Whatever I know about sheer willpower, I learned from Larry Astor. Larry was my best friend from the time we first whispered through nap time in kindergarten. He was small, just how small I never would have realized if I hadn't gone back and looked at some old photos, but still somehow dominant. No matter what squares he landed on in Monopoly, he always managed to be the force around which the game revolved. Ditto for Life, Careers, Risk and, especially, poker.
A competitive kid myself, it was hard for me to admit that Larry's consistent edge had nothing to do with the luck of the roll. But eventually, I could no longer fool myself, and I began to study him, hoping for a clue to his secret. It took a long time: What he had was like a sixth sense, or a dog's ability to hear frequencies beyond the human range. You can see a dog go crazy when someone blows a dog whistle, but how do you learn to hear it yourself? Willpower is like an organ that lies undeveloped, even undiscovered. To develop it, you've got to exercise it. But first you have to locate it.
For some reason, my epiphany came playing hoops. Given Larry's height -- the shortest kid on the court -- you'd guess he'd be a gunner, a wizard at the outside shot. But the fact was, he had an incredible ability to drive to the hoop, regardless of the size of his opponent. While I'd be circling, circling, circling, waiting for an opening, Larry would just . . . go.
As I watched him do it again and again, something clicked. Suddenly I could see it. He had simply decided to drive past everyone else, and his desire and belief were stronger than the desire and belief of anyone trying to stop him. Somehow, being able to see it in Larry was the first step to finding that inner ability in myself. Just about everything I've accomplished since has come from being able to gather belief and desire together and aim it at a goal.
Even at my low level, it's potent stuff. At a high level, it explains how someone like Gilbert Arenas can take control of a basketball court crowded with some of the best athletes in the world at the most critical moments, floating in improbable jump shots to win at the buzzer, as if the only will to win that really mattered was his own.
Of course, as you'll read in Mike Wise's story beginning on Page 12, Arenas didn't have a best friend to thank. He had to start from less than zero, a place no kid should ever be. For him, finding that nexus of belief and desire wasn't about winning at Monopoly, or even basketball. It was about surviving.
Tom Shroder is editor of the Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.