We are each here to live for something, for happiness, for meaning, for others, whatever. That is ours to choose. I don’t remember anything before 1987 because I was not born yet. As soon as I die, the state of my existence vanishes and becomes as it was before I was born. I have no need to fear death, as I know it will come eventually. But while I am here, the key is to live in the present moment and take advantage that life, a chain reaction billions of years ago, was probable enough to happen to me.

  • Great article Alex. Thank you so much.

    I put a link on my blog; I hope that many more will read this inspirational post!

  • I enjoyed your article as I enjoy your blog. I agree with everything you have said here but cringe at the style of suggesting a formula or suggesting a list of actions that will create a mindset that you have cultivated, not from Buddhism or from a list, but from your own disciplined effort of self realization through the practice of meditation.

    You mention the need to have great passion for your goal. Before one can have great passion for a goal it must be a goal truly of your own desire. Unless one has applied the practice of creating a portal to one’s true, love-based inner consciousness, such as through meditation, this knowledge is available only in splinters at best. The consciousness I speak of is one that we all posses and were brought into the world with yet many live and die separated from. This is a consciousness that is very different from that bred by society. The Keller’s had this kind of passion as they were motivated by the love of their daughter. There was no question as to the truth of thieir goal. There was very little thought involved in this goal as it was an obvious realization. Not all goals are so easily connected.

    My point is that the key to finding our own individual answers, goals, and the resolve to address them with a mindful passion is to focus on the realization which is only available within your quiet mind or innate consciousness. Meditation is not about goals but finding and staying on the right path. Westernizing meditation into a science that our limited intelligence can understand is futile. Understanding such control and understanding of it as unnecessary will bring you peace of mind and the success you truly need and/or are meant to have.

    Greg: Thanks for your comment. You’re certainly correct that the list of actions I put together in this post won’t itself create the mindset required to enact them. I agree with you that some kind of practice that cultivates a high life-condition is necessary for that. I still believe there’s value to making such lists, however, as some people may find it useful to identify the items in them as worthwhile goals for which to strive. What path someone chooses as a means by which to achieve them is a personal choice. My own has been Nichiren Buddhism (not meditation, by the way, which certainly has been shown to have many beneficial effects, but not the one I’m after).

    I don’t agree with you, however, that trying to understand the world through a rigorous scientific method is futile. Employing the scientific method simply means asking questions that can be demonstrated as true or false by empiric experimentation or observation, which, as I pointed out in an earlier post, Magical Thinking, can be done within one’s own subjective experience.


  • I’ve been my own advocate regarding my chronic illnesses for thirty years. It’s been exhausting and I’m still at it; one to go. The only thing I’d disagree with you concerns “competence.” When I got my third diagnosis the outlook was bleak; there was minimal treatment or interest in this illness. I called my psychiatrist who had helped me through two other illnesses. I had gone into remission with both only because I didn’t listen to the doctors who told me there was no answer. I told my psychiatrist that I’d run out of money and would have to stop seeing him. His response: “It would be a privilege to see how far a person with your strength of character and intelligence can go with this diagnosis.” Obviously he felt my competence crucial. Shortly after I found a doctor in Boston and a doctor in Sweden who helped me with a treatment plan that had never been used. It was exhausting, took enormous endurance and input on my part, but I beat the odds.

    I called my rabbi the same day. He said he had great faith in me and told me a joke to illustrate it: There is an island and the inhabitants are told that within twenty-four hours they will be submerged by water. The Catholic priest calls his parishoners together and says: “We will stay together and pray for salvation.” The Protestant minister gathers his flock and says: “We will look forward to our Heavenly reward.” The rabbi calls his congregation together and says: “We have twenty-four hours to figure out how to live under water.” When things are really bleak, I tell myself this joke. (I hope I haven’t offended anyone with this joke; if so, forgive me.)

    You were dead on with your other points. Courage is crucial also; I’m sure Helen Keller’s parents had moments of despair. It also made me think of Christopher Reeve; one of my doctors said: “He taught us a lot.”

    Andrea: I didn’t mean to imply competence wasn’t critically important; rather, that it can be a double-edged sword if you pay too much attention to just how difficult achieving some goals can be. And I liked your joke ;).


  • I too had a real epiphany as I read your post. As you discussed ignoring the odds against you, I realized this may be key in my inability to resolve not one but two issues in my life. When one has the wherewithal to comprehend that the odds of success are limited, the individual’s reality serves to stifle progress toward their goal, whatever that goal may be. In this case, it may appear that naivety or even stupidity is an advantage.

