Advertising
Advertising

The Nature of Commitment

The Nature of Commitment

20091014-commitment

    In a comment on my recent post about breaking up, someone asked if I’d write a follow-up about staying together. I’ve actually written about successful relationships before, based less on my own experience than on the work of relationship psychologists, so I’ll just refer you there if you’re looking for relationship advice. But thinking about what goes into a committed relationship got me thinking about the nature of commitment itself. What does it mean to be committed to something, whether to a person, a cause, a project, a government, a job, or an institution?

    It’s funny how many of the words that we use to describe devotion are also used to describe insanity. The word “fan”, for instance, refers to someone who is a devoted admirer of an artist, musician, author, or other creator (or a piece of their work), but it comes from “fanatic”, a maniacal follower of some cause or leader. The guy in line at the Stephen King signing is a fan; the guy who follows him around from signing to signing claiming King killed John Lennon is a fanatic.

    Advertising

    Likewise, we use the same word, “committed”, to describe someone’s devotion to a cause or person as we use to describe their incarceration in a mental institution. Is there a similarity? Well, to be committed means to pledge, bind, or oblige one’s self to something: a course of action, a system of beliefs, or indeed a medical treatment facility.

    So, is being committed a sort of insanity? Well, no — but certainly there are some similarities between the kind of obsession that leads us to do horrible things to ourselves or others and the kind of obsession that leads us to greatness. We can look at someone like Steve Jobs and see that at work, the single-minded commitment to a vision of how the world should and could work, and the refusal to acknowledge other, “lesser” ways.

    OK, enough prologue. What is commitment, then?

    Advertising

    1. Commitment is passion.

    Obsessive passion, maybe. Someone who is truly committed to something can’t not do it. You can’t live without accomplishing your cause or being with your significant other. Fulfilling that commitment gives you great pleasure — being with the person you love, pushing forward a project you believe in, creating a tiny pocket of betterness in the world, these are deeply satisfying to the person who is committed.

    2. Commitment is action.

    Actions speak louder than words, right? A person who is committed shows that commitment, over and over, in his or her actions. If your actions don’t match your commitment, you simply aren’t committed to it. You may have a belief, a hunch, a preference, a desire, but not a commitment.

    3. Commitment is obligation.

    What separates the truly committed from the rest of us is the way they embrace the crappiest parts of the job, setting their jaw and taking on the work that the rest of us wouldn’t dream of. It’s the parent scrubbing puke from the carpet at 4 in the morning, the doting spouse helping their aged partner on and off the toilet, the executive who flies halfway around the room to apologize in person for a badly flubbed marketing campaign, the firefighter who charges into a dangerous fire because he or she hears screaming, the soldier who holds his or her ground while the rest of company flees. You do these things not because they are fun or pleasurable in their own right, but because your commitment demands you do them.

    Advertising

    4. Commitment is larger than the self.

    Commitments are personal, but they’re also about relationships. The committed artist sacrifices everything to express his or her inner vision to the world. The committed lover cares first and foremost for the emotional and physical well-being of his or her partner. The committed performer takes the stage in the service of the audience. The committed activist creates a better world not for him- or herself but for the generations to come. True commitment embraces and engages the world.

    5. Commitment is voluntary.

    Commitment is obligation, yes, but it’s freely chosen obligation. Even the draftee chooses to be a hero in the heat of combat — or not to be. The environmentalist huddling shivering in a cold boat in arctic waters, protecting a pod of whales from a whaling ship, can take refuge in the fact that they chose to be there. The parent chooses to have and keep a child, no matter how accidental the pregnancy; the spouse chooses to stay in the marriage; the worker chooses to stay on the job.  It is that choice that makes it a commitment — without the choice it’s just slavery.

    (Ironically, being committed to a mental institution is not voluntary. Oh well…)

    Advertising

    When we feel forced into something, when we feel obligations hanging on us like an albatross, when our actions fail to match our beliefs — these are signs that we aren’t as committed as maybe we thought we were. Maybe not committed at all. Pay attention to those signs — it’s easy to convince ourselves of a commitment that isn’t really a commitment at all.

    So, what did I miss? And what are you committed to? Let’s talk about commitment in the comments.

    More by this author

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

    Trending in Featured

    1 Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) 2 How To Start a Conversation with Anyone 3 Where Am I Going? How to Put Your Life in Context 4 How to Become an Early Riser and Stay Energetic Throughout the Day 5 5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    Advertising

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    Advertising

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Advertising

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    Advertising

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

    Read Next