Determination Models

Sunday, October 6th 2019

I lack (but I would like to find) a relatively objective mental model for thinking about determination in practice. This post is an RFP for such a framework. I am hoping that someone may be able to point me in the right direction to gain one (or ideally, several) practical mental-models on determination.

I hope to use this framework when hiring new team members (as a pre-hire test/assesment), or when training existing team members (as a framework to aide coaching, and/or a framework they may adopt in self-directed learning). Or simply anywhere the topic of determination comes up, and someone wants some practical help to increase it.

I seem to be very determined. ‘Determined’ is the always among the first word friends, fellow-founders, investors,coworkers, etc. will use to describe me, pretty much without exception. For all the good and bad about my character, it’s probably fair to say determination is in the ‘pros’ column.

However I have never successfully translated my own determination into either (1) evaluating another person’s determination (i.e. in a job interview) or (2) helping lead another person to cultivate and grow their own determination (i.e. in coaching, leadership, management).

I have tried both (1) and (2) many times but always failed.

I hope to change that. If you can help point me in the right direction, please do. 😊

What is a ‘Framework’?

Here, by Framework I mean a set of research-based practices that someone may practically act upon. Ideally a structured practice, which is (at least somewhat) objectively-observable. A Mental-Model would be a lens through which to think about something, but not necessarily a practical guide.

Some examples of practical frameworks in other areas:

These are just off the top of my head. Each of the frameworks or mental-models above are ones that have come up in my life in the past week or so, so are just top-of-mind. Most of them are well-researched (except NVC).

They work, and they are practical. The mental models help you think better and the frameworks describe a deliberate practice to make progress in real life (while “deliberate practice” is, itself, a mental-model - see how that’s useful?).

In leadership I want to find a framework (or at least, a mental-model) to:

  • (1) evaluate determination in someone (i.e. in a job interview); or
  • (2) help guide someone to cultivate determination (i.e. coaching).

I know of no such framework or mental-model for determination. 😕😢 I would really like to find one (or better yet, several). I know about grit in psychology but only as a post-hoc measure, not in terms of a proactive framework.

I hope you can point me in a good direction.

Self-Deception in Self-Evaluation

First, an aside…

Finding relatively objectively-observable frameworks seems to be particularly important when it comes to determination. Objectively-observable rather than say, basing things on someone’s self-evaluation: i.e. ‘how determined do you think you are?’ or ‘in what situation do you think you showed most determination?’.

This is because most people (or more specifically, most people’s ego) seem to have an immunity to reality, when it comes to determination. Rationalizations conver their self-evaluations into, really, just self-deceptions.

When most people faced with tough challenges give up, avoiding the pain and discomfort the challenge brings, they will ‘rationalize it away’ to keep their ego intact. They avoid both the challenge, and the defeat.

Determination Flow

And they believe their rationalizations (at least, consciously). Even when these rationalizations contradict the beliefs and values they say they have, they’ll jiu-jitsu their reasoning in strange acrobatics until they have rationalizations that seem at least somewhat justifyable, to avoid the challenge (its pain, discomfort).

“I have seen CEOs try to cope with the stress by drinking heavily, checking out, and even quitting. In each case, the CEO has a marvelous rationalization why it was OK for him to punk out or quit, but none them will ever be great CEOs. Great CEOs face the pain.” ⇢ from Ben Horowitz, What’s The Most Difficult CEO Skill? Managing Your Own Psychology.

The lengths people go to with these rationalizations…anyway…

edit: it’s also important to be clear that we’re talking about rationalizations here, which are intellectually dishonest. One friend took issue with the lack of room for intellectually honest reasons.

Parsing the two is extremely difficult, but typically when faced with uncomfortable experiences I think people tend to have far more rationaliations than reasons (I’d love to know a mental model to help parse these, too).

Rationalizations preserve ego by concealing (or at least, trying to…) the gap between a person’s:

  • (1) Espoused Theory of Action (what they say about themselves); and
  • (2) Theory-in-use (what they actually do; despite what they say)

(⇢ see this for summary on Chris Argyris’ work: or others on Action Science and Double Loop Learning)

I mention this because when it comes to determination, at least in my experience, this gap often seems very large for most people. People think they are determined, but they don’t act that way…yet when they don’t act that way, they fall-back on ‘rationalizing-away’ the need to.

