Almost a year ago I took a retreat to consider what I was up against starting this crazy get-an-MBA-and-start-a-business life. I decided that I had four priorities and everything else had to go. On and off French language study from the last two decades? Dropped. Complicated knitting projects? No.
Allowing yourself to leave a commitment is often essential to strengthening both other commitments and core values. (Here’s an example from Prodigal Magazine this week.) I took it a bit too far though. All business all the time. I quit writing in my diary because I had nothing else to write about.
My mother had warned me about making commitments like that. Several times as a child I was pulled toward all-encompassing activities and she steered me other directions. When I went to the United States Junior Women Sailing Championship in 1991 at age 16, she was pleased that I was good enough at sailing to place in the top 20 but not single-minded enough to be in the top 10. She listened to the top moms explain their single-minded drive to the Olympics with a look of pained toleration.
There is a Puritan in the back of the mind, arguing that driving commitment is what it is all about. Malcolm Gladwell told us about the 10,000 hours in Outliers (debunked here), kicking off the current fetish for single-mindedness as the key to success. However, even success has to conform to some quotidienne rules. Sometimes the rules are simple: everyone knew that when Lance Armstrong was proven to have used drugs, we would turn on him because we think that commitment should have limits. Sometimes the rules are complicated: We admire Marissa Mayer, but only when she makes extreme success look easy. When she demands that everyone at Yahoo make the same commitment she has, we don’t like her so much any more because we aren’t really there. The rules keep the success fetish under control, and rules that weaken commitment are actually part of resilience.
The Now Habit has a lot of good advice around the idea that painful, life-damaging commitments are what leads to procrastination and failure to produce. Author Niel Fiore cites the work of psychologist Patricia Linville on “self-complexity”:
…the more complex and varied your sense of self, the less likely you are to become depressed over stress in one area, because ‘you have these uncontaminated ares of your life that can act as buffers.’
Varied commitments weaken ties to any one commitment and make people more resilient. Women with self-complexity are less likely to enter abusive relationships and if abused rebound better, students are less stressed out about tasks, people can be more attentive to their friends and partners. Malcolm Gladwell ended Outliers with the story of his mother and all of the different lifelines of meaning that fed her story of resilience.
The problem of the modern world is that specialization makes a society richer… So there’s no point in doctors coming home after their day and starting making yogurt, or train drivers making their children’s clothes. It makes absolutely no sense from an economic point of view. The problem is it might make sense from a meaning point of view.
When I made my four commitments last year, I stopped writing in my journal because I had nothing to write about. And then I broke. I became depressed. It wasn’t possible to live without an uncontaminated area of my life because all I did was work. So I started writing this blog. Because I had to have something to blog about other than business, I started reading books that were nothing about business. I started writing in my journal again. I’m even worse at my four commitments than I was before because I don’t have time for any of this. But I am much, much happier.
Linville, Patricia W. (1987) ”Self-Complexity as a Cognitive Buffer Against Stress-Related Illness and Depression.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 52(4):663-676. Referenced by: Fiore, Neil A. The Now Habit. New York, NY: Penguin Group. l. 520
Steinberg, Jennifer A., Pineles, Susanne L., Gardner, Wendi L. & Mineka, Susan. (2003). “Self-complexity As a Potential Cognitive Buffer Among Abused Women.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 22(5):560-579