I’ve always struggled with commitment. In a world as grand as ours, shouldn’t we try to experience it all? Change it up. Visit every country. Try a bunch of careers. The menu of life is vast, and it’d be a shame to only order a single entrée.
When I say I was allergic to restraint, I mean it. I was the tantrum-throwing 3rd grader who refused to RSVP to birthday parties because I didn’t want to be tied down on a Saturday afternoon. Early in my career, I was also the guy who kept up with ten different industries so I wouldn’t have to define myself by any single one of them. But recently, my values have started to change. I now want multi-decade friendships and a professional life where I can build things that compound in value at an exponential rate; I want a place I call home and a large family I can share that home with; and I want to become an expert in the ideas that resonate with me most instead of suffering from shiny object syndrome.
As my priorities have shifted, I’ve discovered a tradeoff between the shine of novelty and the consistency of commitment. Western culture over-indexes on novelty. It suffers from commitment phobia. I see this in our culture of digital nomadism, job-hopping among yuppies, and listening to books at 3x speed instead of reading them deeply. Anxiety is the driving force behind this game of hopscotch.
The problem is that a life without commitment is a life spent hugging the X-Axis.
I often see the same pattern with Write of Passage students, when I mention the idea of a Personal Monopoly at the start of the course. You achieve a Personal Monopoly once you become the go-to person in your area of expertise. Though students are drawn to the benefits of such expertise, they don’t want to pay the price of commitment required to achieve it.
They’re scared of trapping themselves in an intellectual box that’ll constrict their identity. But in that fear, they’re underestimating the depth of expertise and the range of opportunities available to people with a reputation for excellence in a particular area. (One of my students, Ana Lorena Fabrega comes to mind — she’s become one of the most influential minds in childhood education because she’s so committed to it). And besides, people with Personal Monopolies choose their own limitations. What looks narrow to another person ends up feeling expansive to them. Through commitment, they step off the X-Axis and unlock a new world of potential.
Where does our culture of commitment phobia come from?
I have hypotheses, but no firm conclusions. Here, I’ll present three theories: a cultural one, a technological one, and a sociological one.
For a cultural explanation, I look at the rise of liberalism. In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen argues that the project of liberalism seeks to detach us from the constraints that once tied us down — family, culture, place, identity, tradition. As liberalism grew more popular, the circumstances of kin and place became more malleable. Thus, today’s Westerners are increasingly free to shape their identity. I don’t think liberalism is inherently a bad thing, but like anything else, it has its tradeoffs. Freed from the ties of kin and place, people aren’t bound by the traditional virtues of honor and loyalty, which are two of the defining pillars of a commitment-heavy culture.
For a technological explanation, I look at our culture of abundance. The “so muchness” of modern life has given us commitment anxiety. It’s a version of the Paradox of Choice, which argues that people can reduce anxiety by eliminating choice. You see this in the New York dating scene, where the same people who complain about their inability to find a partner refuse to commit to good matches. I get it, though. When the dating market is large and liquid, people hold out for their dream partner thinking that a better option is just a swipe away. But happily-ever-after matches are made more than they’re found. When I moved to Austin, where the dating market isn’t nearly as big, I was immediately struck by how much faster couples committed to each other. Those who do seem happier because of it. The same principle applies outside the dating market and on the Internet, where information is always a click away. The more options surround you, the less likely you are to make long-term commitments. That’s why I can read a book on a Kindle, but not on my iPhone Kindle app. The words are the same, but the context isn’t — and easy access to the Internet reduces my attention span to that of a sidewalk pigeon.1
Our culture of abundance may explain one of the weirdest parts of the Internet: even though we’re just a click away from the greatest authors of all-time, from Plato to Tolstoy, we default to just scrolling social media.
For a sociological explanation, I look at shortening time horizons. People in most Western countries are having kids at below replacement rate. People are getting married later too. Instead of thinking about building intergenerational family wealth, people are thinking about their own desires and their own freedom. People are more likely to grind for their own success instead of their family name. Furthermore, I worry about our culture of antinatalism because having children gives you a stake in the world of tomorrow, and that stake is driven by blood. What happens when our world leaders don’t have children? Here’s a guess: a culture of shortening time horizons where people value the present more and the future less.