    Like many other Americans, I’m struggling with my own obesity. Research has shown the likelihood of maintaining successful weight loss is limited at best. As a group, much of society views the obese population as lazy, unmotivated individuals that choose to stuff their faces with food. I can assure you I am far from lazy. Some even choose to criticize gastric bypass or gastric banding as just another “easy cop-out” because we’re just so lazy. Like many others, I’ve tried the structured programs (Weight Watchers, writing down everything I eat so I could count every calorie), worked with a personal trainer, and successfully lost the weight. And, like MANY others, I gained the weight back and more.

    Why did I gain the weight back? The process of being thin for me took up an extensive amount of time. Exercising 2-3 hours/day was not sustainable for someone working 10-12 hour shifts 5+ days a week and raising a family. Eating 1000-1200 calories a day was not sustainable for me (I was exhausted and downright mean). I have gone through this cycle a number of times. It becomes not only self-defeating, but also downright depressing.

    Based on evidenced-based research, I knew from the beginning my odds of success were limited at best. So, am I to presume if I lacked this understanding, I might have a greater resolve and be successful? I don’t believe that’s entirely the case. If I was more passionate or possessed greater endurance, might I be more successful? Maybe, but I doubt it. Could it also be there are other underlying issues related to obesity and metabolism that haven’t been identified? Absolutely. Could it also be that we live in an extremely judgmental society and those judgments hinder rather than help? Absolutely.

    Your post is very motivational and I thank you for that; however, I remain a realist. I know I will never look like a Vogue model, and I don’t believe the ads for products that promise rapid weight lose in a month or 6 weeks. In my case, perhaps I’ll need to reevaluate the degree of passion and resolve I’ll need to win the battle of the bulge. While ignoring the odds against me may also be key, I have no idea how I can do this successfully.


  • Another great article—and stimulating & diverse comments! I see the idea of RESOLVE as like the “Laws of Intention.” We must use resolve every minute as we cooperate with keeping our bodies alive by breathing—eating—talking care, etc…and also our consciousness working towards maintaining our ability to function intellectually/emotionally.

    If we cannot accomplish our idealized “mission,” then “resolve” can be transformed into Acceptance of our human condition of “imperfection attempting to be perfect.” Since RESOLVE comes from our mental realm there too it can be adjusted. And that is our survival strategy for continuing in the Game of Life. Like WATER, we can seek the Path of Least Resistance and choose to feel good about it.

    And it is very important to feel good about ourselves—to reflect and make that decision ourselves. That is our struggle to grow towards the Light of Consciousness.

    So we Resolve to find a way…and perhaps that would take a lifetime. But that is what we are here for…a Learning—and hopefully Loving—EXPERIENCE.

    Often I thought I had failed to do something only to discover that a better way appeared because I did NOT accomplish the first option. Thank goodness for the Magic of Life!

    And thank you, Alex, for your blog. Much appreciated!

  • Alex, thank you for your reply. Obviously my comment lacked the clarity to convey my thoughts as intended.

    I certainly in no way intended to challenge or judge Nichiren Buddhism or your practice of it. I am sure you agree that one’s choice of discipline is dependent on which discipline, if any, helps them follow a right life. Whether it be the Dalai Lama, Yogananda, Jesus, Krishna, or Nichiren, whose teaching you use, to stimulate your natural sense of enlightenment is of no importance. All that is important is the enlightenment. Ego-based arguments over the superiority of the same message coming from different sources has shown its negative effects throughout history.

    “Don’t try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” Dalai Lama

    I must stand by my belief that a “complete” understanding of God and the positive effects of a right lifestyle is beyond the limits of human time and capacity of most. With a limit on time it could be argued that the submitting to the inclination to have proven answers might not be the best choice for that time being spent. Through self realization a state of understanding truth and relying on that empirical observation will become more than sufficient. The goal of enlightenment is to create a portal to the innate God-like nature and truth that we all come into the world possessing and are inherently capable of attaining in our current lifetime.

    “Any human being who is becoming independent of conditionings, religions, scriptures, prophets and messiahs, has arrived home. He has found the treasure which was hidden in his own being.” Osho

    Greg: Didn’t take your comments as judgmental at all. I certainly agree with you that the attainment of enlightenment is what matters, not the path to it (though I question how many functional paths there really are). I also agree wholeheartedly the purpose of practicing Buddhism isn’t to become a great Buddhist but rather to become a great human being. And, finally, I agree that enlightenment is ultimately a purely subjective state reached through channels other than the intellect, and that those channels can be quite valid for recognizing truth. The only point I would emphasize is that to believe something without some kind of proof (subjective though it may be, which is perfectly acceptable), however, in my view risks magical thinking and worse, adopting a belief that has little power to help you withstand fear and suffering.

