Making a commitment is sometimes a lot easier than keeping a commitment. Yet in spite of the challenges many of us still jump in feet first with little conscious thought. I certainly do not spend hours analysing the pros and cons. I get a good feeling or a bad feeling and then go for it. Sometimes this is admittedly the end of a process of long exposure to the available information and at other times it is more or less instantaneous.
So is this a good strategy?
Yes and No. The reason that it works for me is because I am prepared to take responsibility for the consequences of my own decisions, but for some this seems to be problematic.
What if I make the wrong decision? After all, the devil is in the detail, especially since we entered the Age of Bullshit, which started somewhere between the advent of radio in the 1930s and the deregulation of the financial services sector in the 1980s. Today, skulduggery, hype and obfuscation are the norm.
Now there is a growing sense of “if you can’t beat them join them”. The public commitments of politicians and the obscure contractual limitations in even the simplest of transactions are now so unreliable that many people simply expect everyone else to cheat. Many of us have just become used to this state of affairs. We do our best to cover our backs, we sometimes get stressed and angry with people and companies who rip us off. We all make our own questionable decisions about what we can and cannot get away with whilst still being able to sleep at nights.
There is no doubt that standards of honesty and integrity have slipped dramatically.
So does it matter? If everyone is ‘at it’ then some may argue there is a perverse sense of fairness about it all. But there are several problems with this idea.
Firstly some people are really lousy at spotting bullshit. They get ripped off time and time again. Some even come to expect it because it is just the way life is. Often these are the people who can least afford to be ripped off although frequently the victims end up being blamed for the crimes of their exploiters.
Secondly it becomes harder and harder to reverse the trend. What value honesty and integrity when it makes you more likely to go bankrupt or miss out? Do we really all have to become sharks to swim with the sharks?
Thirdly it encourages short-termism. Grab it while you can. Anyone who works in a real business (as opposed to the burgeoning bullshit businesses of today) will tell you that it takes years to build a reputation that can generate socially sustainable wealth.
In such an environment, my strategy of relying on gut feeling may well seem stupid but there is a rationale behind it. Professor Guy Claxton cites research which demonstrates that people who make choices based on gut feelings are subsequently more likely to be satisfied with their choices than those who conduct a careful and detailed analysis of pros and cons. This seems to be especially so when it comes to really big decisions.
Again I hear you cry, what if I make the wrong decision? The more I think about the idea of a ‘wrong decision’ the more I realise that it is illusory. You cannot put a decision in a bucket. A decision is simply the on-going process of choosing which of our available thoughts, feelings and behaviours to act upon at any given moment in time. It makes sense to take account of available information but we cannot drag all of our internal criteria into conscious awareness all of the time any more than we can know all of the infinite number of variables in any situation.
So if we make a choice and find that we are not achieving the outcome we want we have to make another choice. Life is simply a process of constant choosing in which, if we are reasonably intelligent about it, we use the outcomes of all previous choices to inform subsequent choices. Given that we have all made millions of choices it makes sense to allow for some element of intuition and unconscious evaluation within this overall process.
A commitment is just a special kind of choice where we are saying that whatever happens, we are voluntarily restricting our future range of choices. For example, if I say that if you are not completely satisfied then I will give you your money back, then I am limiting myself to the range of future choices which either delivers what you want or gives you your money back. If I say I am going to cut tuition fees then I raise them I have betrayed a commitment. If I say I am going to be faithful to you and support the development of our children and then leave you for a younger model I have betrayed a commitment. These are all commitments. Morally I have to give you what I committed to give you and go on doing so for as long as I committed to doing so. A commitment is a voluntary acceptance of limited choice for an agreed period of time.
I know not everyone is like me. There are those who do not make commitments largely on the basis of gut feelings. They either analyse everything to the nth degree or avoid commitments altogether. Analysis clearly has a role to play in big decisions, but if you are a serial analyser there is something you need to know.
According to Claxton, if you are an analyser you are more likely to be disappointed. You may then, immorally, be tempted to choose to rescind your commitment on the basis of your disappointment. Lots of extreme analysers do sink into mind-numbing disputes over the minutiae of contracts, written or assumed. They get sucked into ‘winning and losing’. Their whole lives are absorbed in extricating themselves from deals they no longer like, even though they thought them through in meticulous detail to begin with. They exist in a kind of Kafka-esque nightmare, endlessly repeating the same cycles of commitment and retraction in every domain of their increasingly futile existence. They may be rich and they may end up getting shafted but they are rarely happy and often descend into a kind of madness.
Of course it makes sense to check the contract when you are taking significant risks, but you cannot guarantee success in any aspect of life and if you try to you will either be constantly disappointed or constantly in dispute (and probably both).
So what of those who just avoid the issues by choosing not to choose at all? Well, a life sitting on a fence is hardly a life. When you finally arrive in the deathbed scene of your personal drama you may want to have something more positive to say than ‘I kept my nose clean, I stayed out of trouble, I avoided everything that could possibly have gone wrong.’
Does any of this matter?
Yes. It matters because if we are going to make a commitment, however we decide to do so, then we should have a positive strategy for sticking to it. And if we cannot guarantee the quality of our decision making in advance, which we cannot, then we need to have the flexibility to know that we always have more choices. We also need to accept that we are always responsible for our own choices no matter how tough the situation. Of course there are times when I will rescind a commitment purely on the basis that the other party to the agreement has hoodwinked me or rescinded their commitment to me, but I will not do so simply because I am disappointed.
Honouring commitments is important because it is what enables people to build trust. Trust is the basis of all enduring communities and organisations. Without trust there is no security, no continuity, no development, no learning and simply no point. The absence of trust is the absence of meaningful human interaction. It is dog-eat-dog savagery.
Many people and companies think they can simply take whatever they can get their hands on using the cover of excessively complex legislation, marketing hype and regulation to cover their tracks. An independent financial adviser, before the banking collapse, once told me that the FSA regulations stretched for 11 feet if placed end to end. Or was it 11 metres? Regulations should be simple, black and white and accessible to all, not an asset to fraudsters and charlatans.
Nowhere is the devastating impact of the failure to honour commitments more noticeable than upon our children. Children are the ultimate dependants. Without a reliable environment where they can trust in the consistency and sufficiency of love and practical care, they wither away, often quite literally. Our present communities are being fragmented and destabilised by a lack of trust. More and more adults seem to think they can have children and then change their minds when it gets tough. Many simply collapse under the impossible financial burdens that totally unreliable politicians and uncaring rip-off merchants pile upon ordinary people. And even the children that thrive are surrounded by exemplars of fraud, dishonesty and legalised deception on a daily basis. I constantly find myself explaining to my kids why what it says on an internet site is actually saying the opposite of what it appears to be saying.
It seems that the choices which many people make these days, especially those with real power, are precisely the ones they agreed to limit in their original commitments.
It makes me feel ill. I am not perfect. I have no doubt let people down on occasions. We are all human beings. But whatever big commitments I made I stuck to not because I am special or virtuous or even wise. I just do not see much point in existence if all we ever do is betray one another. And if we do not stick to our commitments to create a safe, caring and positive environment for our children, then I see little hope for humanity. The answer lies not in legislation but in the standards of behaviour of all adults, and especially those with unlimited wealth and power.
If you are trapped caught up in a web of dodgy commitments and want help to sort out the mess do call me or follow these links for more information. I promise you a non-judgmental environment in which you can work through your challenges and make the best choices available to you.