My generation has a thing with commitment. By thing, I mean, in general, we hate it. The very idea of committing to one plan, person, career, or family is like Kryptonite, evoking imagery of predictable routines that erode any chance of novelty, fun, and spontaneity. Our dating apps, shared economy, and chronic career hopping, all suggest what I’ve already noticed and internalized: committing to things has lost its value. Or, has it?
It’s been a while since my last essay. I'll blame it on my commitment issues. But, in that time, I’ve never once stopped thinking about ideas to share and ways to add value to you, my readers. You see, struggling to find a natural cadence is something all writers experience. Especially for bloggers like me, who publish online, it’s essential to get this rhythm right. Too many posts and you come off as a spam artist, sharing nothing but fluff, and clawing for every scrap of attention. Too few posts, and you'll just be forgotten, ignored, and whatever work you do manage to ship, will never amount to a significant contribution.
I answered someone’s question on Quora recently. Then, I found myself eating my own dog food. The question was about prioritizing time to blog. My recommendation was simply to commit and stick to it. That’s the only way I've ever succeeded in forming a new habit. Nike really says it best with their slogan, "just do it". But this essay isn't about blogging. It’s about committing, and how it might not be so bad after all.
A lot of life is based on correlating logic. If I do X, I'll receive Y. Given A, then B, and so on. Our brains have evolved to be pattern recognizing machines. Studies show we find faces with symmetrical features more attractive. We like wearing clothes with patterns. We love familiar places, people, and food. It all follows this correlating logic. Expectation, followed by anticipation, confirmation, and finally, pleasure.
Committing works differently. I’m a huge fan of New York Times, Op-Ed contributor, David Brooks. His latest books, The Social Animal, and The Road to Character have influenced me more than anything else I’ve read in the last two years. But it wasn’t his books that inspired this essay, it was his 2015, commencement address to Dartmouth University.
The moral world is not structured like the market world. It has an inverse logic. To develop morally and inside you have to follow an inverse set of rules. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is arrogance and pride. Failure can lead to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.
What’s he talking about? Earlier this year, David published, The Road To Character. In promoting its publication, David also wrote the Op-Ed piece called, “The Moral Bucket List.” I recommend taking a moment to read the article, if you haven’t already. Essentially, David is arguing that there are really two kinds of virtues: resume virtues and eulogy virtues.
As their respective titles suggest, resume virtues include things like career success, degrees, and countries visited, while eulogy virtues are character traits like kindness, bravery, loving, and honesty. The thesis is that contemporary American culture over-emphasizes resume virtues and ignores this other critical component of our humanity. The book is all about finding balance.
Let's Talk Commitment
I love my freedom. I’m your stereotypical city-dwelling, young professional, bachelor, with few possessions to my name. I can pick up my life on and move wherever the wind may take me. I pride myself on my independence and cherish my open calendar. I like setting my own deadlines and defining my self worth.
The above description may sound romantic, charming, or ideal to members of my generation. It’s counter-culture to everything we grew up with. It provides space and flexibility where there was previously structure and order. But as I look at that description now, I see it less as an accomplishment and more of a sign of immaturity. The way I really interpret the above depiction of a seemingly free lifestyle, is one of someone scared to fail.
When you commit to something, you put your reputation on the line. When you free yourself of responsibility, you never end up holding broken hearts, unfulfilled careers, or forgotten friendships. But, in doing so, you also write off any possibility of ever having these things. So I’ve been asking myself lately: is it worth it?
The Inverse Relationship Of Morality
In business, you must provide value to your customers before earning their trust and money. In relationships, you must give love in order to receive love. In finding your purpose, you must commit to something to discover something. All of these things follow this concept of inverse relationships. It’s counter-intuitive to be generous when your goal is to make a profit, but the best companies know this. It’s not natural to risk a broken heart for someone who might not return your feelings, but that’s why we call it falling in love.
My big revelation with commitment is that it too has one of these inverse relationship, with freedom. In committing, you actually gain freedom. Less time is spent contemplating the paradox of choice, and more time is given to the people and things I love and cherish. The late Steve Jobs once said, “I’m almost as proud of the things we didn’t do as the things we did.” That’s commitment.
Brooks concludes his commencement speech to Dartmouth University by suggesting the highest form of joy is found in "sending down roots". Education, exploration, discovery, all of these open your mind. Adulthood, says David, is about closing your mind, committing, and deciding what ideas you stand for. “It’s the things you chain yourself to that set you free.” I see that now. Commitment is another one of those inverse relationships and my path to commitment starts now.
Today, I’m making two small public commitments. First, I'll contribute one new essay to this blog, every Thursday, no matter what. Will it be challenging? Yes. Will I sometimes not have much to say? Yes. Am I going to do it anyway? Yes. Why? See above two-thousand words. The second thing I’m committing to is a weekly running quota. Ten miles, every week, no matter what. Follow along here. Why? because running keeps me healthy, physically, mentally, and spiritually. If I plan on living a long life, I hope to live it in good health.
I know, these aren't life-altering commitments. But I’m taking baby steps. I assume the commitment muscle is like any other, and needs exercise to grow. As I get better, I'll share my results and any new commitments that I make. Until then, think about this idea. Think about tending your metaphorical garden before fleeing to greener pastures. You might be surprised what you find there, and I hope that you’ll commit to share it with someone you love.