“But I don’t know what I want to do with my life…”
We are passive in life. We stumble into our first job because we throw up our hands, shrug our shoulders & think there’s nothing else we could possibly do. When we come up for air, & pause to reflect 30 years later, we are not quite able to remember why we started in the first place.
We look enviously at a friend or colleague who got out the rat race. We may even spend time looking into alternative career paths.
But we don’t commit. We never commit.
Which is a problem, as without commitment, we never really pursue those big, ambitious goals we should pursue in life. It leaves us paralysed, never taking action.
We tell ourselves as a society that we can be anything we want to be in life. This is just not true.
We tell ourselves we have all the time in the world, when the reality is that we will be lucky to have an impact in one area of society, maybe two if our work is exceptional.
Celebrity culture means we are always looking for the quick wins. The big breaks. The instant fame. The all-in-one modelling, music & acting careers. It makes us believe that commitment is not really a big deal – or necessary.
So we don’t commit. We remain perpetually scared of commitment. Petrified even. Because commitment means we trigger almost every type of fear we could possibly trigger.
5 types of fear:
- Extinction: The fear of no longer existing (a.k.a death), which gives birth to the fear of heights or flying.
- Mutilation: The fear of losing any part of our bodies or being physically invaded or harmed (includes the fear of spiders and sharp objects).
- Loss of Autonomy: The fear of being helpless because of physical or social restraints that are beyond our control. This includes the fear of closed spaces or even commitments that might make you feel like a prisoner.
- Separation: The fear of rejection and being unwanted or unvalued by others, which can be especially damaging when you consider that we are social creatures that crave connectedness. This is usually the voice in your head that asks you, “What will people think?”
- Ego-death: The fear of losing our established sense of self, having our confidence crushed, or questioning our own competence and understanding of who we are. This includes the fear of failure and shame.
Source: Practical Intelligence by Dr. Karl Albrecht
We fear the potential failure that comes with commitment. Whether it be a relationship or new venture, failure – & the inevitable mistakes that come with trying something new – will lead you to question your confidence, competence & self-worth.
Failure is still looked down upon & is, to some extent, seen as shameful. You fail once & you are a failure. As social animals, we fear how others perceive us & base our self-worth far too often on society’s opinion. “What will people think?” Becomes a question we internalise & constantly repeat to ourselves.
We shouldn’t celebrate failure for the sake of it. Somebody that fails at the same business idea 10 times becomes he’s unable to learn from his mistakes should not be praised.
We should, however, recognise that failure is inevitable at some point when you try something new & that society’s response to it is irrational & irrelevant.
Loss of autonomy
There is a sense that committing to something, whether a relationship or new company, closes off all your other options. You can feel trapped.
In a society built upon constant change & upgrade, always craving something new, it is no wonder this short-term mentality trickles into other aspects of our lives.
Perhaps the most powerful & least tangible fear, however, is the fear of death.
This is because commitment to a goal, such as a specific career path or new company, forces us to confront our own mortality.
Commitment denotes “life’s work”, “dedicating your life to some specific cause or problem.
Therefore we shy away from commitment. We prefer to sit in life’s waiting room, thinking we have all the time in the world. We ignore the reality that we have but a brief moment to make an impact on it through dedicating ourselves to one goal.
Most of us can only hope to go after one specific thing in life. Maybe we’ll make an impact on it. Maybe not. Whatever the outcome, we should be proud of the fact that we tried to make an impact.
Polymaths exist, yes, but they very deliberately commit to a limited number of goals they can realistically achieve. Almost all have mastered one specific commitment first as well. Think Arnold Schwarznegger, Elon Musk, Tim Ferriss.
Commitment triggers all of these fears & therefore any commitment constitutes a big, scary decision. What do we do when something big & scary appears in our life? We tend to avoid dealing with it at all costs.
I know from my own experience that these fears are very hard to identify & quantify.
Some are simple. When we closed the first company I started, BackTracker, there was a definite loss of confidence & self-worth, as well as a strong sense of social anxiety around failure.
However, things I tend to hide, that my father had a drinking problem, for example, are harder to put your finger on. Is not talking about it linked to ego-death, in that it questions my self-value? Or social anxiety? Or even a fear that I develop the same problem & achieve none of my ambitions in life?
All these fears are very common, if not ubiquitous. Therefore you shouldn’t become frustrated with yourself when you feel them seeping into your thoughts & actions. They are just a natural, human response.
However, you must also realise that they lead to poor decision-making. When you are fear-driven, you make bad choices & never commit to anything impactful, because everything impactful is risky.
So you end up committing to the default path. The easy path. Without even realising it, you commit yourself to a life of monotony, in a job you dislike, a relationship you are unhappy with & an expectation that life can only ever be just ‘fine’.
“Mostly, making good decisions involves beginning with a commitment to make a decision. That’s the hard part. Choosing the best possible path is only possible after you’ve established that you’ve got the guts and the commitment to make a decision.”
– Seth Godin
I could tell you the logical, rational solution to overcome your fear of commitment. But that doesn’t work. Your fears will prevent you from following the advice.
Rationally, you should explore a few different options first. Map the terrain, as it were. Spend time researching & dabbling. Then you should choose one path to follow & commit yourself 100% to that path. Never wavering. Never backing out.
This approach, based on Essentialism by Greg McKeown, is lauded by many top entrepreneurs & thought-leaders.
Yet most of you will still just shy away in fear & mask inaction with excuses. This is OK. It’s just a natural response.
Breaking commitment down
So, how to overcome your fear? Just stop talking about goals. Don’t talk about your ambition to start a new company. Don’t talk about how you want to find your dream job.
Instead, put systems in place that will make the achievement of that goal inevitable.
Say you want to start your own business. You don’t need to make grand statements & start your business plan on day 1. You’ll end up paralysed by inaction, terrified of the mountain you are about to start ascending.
Instead, put one small system in place that will get you there. Read for 30 minutes every morning on key aspects of entrepreneurialism & an industry you are interested in.
Test & reinforce that system over a couple of months.
Introduce another. Start journaling every morning for 5 minutes. Test & reinforce it. Develop that system, by writing a short article every morning. Then publishing a short article every morning.
I apply this to my own ambitions:
I want to run a business with 10-20 happy employees that pushes the boundaries of work culture, experimenting with new ideas & questioning social norms. I don’t worry about when or how that will happen. I don’t even worry about what the problem we solve will be. I just worry about process. That process is to set aside at least 1 hour of learning & writing every day. I know that by improving myself dramatically, it will inevitably happen at some point. It gives me a quiet, relentless confidence that I’ll get there.
Systems work because they provide you with the framework to become a radically more knowledgeable, experienced person. Carefully-cultivated knowledge & habit will breed confidence & momentum. That confidence & momentum will mean that the outcome of starting a business will just be an inevitable next step.
This is not to say that you cannot have goals. Just don’t worry about them, because goals tend to reduce your current happiness, reduce long-term success & can be outside of your control.
When you focus on systems, there’s nothing to fear. What are you committing to? Writing a few sentences every day? Reading a couple of articles? How hard is that?
What’s stopping you starting that first system today?