How Being Judgmental Kills Your Willpower

One day in Bentonville, Arkansas, Sam Walton sat down for breakfast with a friend. Despite his wild success as the founder of Wal-Mart, Sam lived a very simple lifestyle. This included eating at this tiny neighborhood diner for many of his meals.  

As he and his friend were eating, a man entered the diner. Sam turned to his friend and said, “that’s Joe. I really admire Joe. He used to be a truck driver, but decided to go into business for himself and raises chickens. Now his business is extremely successful. I have a lot to learn from Joe.” [1]

At the time Sam Walton was personally worth about 8 billion dollars.

Here sat a man at the top of the greatest retail company in the entire world. A company that was setting records year after year for having the most sales of any company, ever! Yet, there he was in a simple Arkansas diner; telling a friend that he had a lot to learn from a man who started his own chicken farm!

This story highlights Sam Walton’s mindset. He realized the simple fact that no matter how many goals he accomplished, no matter how smart he became, or how successful his enterprise, he always had more to learn. And he did not care who it was he learned from.

why we are naturally judgmental

Most people, including myself, would simply view Joe as “oh that farmer.” We would make a judgment call about who Joe was as a person. He is probably someone who grew up in Arkansas working on a farm all of his life. He is probably a simple, family man with a good work ethic.

That is the stereotype of an Arkansas farmer; and our brain wants us to believe it. The brain naturally wants to take the easy way out. It wants to conserve energy. If we spend our time trying to analyze every person on the street by more than what we see on the surface, then we would waste mental energy. Mental energy that can be used on more important tasks. [2]

But this process is dangerous. Because we do not just place judgments on others, we place them on ourselves.


When you make judgments on other people, cultures, or ideas, you train the brain to become just as judgmental on yourself. You begin criticizing yourself, feeling guilty about mistakes, and losing confidence in your abilities. [3]

This leads to a lot of problems when trying to learn a new skill or master a new habit. When you are just starting out and inevitably run into challenges, you begin to feel bad about yourself. 

You think that you should be better!

You don't judge yourself on a beginner's standards, you judge yourself on an expert's standards. This leads to a loss of motivation and willpower as you begin to doubt whether you will ever be able to accomplish your goal. 

When you have this judgmental perspective, you are unable to use a specific type of willpower known as "Want Power". Want Power is that extra motivation and energy you feel when you believe in the purpose of your goal and you have faith in yourself to achieve it.

Want Power is felt when you are on the last kilometer of your 5K and you push yourself to the finish. It is felt when you see a "David beat a Goliath" and begin to believe that great obstacles can be overcome. 

Being judgmental trains your brain to ignore those feelings. It causes you to lose faith in the process, to lose faith in the purpose and to lose faith in yourself. Leaving you frustrated, demotivated and ultimately unable to reach your true potential.


There is a better way to see progress towards your goals and it is told through a story by Sports Psychologist, Timothy Gallwey.

“When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as 'rootless and stemless.' We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed.
When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don't condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development.
The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.” [4]

When we are working towards our goals, we almost never think about our progress in these terms. We don't want to be "bad" at learning a new language, exercising in the gym or playing a new instrument.

We expect ourselves to be a "beautiful rose" right away! We do not appreciate the process of growth. We do not see the fact that we are merely in the "seed stage" and have a lot of growing to do. Instead, we condemn ourselves and say "what's the point, I'll never become a rose."

This was especially hard for me when I began writing. When I started out, I was a terrible writer. I read a lot, so I knew what great writing looked like, and I did not have it. Not even close. I would ramble, I wouldn't edit anything out, and I wouldn't communicate my main points effectively. I was bad. 

To get through this, I had to force myself to look at the process like the growth of a rose. My journey to becoming a writer was simply in the sprouting stage. I didn't need to be a great writer right away, nor do I need to be a great one today. I just need to be a better writer today than I was yesterday. Then tomorrow I need to be a better writer than I am today. As long as I keep that up, one day I will become a great writer. 

When working towards your goal, think of your progress as a rose. When you start out, you are just going to be a sprout - and that's okay! You don't need to be a beautiful rose right away. You just need to continue growing every single day. If you do that, it will not be long before you reach your goal and become great.


We have a natural desire to be judgmental. Judging things is easy. It doesn't take any mental effort to stereotype and criticize the world around us. But this mindset has many negative consequences - especially when we begin judging ourselves.

Being judgmental makes you feel like you should be great at something right away. It makes the process of growth discouraging as you inevitably run into challenges along the way. This leads to doubt, frustration and ultimately a loss of motivation altogether.

Instead, look at the progress of yourself and others like the growth of a rose. Each stage of growth is necessary in order to become the final product. Simply nurture its development and have patience to allow it to grow into something great.


  1. Collins, J. (2002). DEFINING GREATNESS.
  2. Sylwester, R. (2005, March 11). The Role of Snap Judgments in Intelligence: An Intriguing Perspective - Brain Connection.
  3. Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. New York: Viking.
  4. Gallwey, W. (1974). The inner game of tennis. New York: Random House.