Short time horizons may increase anxiety too. Consider the difference between a day trader and a buy-and-hold investor. The archetype of the day trader is something like Jordan Belfort from Wolf of Wall Street. He lives in a state of perpetual urgency, as his portfolio swings between immense highs and lows. Looking at my friends who used to trade, I swear their hairs have grayed a little faster. I contrast them with the buy-and-hold style of Warren Buffett, who is famous for sitting in his office and reading all day. Though he’s been investing for decades, his strategy’s never really changed: buy good companies at an under-valued price and hold them for a long time. Though his life is certainly more hectic than the one he projects, Buffett reminds us that a long-term outlook will narrow your emotional amplitude.
The cadence of your work shapes your temperament. When you’re a day trader, every phone notification matters. But when you’re a committed buy-and-hold investor, you can mostly ignore them. The longer your time horizon, the calmer life becomes. Zoom out far enough and once-gargantuan hurdles turn into tiny speed bumps on the road of life.
Doing anything meaningful starts with a long time horizon. That’s one reason why the Romans allowed only the land-owner class to vote. When you can’t just pack up your bags and move to a new property, you have to consider the long-term implications of your actions. Though the spirit of this ancient law can’t be replicated today because the real estate market is so liquid, it’s fun to consider how society would change if only people who committed to owning land for the next 100 years could vote. For one, whether by selfless love or selfish gain, people would invest more in their communities. Ownership affects how people treat objects too. For a more modern example, the same car owners who frequent the local car wash wouldn’t consider washing their rental car on vacation.
Long time horizons change our incentives, usually in good ways. This is one of the core findings of game theory: people treat each other better when they intend to interact repeatedly in the future.
It’s not just humans either. Primates engage in social grooming where they’ll clean each other’s bodies to get rid of parasites like fleas, lice, and ticks. But primates spend far more time grooming each other than they’d need to if cleanliness was their only goal. Even more bizarre, there’s no correlation between the amount of fur on a primate’s body and the amount of time they spend grooming each other. What’s going on? Primatologists like Robin Dunbar argue that grooming rituals are as much about creating alliances as they are about hygiene. Though Gelada baboons could keep their fur clean with only 30 minutes of social grooming per day, they devote 120 minutes per day to the practice. This kind of hyper-social behavior only makes sense in a tribe, where the primates will have many engagements with each other.
The point is that a decision that’s irrational with a short time horizon can be hyper-rational with a long one. Consider clothing. As a kid, my parents never bought nice clothes for me because I outgrew them so fast. Though it made me upset at the time, they were right. The less you think you’re going to wear something, the less it makes sense to invest in high-end garments. But knowing that I won’t have any more growth spurts, I recently bought an expensive winter coat. Though the price tag stung as much as the cold it was protecting me from, the cost was justified because I plan to wear it for the rest of my life. Hopefully, I’ll pass it onto my children too. Amortized over a long enough time horizon, buying a high-end coat you can wear for decades can actually be an economical decision.
Hugging the X-Axis
As a result of these convergent trends — the rise of liberalism, technological abundance, and short time horizons — we’ve been overvaluing optionality at the expense of commitment.
The genesis of my realization goes back to a Harvard commencement speech called The Trouble with Optionality.2 In it, professor Mihir A. Desai defines optionality as “the state of enjoying possibilities without being on the hook to do anything.” With enough optionality, you can always change what you’re doing in order to pursue something better. Desai critiques students for seeing optionality as an end in itself. Instead of trying to work towards a meaningful goal they can commit to, they try to accumulate options in order to delay making a firm commitment. The result is that we’re under-committed as a society (with the curious exception of tattoos, which are everywhere now).
Long time horizons are distinct from definitive step-by-step plans. Though life will always exceed my ability to plan in advance, I’m committed to Write of Passage and the regular writing practice that generates essays like this because they help me climb the Y-Axis.
