It’s one thing to go into the New Year with a solid sense of commitment. It’s another to weather an entire year — and the following year, and the year after that — holding fast to the commitments you’ve made.
The very nature of commitments is that they test our mettle. That’s not always enjoyable. But it is a valuable growth experience.
I first learned this as a kid in math class. Our teacher would sometimes give us very challenging problems — equations we couldn’t be certain of solving with the skills we had. Whenever I got a head-scratcher of a problem like this, I was determined to sort it out. I knew there had to be an answer, and I wanted to find it. Sometimes, I’d stay up late into the night trying out different approaches and hypotheses until I came up with the solution. Even if I didn’t complete other assignments, during this process I always learned something along the way.
I began noticing, though, that many other kids didn’t go about their math assignments the same way. They would look at a problem, and if they weren’t immediately clear on the solution, they’d give up and move on to the next one. I wasn’t any smarter than these kids, I was just more committed to discovering a way through the difficulty.
It seems evident to me that whether we are students of mathematics or of life, the problems presented to us shouldn’t be immediately solvable. Because if they are, we really aren’t gaining anything from giving them our attention. Unfortunately, this is not a perspective that many are taught to fully integrate, even well into adulthood.
Over the years, I’ve hired a number of people who have demonstrated a pattern not unlike that of my fellow math students. Initially, they are very excited and optimistic about their new jobs. But after a month or two, things aren’t feeling quite so easy. They encounter some challenge or resistance they don’t have an obvious solution for. Or they’re handed a project they aren’t really certain how to complete. And before long, they are feeling frustrated and looking for a different position. So they switch jobs and, often within the year, the pattern repeats itself.
Because these individuals change jobs so often, they don’t advance up the career ladder quickly. They have trouble establishing seniority and professional trust. They don’t develop advanced abilities or hone their personal skill sets. By midcareer, they are feeling dissatisfied with their prospects, and over time it seems there are fewer promising job tracks for them to switch to.
It works much the same way with personal goals. Initially, we are excited about the prospect of shifting our life in healthier, more positive directions. We make some promise or resolution, and we feel great about it for a little while. Right up until we start working on that goal and discover that it’s going to require something of us — a skill or strength or resource or willingness to persist — that we don’t already have.
At this point, we have two choices: Develop the missing capacity and continue our efforts, or abandon the promise as too difficult.
Of course, sometimes we embark on a goal only to discover it just isn’t for us. Maybe we never got entirely clear on our sense of why about it. Maybe we realize there’s another goal we want more, or our circumstances shift and the goal no longer makes sense. But sometimes our sudden lack of interest in a goal has less to do with lack of desire than lack of determination.
I counsel people evaluating such decisions to consider whether their urge to abandon their initial commitment is more about moving away from pain or about moving toward greater pleasure. Are they pursuing a more exciting and meaningful dream, or are they simply trying to avoid the discomfort of taking on a challenge they haven’t yet mastered?
There are very few problems in this world that don’t have solutions (and most of those have Nobel Prizes attached to them). So consider whether a challenge you’ve been struggling with is really so hard, or if you just haven’t been willing to endure the discomfort that generally accompanies growth.
Ask yourself: Where have I made commitments I abandoned, and why? What skills, strengths, or resources have I been missing, and how might I go about developing them? Look deeply into those answers, and you may find new energy and strength for pursuing the challenges that lie ahead.