The problem of under-regulation

I’m at a Writing Retreat where I hope to finish off my “Classical Criticisms of Keynesian Theory”. And as it happened, this piece of writing by Tom Butler-Bowden arrived just last night. If you don’t know Butler-Bowden and his 50 Classics Series you really should. He started with self-help books, moved onto philosophy and politics in his last two and next will be Economics and Wealth Creation. He analyses and explains in about half a dozen pages the central message of each of these books, and I have to say that his ability is uncanny. On all the authors I know I have never had a quibble about his insight and balance so I feel I can trust him on the others. This is on what it takes to move from an idea to actually finishing a project. I won’t give away anything by telling you that what it requires is concentrated WORK.

The epiphany problem

My initial motivation to write was a desire to understand what made people successful. The earlier books in particular, covering self-help, success and psychology, were the public result of a private investigation into possible ‘secrets’ which, if followed, would virtually guarantee that one’s wishes would become reality. From this project came two things:

1) A distrust of inspiration.
2) An appreciation of time in achievement.

Being inspired is the starting point of anything great, and the moment of inspiration itself is highly pleasurable. But such intellectual highs don’t help us get things done. This ‘epiphany problem’ is becoming better appreciated now, and I enjoyed a recent blog by Peter Shallard on the subject.

Peter mentions Allan Wheelis, a psychoanalyst who noted that there was a point in the 20th century when Freudian therapy no longer seemed to work. The therapy had not changed, so why exactly did it stop working? Wheelis argued that what had changed was people’s capacity for self-control. Freud’s early patients had come of age in the late Victorian era, a time when people were arguably more self-reliant and disciplined, and if Freud told them to make some change, they jolly well did so. But as the 20th century progressed, the capacity for self-regulation and self-discipline waned, just as our exposure to ‘inspiration’ increased. The result: more epiphanies, and less ability to turn them into measurable change.


Shallard refers to Roy Baumeister, the social psychologist and author of Willpower (2012), who describes self-regulation failure as “the major social pathology of our time.” In less intellectual terms, and speaking to his entrepreneur audience, Shallard writes:

“If you’re someone who feels like you’re going crazy experiencing breakthrough after breakthrough, but you’re STILL not getting the results in life and business that you know you’re capable of… well, you might have a Self-Regulation problem. More epiphanies won’t help you. Building your self control muscles will.”

Most days I work in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. People are working on lengthy dissertations on Virgil’s poetry, or researching Descartes’ mind-body problem, or getting to the nub of Augustine’s City of God. There is good Wi-Fi in the building, but I’m always struck how little time people seem to spend checking Facebook, or catching up with the news, or shopping on Amazon. When they have decided they are going to work on something, they do it. This ability to self-regulate, I would venture, has played an important part in getting them to a top university and increasing their chances in life. You may be very talented or smart, you may have perfect material conditions to pursue a goal, but none of this counts if you are not able to control your behavior and work habits to an extent that you can get things done.

By the way, I am not claiming to be great at self-control myself; there are so many things that take our attention these days and I can easily waste a morning on trifles! But at least I know that epiphanies don’t last, and that ultimately what gets achieved is thanks to work. The world is full of good ideas, what is rarer is good execution.

My Dad, bless him – it would have been his 98th birthday today – used to tell me the same thing by quoting Thomas Edison: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. It’s the same with all ideas that turn into profitable enterprise. It’s not the idea of itself but the commercialisation that makes it happen. Ideas are dime a dozen, but the ability to turn ideas into products that can be profitably produced is something else again.

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