It’s a generalization not a rule, but at least in my own experience seems to be majority-accurate.

(this poor ability to self-evaluate determination is why I made a point of mentioning that it is others who evaluate me as determined earlier, rather than evaluating myself that way)…

And since I hope to find a Determination Framework or mental-model for leadership purposes, in order to…

  • (1) evaluate determination in someone (i.e. in a job interview); or
  • (2) help guide someone to cultivate determination (i.e. coaching)

…any useful framework will therefore need to help make someone’s Theory-in-use (what they actually do) apparent and relatively objective to both myself and to the other person (no more ‘rationalize-away’).

If the framework only dismantles rationalizations ‘after the fact’ once determination has already failed and rationalizations have taken its place, it will not be very useful in leadership.

The rationalizations themselves, are not real. Kill one and another will take its place like a game of whack-a-mole. So as a leader I really want a framework that will dig into the root. To help someone (and help me) objectively see and cultivate their determination in an intellecutally-honest way before it’s too late.

To help reach double-loop learning in determination.

Known Frameworks (to me)

There are a few semi-related frameworks I already know about. Most are well-researched. All have been very effective for me personally in my own growth, but have been relatively less effective in leadership.

Action Science

I’ve mentioned the Action Science framework a few times above. It’s a set of practices developed mostly by Chris Argyris and Donald Schön.

It’s a bit too big to summarize here. You can maybe read this link.

For our purposes here let’s say that Action Science is a set of tools which help to dig beyond an Espoused Theory (what someone say about themselves) and into a Theory-in-use (what they actually do).

It’s a great tool for leaders and organizations. Like, really great. However it has not been particularly helpful in aiding determination.

It is somewhat helpful because if you’re going to play whack-a-mole exposing rationalizations, at least Action Science is a good way to do it.

However I’m not sure it will help me: (1) evaluate determination (i.e. in a job interview); (2) cultivate determination (i.e. as a coach).

Responsability Process

Christopher Avery describes the Responsability Process mental-model as a series of progressively-mature mindsets on responsability. He’s likely expanding on Andy Grove‘s similar responsability framework in High Output Management.

Responsability Process

In this sense ‘responsibility’ and ‘determination’ are pretty much the same thing. The responsible person here will not move down and to the left on the ladder away from responsibility, by creating rationalizations that blame others or blame circumstace, to talk themselves out of acting in a determined way.

It works by using cognitive reframing to recognize your rationalizations for what they are, then reframe the thought into something healthier (i.e. reframe your way from denial ⇢ through to responsability).

I (personally) love this mental-model and Avery gives some advice on turning the mental-model into practical Framework in real life. It’s great. Like, really great. Implementing this type of reframed thinking leads to a better life (at least, according to me). It’s that good.

But I have not found it that helpful as a leader to:

  • (1) evaluate determination (i.e. in an interview)

It’s helpful for basics, like watching-out for someone who ‘blames others’ in an interview. You can catch the blame-game easily, when evaluating someone. However the absense of blaming others is not far enough up the Responsibility ladder to really demonstrate a person’s determination.

Evaluating the higher-rungs of the ladder via conversation (i.e. in an interview) I have found to be much more difficult than evaluating the lower-rungs (which is fairly easy).

Though it has been somewhat helpful in:

  • (2) cultivating determination (i.e. as a coach)

…but on #2, only somewhat. I find it extremely effective personally, but it does not seem to work well when given to others as Avery himself points out. This tool only works with deep buy-in from the practitioner, which makes it somewhat less effective as a coaching tool for leaders.

It can work sometimes, but only in those cases where the person you are coaching is already intrinsically bought-in to the process. In other words, it works when self-directed. You can recommend the process to someone, but you cannot do much more than that.

Edit: Avery’s shared the genesis of his ideas with me on Twitter (see below). He and Grove share some common ideas but seem to have arrived at them independently. Thanks to Avery for sharing ☺️

Challenge vs. Threat Response

The Threat Response ⇢ to ⇢ Challenge Response Framework is also a type of Cognitive Reframing. For more you can see Kelly McGonigal’s work.

Where in Avery’s Framework you negative views of responsability and shift them to a responsible mindset, in McGonigal’s you take a feeling of stress and threat and shift it to a feeling of growth-inducing challenge.

Both the responsibility to view challenges positively (Avery), and the conversion of negative-stress into viewing challenges as opportunities for growth, are helpful and practical frameworks in building determination.