    Thanks for contributing to such an interesting discourse.


  • Thanks for this, and your prior posts of straight-up, right-on… hmm… guidance? Revelations? Encouragements? I can’t quite place your posts into a category. However, as a medical student preparing to take Step 1 this upcoming Friday and starting 3rd year rotations next Monday, your blog and weekly posts (the ones I’ve had time to squeeze into my study schedule over the past few weeks) have oftentimes been the smidgeons of wisdom that keep me going through the alternating hell/joy that is medical school. It takes a true resolve to become a physician, that is for sure. 🙂

    D.G: Oh, your comment brings back memories. Best of luck on Step 1. Every year of medical school becomes more fun than the one before it. Truly.


  • […] Notes: This should be a challenging workout, even for those that are proficient with double unders. I did a version of this workout after a heavy lifting day and think think the name fits perfectly. Move your body fast, keep your lungs full of air, and have fun. Post times to comments. Article: Can the power of resolve make you faster in your workouts? […]

  • I love this because it fits so well with my life right now—this thought that resolve is not just a solution or an answer but an active force that initiates something and moves energy. Faced with a cancer scare the beginning of this year (all is fine—cancer free), I was forced to take a long hard look at my life. I was not happy. I did not have what I wanted most in such as meaningful friendships, passion, and peace. I did not realize how resolving myself to finding these things, despite sacrificing a comfortable (predictable) life, would resonate with the world around me. Eight months later I am in awe of the friends that I have welcomed into my life and that living with passion has brought me the peace to be who I am. And the best part is that it is not an answer or an end, but a journey.

  • There are so many thoughts running through my mind right now that I don’t know where to begin.

    Maybe I’ll start here: “Are all things so invisibly yet intrinsically interconnected that such communication is really possible?” and hope that I’ve understood it right and in the right context.

    One simple answer, YES! I strongly believe our will-power, our resolve, our determination, call it what you will, do control a lot of things in our life. I believe the control comes from God most of the time. That is to say that i believe He waits for us to take the first couple of steps and then He is ever Happy to Help.

    I don’t know what it is about the Human Spirit but once the spark is lit, the entire Universe comes together to sort things out, like it did for Helen Keller’s parents. It worked in the 1800s and it sure does work today too. I know this for sure from experiences in my own life. Why, just last year, when I and my husband were in the midst of a deep financial crisis with layoffs and the recession on, we resolved to fight it without floundering in despair. And that resolve has seen us through some of the most formidable circumstances, which I feel surprised at now that we actually made it. 🙂

  • I can’t say I totally disagree with you…resolve, hard work, positive attitude and a will to keep trying no matter what have certainly helped many people achieve their goals. But saying it’s all about “resolve” can too easily lead to the conclusion that those who are not succeeding are simply not trying hard enough. And that just isn’t always the case.

    To expand on your example, Helen Keller’s parents had a lot more going for them than their resolve. They were white. They were educated/literate. They had money and social connections. They were healthy enough to travel, and had the time and means to do so. Certainly their resolve was a huge part of the reason they succeeded in getting Helen what she needed. But I wonder how Helen’s life would have been different if her parents were a poor, rural, uneducated black family of the same time period? How much “resolve” would those parents have had to exercise to get Alexander Graham Bell’s help in finding a suitable teacher for THEIR child?

    Resolve is huge, don’t get me wrong. But in an unjust society, it’s often not enough—even for people who care deeply and work relentlessly.

    Chris: Your point is well taken, but there’s really no way to prove it either way. I don’t at all disagree that if Helen Keller’s parents were poor, rural, and uneducated blacks in the same time period the degree of resolve they would have had to muster to accomplish the same goal would have had to have been much greater—but why wouldn’t it still have been possible? You can always point to people who have it worse in some way who haven’t succeeded as evidence that it’s not all about resolve, but you can also point to others who have it better who haven’t succeeded either.


  • Thanks for giving me hope. I will use this inspiration to move forward with determination rather than wishes. Blessings to you all!

    Mary: You are so welcome. If you want to read more about this topic, I cover it in detail in Chapter 3 of my new book.