Once upon a time, people spent their whole lives in one career until they retired. In this world, marriage was a given: it happened early and it was lifelong. Commitment was easy: switching jobs wasn’t an option if we wanted food on the table. Divorce was stigmatized and terrifying, partly because women didn’t generally have financial independence. Then, the Internet happened—along with a whole bunch of other social, cultural, and technological changes. We no longer have to commit: now we must choose to.
Freedom is great. It’s so wonderful that it has surpassed work or the family unit in our cultural priorities. It also gives us the constant anxiety of wondering whether we made the right choice and if we should hop over to the greener side of the fence. With the option to bail as soon as things get hard, further, we risk missing something very rich: the depth of knowledge and experience that comes with sticking it out.
By definition, commitment is that which helps us stay even when it’s very uncomfortable. Getting to the other side of the dark parts within work, a project, or a relationship is a rich source of growth and learning. Every job, even the dream ones, will have days when you don’t want to show up. Relationships are even worse—they involve two people with shifting desires and emotions trying to stick together. So what do we pin our commitments to?
I believe this is a major question for our time, and we are all still trying to figure it out. Committing because we feel like it at the time, many of us have learned the hard way, doesn’t work: trying to make emotions stay the same is like trying to catch a fish underwater with bare hands—as soon as we touch it, it wriggles away. If we commit, we must hold to something more solid than how we happen to feel at any given moment. We no longer commit by default, so we must commit with mindfulness.
I often tell my students and teacher trainees to start with the question: “Why am I doing this?” It doesn’t matter what the answer is. What matters is having an answer. Perhaps commitment in the age of freedom means hooking into larger goals and values rather than any individual job or relationship.
So what’s most important in a career? Money? Flexibility? Helping people? Continual challenge and learning? Enough security and flexibility that it can support a family or some other, more important life pursuit? Having an answer, whatever it is, will help guide day-to-day career decisions.
Relationship goals may be a bit harder—partly because we like to think of love as something mysterious and romantic that hits like lightning. We don’t like to think critically about love in our culture. Further, a job won’t have different values from you, but your partner certainly might. Before making a big commitment like marriage or having a baby, it’s a good idea to discuss your values with your partner. What’s most important? Emotional support? Raising a family? Shared personal growth? Religion, tradition, politics? There’s no wrong answer here, either, but getting clear on these larger intentions may help us better weather the storms of our fickle emotions. This can help us stay in a relationship that serves those shared values and help us know to walk away if it doesn’t.
Freedom doesn’t come cheap: it insists that we ask ourselves hard questions about who we are and what we really want. The gift of that process, however, may be an even richer source than any given job or relationship: it’s an act of commitment to yourself.