Recently, I wrote a piece about how to commit to the things you start. In it, I argued that most people are spectacularly bad at committing to things which don’t have a culturally or socially-enforced system of accountability.
This is unfortunate, because being successful in life inevitably depends on either doing things that weren’t mandatory or being lucky with circumstances. Since you can’t control the latter, working harder and smarter on goals of your own design is the only option available to you.
Additionally, I argued that most people are bad at committing to things because its, contrary to appearances, a rarely used skill. Most people are good at following through when that is required by social conventions or expectations. It’s when nobody expects you to stick to your exercise plan, business idea, efforts to learn a valuable new career skill, etc.. that things get hard.
One of the big pieces of advice I gave on acquiring this skill was to set shorter projects. Since committing to things is really hard, you can get better at it by practicing where it is a lot easier to commit. Shorter projects have less likelihood of having major, unexpected interruptions where you need to choose between maintaining your commitment and experiencing unwanted side-effects.
However, short projects don’t always work. Some of the most important goals you can achieve are a necessary product of a considerable period of sustained effort. The argument here is rather simple:
Premise #1: Rare and valuable things get rewarded.
Premise #2: Commitment to non-socially mandated goals is rare. Its rarity increases as the length and demands of the commitment increase.
Conclusion: Being able to commit to long-term goals and projects will be especially highly rewarded, not despite the fact that it is rare, but because of it.
Why Committing to Long Goals Pays
When I first got interested in the idea of starting an online business, it was clearly a commitment that exceeded, or occasionally went against, social expectations. It also required a long learning period and slow build-up to be successful. It took me seven years from my initial interest to getting to a point where I could scrape by. However, another seven after that, I now have two full-time employees and more than a dozen part-time team members.
It’s obviously not the case that my business was successful merely because I took a long time to do it. I could have spent two decades and, if I didn’t provide enough value or I lacked the ability to learn how to do so, it would have been a wasted effort.
However, it’s also clear to me that being able to commit to a goal that wasn’t socially enforced for nearly a decade, also severely limited my competition. If committing for that long was relatively easy, many people would do it and the relative profits and prestige of being a full-time writer and business owner would be a lot less.
This suggests, to me, that cultivating the skill to commit to long projects has a lot of potential value. The problem, however, is that cultivating this skill is hard and choosing where to apply it is even harder.
Why Long-Term Commitments is Both Incredibly Rewarding but Potentially Risky
Before I go into the nuts-and-bolts of how I think someone can get better at this skill, I’d like to explain why I think it isn’t the default for human behavior. If being able to commit to long projects has a huge potential reward—why isn’t it more common?
A simple answer would go to evolutionary psychology and the peculiarities of our modern environment. We evolved to live in a certain type of environment: hunter gatherer bands. This environment didn’t really reward doing weird, non-socially mandated goals and so we didn’t evolve the psychology for it. Furthermore, until very recently, it probably wasn’t the case that this kind of behavior was particularly productive for agricultural or preindustrial efforts, so we’ve also been a bit slow to develop the cultural tools to enforce this kind of thinking.
The longer answer, I think, is that our cultures do enforce commitment to a lot of long-term goals. Education, for one, is a really long-term goal that a surprising percentage of the population nonetheless pushes through, despite frequent difficulties.
The key to the kinds of commitments I’m describing, however, is that they are not socially mandated. This means they involve spending a lot of effort to exploit some opportunity in the environment that was not a common enough feature, or requires a relatively exceptional set of abilities to take advantage of, that our cultures didn’t build tools to encourage people to go after it.
Entrepreneurship, developing valuable skills, long-term investing, cultivating deep personal networks, deep and introspective personal development—these are all long-term commitments to things that go beyond what is culturally required. My theory is that they must not be defaults for one of the following reasons:
- They are not actually, on average, good opportunities.
- They require talents, abilities and resources that are not possessed by a large enough concentration of the population to become encoded in norms and standards for that group.
- They are too new or variable to have become a common set of expectations.
The first reason, is quite common. Entrepreneurship benefits the entrepreneur when he or she is successful. However, many times people fail when starting a new business. Given that failures, particularly if debt was involved, may cause more pain than being extra rich causes more pleasure, it may be that some opportunities which require extra commitment aren’t actually such a good deal on average.
The second reason is also common. If success requires an unusual set of abilities, it may not be possible to encode them as social norms, since, for most people, pursuing the commitment doesn’t make sense. Wanting to become a Fields’ Medalist mathematician is a valid long-term commitment for a select few, but probably not for you or I, who lack the one-in-a-hundred-million raw talent to succeed.
The third reason, is less common, but it also happens. The idea of creating a start-up with bootstrapped resources and succeeding at a massive scale is incredibly recent. When I got into blogging, there were very few people who did it professionally, so the idea that you could create content online and that was a viable business wasn’t widespread.
All of these reasons suggest that whenever you have a long-term commitment to a goal that isn’t culturally mandated, you’re taking a potential risk. If it were such a good idea, why wouldn’t we expect everyone to do it?—is an important question to ask yourself.
This doubt, I believe, is more important than anything in undermining the ability to commit to long-term projects. Short-term commitment is usually a matter of overcoming myopia—getting yourself to stick to things even though, in the short-term, you’d rather do something else. Long-term commitment, however, is usually more a challenge of faith. You have to convince yourself that this opportunity is worth pursuing, even though society doesn’t implicitly agree with you.
