Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Commitment is the Constraint That Sets You Free

I don’t do moderation.

Commitment is my sword.

And I wield it on a daily basis to slay whatever dragons cross my path.

Recently, my clients and readers have been asking me a lot of questions about the relationship between commitment and creativity. And although I’ve already written extensively on topics like stick-to-itiveness and playing for keeps and treating commitment as a technique, there’s still another facet of this philosophy that’s worth exploring.

In one of my favorite books, The Art of Looking Sideways, famed visual designer Alan Fletcher wrote that the first move in any creative process is to introduce constraints.

He was referring to tangible constraints like lines and borders and shapes and colors and physical space and time, but also strategic constraints like job titles and project management and market specialization and finding target customers for your work.

And yet, there’s a larger, more theoretical constraint that most creators don’t think about.


That’s the ultimate constraint. Deciding that you’re going to show up every day and create, no matter what. Treating your work as a daily practice, thus professionalizing your art and using daily momentum to keep yourself from feeling detached from the process.

Now, since limited scientific research has been published on the psychology of personal commitment, experiential research will have to suffice.

William Hutchison Murray was a mountaineer and writer. He led a four-month, five hundred-mile trek through the Himalayas that helped blaze the trail for the conquest of Everest three years later. 

This man understood commitment. And although his powerful philosophy on the subject has been widely cited and attributed to Goethe, the entire passage actually originates from Murray’s book The Scottish Himalayan Expedition:

“We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money and booked a sailing expedition to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans. That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.”

Ask any professional creator, there’s a mysterious dimension to mundane work ethic. Commitment creates a gravitational field that draws good things into it. And so, as a constraint, commitment is actually what sets you free.

In multiple ways:

Commitment is freedom from quality. When you’ve committed to doing something everyday, there’s no stress about being perfect or right or even good. Because you’re just going to be back tomorrow. Today, it’s about focusing on quantity and continuity, trusting that everything else will take care of itself.

Commitment is freedom from choice. When you’ve committed to doing something everyday, there’s no wasting brain cells trying to figure out what to do. Because you’ve already made your own decision and met your own standards. You can just keep your eye on the ball and let your mind go. Meanwhile, this positive addiction creates extremely optimal conditions for the brain to grow. Today, it’s about getting on with your life and getting to work.

Commitment is freedom from results. When you’ve committed to doing something everyday, there’s no finish line in sight. Because you’re not playing to win, you’re playing to keep the game going. Today, it’s about the journey, not the destination, which allows you to be fully present with the activity at hand.

Commitment is freedom from inhibition. When you’ve committed to doing something everyday, there’s no limitations on taking shots and missing. Because you’re just going zero out your board when you play tomorrow anyway. Today, it’s about suiting up, hanging your balls out hitting it with all you’ve got.

Commitment is freedom from pressure. When you’ve committed to doing something everyday, there’s no need to put all your eggs in one basket. Because you’re distributing your effort into small, consistent, doable increments. Today, it’s about the daily practice, not the big game at the end of the season.
Commitment is freedom from focus. When you’ve committed to doing something everyday, the daily measure of time and consistency builds compounding interest. Because you’ve established a gentle flow that obfuscates procrastination. Today, it’s about cadence and rhythm and momentum.

It’s the only constraint that matters.

Start with commitment, and let everything else fall in line.