People think they’ll be happy if they don’t have any obligations. In actuality, total optionality is a recipe for emptiness — and hugging the X-axis — because opportunity and optionality are often inversely correlated. The challenge is that the greatest rewards generally go to people who are tied down in certain ways. A real lifelong marriage is the deepest relationship you’ll ever have because you’ve committed to a lifetime of faithfulness.3 Likewise, you only get to raise money for a startup when investors are confident you’re committed for the long haul. The challenge is that people who treat their lives like a game of hot potato, always moving from thing to thing, can’t take advantage of exponential curves — and climb the Y-axis.
While writing this piece, I attended my first Indian wedding. I learned that in traditional arranged marriages, the bride and groom meet for the first time during the wedding. To a Westerner like myself, the divorce rates are surprisingly low for people in arranged marriages (the reality is complex and beyond the scope of this footnote. And no, I’m not about to step into an arranged marriage). Perhaps their success comes from a cultural belief that great marriages are made more than they’re found. If so, commitment is even more important than I’m making it out to be.
Though the point of having options is to eventually commit to something, having too many options can prevent us from committing to anything at all. When the going gets tough, people with a litany of options are more likely to jump ship than navigate the rocky waters.
No, I’m not saying you should commit to everything right away. Committing to everything is an oxymoron because attention is zero-sum, and committing too early and for too long at the get-go is foolish (don’t get married after your first date). Commitment also has opportunity costs. You can only commit to things that matter to you if you’re discerning about those that don’t. For example, committing to your kids means saying no to other obligations. Entrepreneurship is similar. Once I committed to running Write of Passage for the long term, my FOMO disappeared and I felt calmer. Though I classified my first few cohorts as an experiment until I proved out the business model, I committed to it in perpetuity long before my friends thought it was reasonable.4 I’ve seen how surface-level experimentation at the beginning can lead to deeper commitments down the road. Part of the reason I’m so tied to online writing is that I’ve explored many other paths in the past. I’ve dabbled in cryptocurrencies, consulting, advertising, broadcasting, and sports. Taken together, I’ve learned that the commitments you make in the present are made possible by the experiments you’ve tried in the past.5
Internally, we have a saying that: “A good product is subtle improvements, compounded over time.”
Though commitment is a top-down way of navigating life, most of my projects begin as bottom-up endeavors. They’re driven by intuition, curiosity, and experimentation. Once the bottom-up projects start feeling chaotic, I look at what’s naturally emerged and add a top-down structure to it. Consolidating those efforts is a form of commitment.
But, crucially, you have to experiment with the goal of eventually committing. Otherwise, you’ll remain in a state of perpetual optionality, where, like a log in the ocean, you’ll float thousands of miles without going anywhere in particular.6 This is what people mean when they say people are “adrift” these days.
When should you stop exploring and commit? Mathematicians have tried providing an answer. There is always a tradeoff between exploring new opportunities and exploiting the best ones we’ve already found. Spend too much time exploring and you’ll never enjoy the fruits. But if you jump straight into exploitation, you’ll miss the best possible opportunities. Mathematics, though, offers the optimal solution for knowing when to stop searching and commit to the best options you’ve already discovered. This is called the “Secretary Problem.” Suppose you want to hire the optimal secretary. How many people should you interview and when should you make a decision? The math shows that you maximize your chances of making an optimal choice by looking at 37% of the candidates and selecting from the best one among them. Though I’m happy to know the math, the reality of commitment is much more complicated.
Problems arise when people associate freedom with a lack of commitments. The kind of freedom that ultimately fulfills and uplifts us comes from making the right kinds of commitments. Only once these commitments are in place can we climb the Y-Axis. In business, if you want the freedom that comes with wealth, you have to commit to a company by investing your time or money. If you invest your time, you can no longer frolic from passion project to passion project. The benefits of building a company — purpose, financial security, and the sense of worth that comes from doing something important in the world — are granted only to people who show up day after day, especially when they aren’t in the mood. 7
I have to ask: How much of “Side Hustle Culture” is downstream from our fear of commitment?