Given this, it’s not surprising that giving up faith in your goal is probably the biggest reason for failing at longer-term commitments of this type.
How To Get Better at Committing to Long-Term Projects
For short-term commitments, my previously recommended advice to focus on commitment for commitment’s sake is useful. Giving up a month or three on a project that turned out to be a dud is hardly a major cost. Plus, the mental habit of sustaining a commitment to a previous goal is probably worth any inconvenience.
For long-term commitments that span years or decades, however, this stickiness can be a major problem. Spending ten years on a path that turns out to dead-end is a hard mistake to recover from. Worse, it can undermine your confidence in future projects, so even if you had the possibility of a later success, the blow might prevent you from even trying the second time.
There is, I think, a way around this, but it involves cultivating a kind of commitment that is even more difficult to build than the short-term inflexible kind. Long-term flexible commitment.
Flexible commitment is kind of an oxymoron. Commitment implies rigidity. It implies promising to do what you said you’d do. Flexibility, on the other hand, suggests that you can do what you want and change your mind midway down the road.
Long-term commitments struggle because, if they were such good ideas, they tend to become socially mandated or highly-lauded social activities. That means, for any project, whether it’s starting a business, ultralearning, aggressive career development, etc.., there’s a decent chance the project is simply misguided. And that chance means losing faith and giving up a few months or years into a project that requires decades to see success will be extremely likely.
Flexible commitment can help overcome this by bringing together two properties. Flexibility to change the terms of your goal as information becomes available allowing you to redirect efforts and commitment to the core effort so as to not abandon your goal entirely.
What I didn’t mention about my journey to running a successful small business was how much it changed over time. At first I was going to make video games. Later, that turned into software for personal development. Then blogging… with ads, then affiliate partnerships, then self-published ebooks, then membership programs for students, and finally higher-end video courses. Virtually nothing concrete of my initial goal remained, beyond the broad ambition to do some kind of online business where I could make things and get paid for those creative acts.
What many people fail at with long-term commitments is that they make their initial vision too rigid. That means new information can’t get incorporated into your vision and you either get stuck in dead-ends or give up due to lack of faith in the overall endeavor.
The Winding Path of Flexible Commitment
I liken long-term commitments to a winding path. Most people understand a straight-line path: they can see their goal and the way to reach it, and they execute on that plan. True, sometimes unexpected obstacles come up or things are harder than they imagined, but they can fundamentally see the goal they are aiming at.
Winding paths are different. Here the actual destination is obscured by mountains ahead and you can only go where you want by first venturing in some direction and, then, when there is more view ahead of you, readjusting your path at setting off again.
If you follow a winding path, you are constantly renegotiating the terms of your goal and what it might look like when you reach the endpoint. What is held constant is a fairly abstract idea that gets filled in with new details as you see more of the path ahead.
How to Walk the Winding Path of Long-Term Commitments
How do you actually apply flexible, long-term commitments?
The base ability is first to stick to short commitments. A short commitment is usually in the order of one to six months, although for special projects it might actually be a year or two if that is a particularly concrete step towards a longer goal.
Only if you’re able to stick to short commitments is flexibly committing even a possibility. If you’re unable to successfully follow through on most or all of your goals that span a couple of months, don’t go further than this. Get better at that skill first.
The next ability for a flexible commitment is to understand your goal at different levels. The highest level, which has the most rigidity built it, should be fairly abstract. It should contain enough of the things you really want to fuel your ambition, but it shouldn’t be pushy about the details. In my case, I knew that I wanted to run an online business. I knew that I wanted to make things and I liked the idea of building a complete system that would fund my livelihood, rather than simply create a job for myself that happened to be done online.
That vision, however, was woefully abstract for actually making plans. The next layer was to set a much more specific agenda of how I could fulfill this. These plans often ranged from short projects of a few months (write an ebook), to really long projects of a couple years (build a large email list).
These longer plans may be misguided, however. This means you need to have periodic reviews where you can change your direction and incorporate new ideas. What’s important is that these reviews don’t interfere with the short-term process of committing described above. If you constantly change your short-term plans, you rarely see progress and frequently flop around to whatever suits your mood in that moment.
I find the way that works best for me is to imagine my ambitions on two levels: a goal level, which is big-picture and abstract. It has just enough detail to inspire, but not so much that I’m stuck pursuing things that don’t matter when conditions change. Underneath that I have projects: these tend to be short-to-medium term efforts I think will help realize the larger goal.
Two layers is good for most pursuits, but occasionally, if a project itself is really large, it might subdivide into additional layers of abstract ambition and concrete commitments.
The flexibility of the system comes once one leg of a short-term commitment has ended. This provides an opportunity for pivoting and redirecting. At any moment, I’m usually bound by short-term commitments, but since those expire after a few months or, at most, a year, I can readjust if they no longer make sense.
Building this skill isn’t easy. Flexible commitment has all the challenges of committing to things, plus additional difficulties of needing to switch your mental stance from one of certain effort to self-doubt and revising opinion. That schism in thinking requires a lot of care because it is very easy to go too far in one direction, or to fail to time it out properly and be rigid when you need to rethink or floppy when you need to be committed.
However, if short-term commitment is an incredibly powerful skill to cultivate, long-term, flexible commitment is almost a superpower. Since most people can barely accomplish goals of a few months when it isn’t socially expected, the space of what can be achieved if you can do this over decades is far, far greater than most people realize.