This model has been the most helpful to me in (1) evaluating (i.e. in a job interview). However asking someone to change how they think hasn’t been very practical to (2) cultivate determination (i.e. as a coach).

Sure, the framework works. But it only works if the person actually does it. Suggesting the model in 1-1’s with team members typically isn’t very effective, to lead to actual execution. Someone must adopt and deeply apply-themselves to this process, independently.

Her book is good if you’re interested in the science.


When it comes to evaluating determination (i.e. in a job interview) no tool has really been helpful. When it comes to cultivating determination (i.e. as a coach) some can kind-of, sort-of help but only to the extent they pick-apart and dismantle rationalizations to expose them for what they are.

But…by the time you’re dismantling rationalizations, playing rationalization whack-a-mole, it’s often already too late. Determination has failed, and the time to either evaulate for it or to cultivate it as a leader has already past. In other words, you have failed as a leader, leading to a failure in determination.

Frameworks like Action Science can be used proactively to deeply engage with root causes at a level that most teams never achieve. It’s very powerful. However, though it can bring great clarity to just about anything, it does not touch on the emotional and human aspects of determination.

You could use Action Science to objectively talk about determination with someone, but it is not really a framework for that person to cultivate their determination proactively over time. You could sort of use it this way, and perhaps it would be helpful. However I’m worried about man-with-a-hammer syndrome creeping in when applying Action Science here. There must be a better way for determination…

I hope to find a framework (or mental-model) that can be proactively effective at the level of evaluating and cultivating determination itself (not at the reactive level of dismantling rationalizations objectively,after determination has already failed).

⇢ So, any ideas? Can anyone point me in any good directions?

I wanted to write that post to ask that question of my friends…so let me know what you’ve got.

Edit (Mental-Models My Friends Have Given Me):

  • Skin-in-the-game mental model
    • This means pinpointing someone’s own, individual, unique motivation at a given challenge. What’s the growth that they (and they, uniquely, based on what they value) will gain from overcoming this challenge.
    • This (in hindsight) is an obvious model to apply in coaching, on determination. There’s a few good frameworks I already have for this.
    • Motivation mental models like Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose are obviously helpful here too.
    • Thanks @Ian.
  • Paul Graham’s Anatomy of Determination is a mental-model for determination based on (1) Willfullness, (2) Discipline, and (3) Ambition. It talks about the ability to train some of these things. I’d totally forgotten this article. Thanks @Mark.

I’ve found this book. It gives a lot of answers:
On Mental Toughness

I’ll update the list if I get more.

The habit of failure is purely mental and is the mother of fear. This habit gets itself fixed on men because they lack vision. They start out to do something that reaches from A to Z. At A they fail, at B they stumble, and at C they meet with what seems to be an insuperable difficulty. They then cry “Beaten” and throw the whole task down. They have not even given themselves a chance really to fail; they have not given their vision a chance to be proved or disproved. They have simply let themselves be beaten by the natural difficulties that attend every kind of effort.
More men are beaten than fail. It is not wisdom they need or money, or brilliance, or “pull,” but just plain gristle and bone. This rude, simple, primitive power which we call “stick-to-it-iveness” is the uncrowned king of the world of endeavour. People are utterly wrong in their slant upon things. They see the successes that men have made and somehow they appear to be easy. But that is a world away from the facts. It is failure that is easy. Success is always hard. A man can fail in ease; he can succeed only by paying out all that he has and is. It is this which makes success so pitiable a thing if it be in lines that are not useful and uplifting. ⇢ Henry Ford, My Life and Work

“I’m convinced that about half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.” ⇢ Steve Jobs

“[Determination] has turned out to be the most important quality in startup founders. We thought when we started Y Combinator that the most important quality would be intelligence. That’s the myth in the Valley…But as long as you’re over a certain threshold of intelligence, what matters most is determination. You’re going to hit a lot of obstacles. You can’t be the sort of person who gets demoralized easily.” ⇢ Paul Graham, What We Look for in Founders

“They have a whatever-it-takes attitude. There are some things about running a startup that are not fun. Mediocre founders try to hire people for the parts that they don’t like. Great founders just do whatever they think is in the best interest of the company, even if they’re not “passionate” about that part of the business.” ⇢ Sam Altman on Super Successful Companies