We spend so much time thinking about squeezing juice from the fruit that we forget to ask what kinds of fruits are worth planting in the first place. Even if you’re just inching towards your goal, working on the correct thing is the most productivity-enhancing thing you can do. Side hustle culture is the opposite of commitment culture because you have to grind when you can’t prioritize. Most hustlers would benefit from slowing down and committing to a small number of projects instead.
Why We Should Commit
Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by writing: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
When it comes to commitment, I’ve created my own twist: “All young relationships are alike; each committed relationship is deep in its own way.”
Young relationships are characterized by the same awkward small talk and the same game of basic biographical ping-pong. Where are you from? Where’d you go to school? What do you do for a living? Blah, blah, blah.
Contrast that with the high-context relationships of childhood friends and immediate family members. Here, I think of my sister. Though our relationship has been rocky at times, we’ve developed a unique way of speaking over the years. Between memories, made-up words, and RomCom movie references, our conversations require so much context that even my parents don’t always understand what we’re talking about. We speak in a language called Breen-glish (which is an inside joke based on an inside joke). At least Mom and Dad are used to it though. Non-family members are uniquely perplexed by the way we speak in conversations that sound like code. No matter how hard I work, I could never build a relationship like the one I’ve built with her again. It’s singular. Our memories are pillars in the foundation of a relationship that can never be replicated and they bring us together in moments of disagreement. Perhaps the sunk cost “fallacy” is nature’s way of telling us to commit to each other.
But if commitment is such a worthy enterprise, why are people so hesitant to commit to things?
Because they have cause and effect backward. In Orthodoxy, G.K Chesterton writes: “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”
To illustrate the point, Chesterton distinguishes between the optimist and the patriot. The optimist loves their country because it’s on an upward trajectory, while the patriot loves something simply because it’s worthy of their love — and the trajectory is irrelevant. Being an optimist is easy. Being a patriot is hard. But with patriotism comes wisdom. Patriots know things can be worth caring for even when they’re imperfect. Often, their love expands in moments of difficulty. Think of the mother who kisses her son’s bleeding finger or the citizen who sees the brokenness of their country and runs for political office. A world without patriots is a world without perseverance, and when there’s no perseverance, there’s no meaning.
Chesterton argues that people are ultimately fulfilled not by riding the bandwagon but by acts of commitment — loving, working, and tending to things worthy of care and affection, often without rational justification. He writes: “The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason.”If Chesterton is right, then the impetus to love things as deeply as they need to be loved is beyond the calculus of rationality. I see how love transcends logic in the ways parents talk about their children. They’ll do just about anything for them, even if they aren’t able to articulate why. The second we demand reasons to love something, we descend into a sphere of utilitarian self-interest. But that’s not love. That’s a transaction. A society can’t thrive when people use a double-entry accounting system for love because intending to give more than you receive is the only way to truly love something.
Raising Your Bar for Commitment
The bottom line is commitment is undervalued. If you have commitment phobia, you’re not taking control of your own life. You’re taking your hands off the wheel of reality and letting happenstance define your life. And yeah, you take a stand whenever you make a commitment and expose yourself to the potential for pain and criticism.
In matters of the heart, commitment brings meaning. In matters of the mind, commitment brings knowledge. And in matters of the material world, running towards the responsibility that comes with commitment takes courage — and with courage comes achievement. People can only become world-class at things they commit to. Ultimately, the more hesitant people are about making commitments, the higher the rewards are for people who do. The alternative is empty hedonism and hard work without the rewards to show for it.
Long story short, commitment is undervalued.
So here’s how I suggest responding to this trend: whatever your tolerance for commitment is, raise it.
If today you’re comfortable committing to something for two hours, try committing for a weekend. If you’re comfortable committing for two weeks, then raise it to two months; once you’re comfortable with two months, raise it to two years; and once you’re comfortable with two years, raise it to two decades. It’s okay to start small. All big things do. But they have to start somehow and with commitment comes momentum. Commitment happens in stages, and only by embracing it can you stop hugging the X-Axis and climb the compounding curve.
Thanks to Ellen Fishbein, Johnathan Bi, William Jaworski, and Brent Beshore for the conversations that inspired this essay.