Commitment is Undervalued. Pinker vs Sutherland

An ongoing series where I share a “Business Playlist” of articles that made me think in the hope that you find them valuable also.

This week: David Perell on why we need to be more willing to commit. Rory Sutherland and Steven Pinker have a friendly debate.

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Hugging the X-Axis

In this article, David Perell writes about the tradeoffs between the shine of novelty and the consistency of commitment. He recommends we make a commitment and invest time to develop expertise in a domain so we can develop a “Personal Monopoly”, and become the go-to person in that field. 

“Hugging the X-Axis” refers to people not experiencing the compounding benefits that can accrue from making a long-term commitment.

David claims that Western culture over-indexes on novelty and suffers from commitment phobia. He offers 3 theories for people being less willing to commit:

The rise of liberalism. 

People living in Western societies are increasingly detached from constraints like location, family, culture, identity, and tradition. People are freer to choose their own identity and less bound by the traditional virtues of honor and loyalty, which are two of the defining pillars of a commitment-heavy culture.

Culture of abundance.

Technology has created an abundance of choices. From dating apps where another potential partner is just a swipe away, to streaming apps where you can easily skip to the next movie or song without having to wait for the current one to finish. There is no need to commit when you have so many other options.  

Shrinking time horizons.

Consider the rise of short-term day trading and crypto speculation, and contrast this with the patience of a buy-and-hold long-term investor like Warren Buffett. David urges that doing anything meaningful starts with having a long time horizon. 

Quotes from David that made me think:

“Long time horizons change our incentives, usually in good ways. This is one of the core findings of game theory: people treat each other better when they intend to interact repeatedly in the future.”

“As a result of these convergent trends – the rise of liberalism, technological abundance, and short time horizons – we’ve been overvaluing optionality at the expense of commitment.”

“People think they’ll be happy if they don’t have any obligations. In actuality, total optionality is a recipe for emptiness.”

“The challenge is that the greatest rewards generally go to people who are tied down in certain ways. A real lifelong marriage is the deepest relationship you’ll ever have because you’ve committed to a lifetime of faithfulness. Likewise, you only get to raise money for a startup when investors are confident you’re committed for the long haul.”

“In matters of the heart, commitment brings meaning. In matters of the mind, commitment brings knowledge.”

“…crucially, you have to experiment with the goal of eventually committing. Otherwise, you’ll remain in a state of perpetual optionality, where, like a log in the ocean, you’ll float thousands of miles without going anywhere in particular.”

“People can only become world-class at things they commit to. Ultimately, the more hesitant people are about making commitments, the higher the rewards are for people who do. The alternative is empty hedonism and hard work without the rewards to show for it.” 

I mostly agree with David’s thesis, that commitment is undervalued, particularly when it comes to the compounding rewards that can be gained from making a commitment to marriage or committing to mastery in a domain. 

Although he doesn’t mention it, obviously one should question a commitment to an abusive relationship, and question blind loyalty to an employer or institution that is not bound by a reciprocal commitment. 

And when consulting experts who claim to possess a “Personal Monopoly” in a domain, I am reminded of Nassim Taleb’s concept of “Skin in the Game”. According to Taleb, we should avoid taking advice from someone who gives advice for a living, unless they have skin in the game, and will suffer an equivalent penalty if their advice is wrong. 

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Sense and sensibility: Steven Pinker and Rory Sutherland on reason vs instinct

I mentioned Rory Sutherland in a previous business playlist, and always enjoy hearing his counter-intuitive take on topics like rationality. 

This article is a transcript of a friendly debate between Rory Sutherland and Steven Pinker where they discuss topics as varied as the beneficial effects of conspiracy theories, luxury beliefs, lucky accidents, and scientific progress. I wish it were longer.

An excerpt: 

Rory: You’re teaching at Harvard. I think that education has now become a signalling war. It’s become a luxury good which signals your qualities to an employer far more than it delivers any human worth.

Steven: In one of my articles, I said it’s a $250,000 marshmallow test.

Rory: It’s only a matter of time before Louis Vuitton buys Harvard…….We should break up Harvard because it’s far more uncompetitive than Google is. When you’re buying an education, you’re buying a peer group. The question you ask is not what university is best for me, but what university do other people think is best?

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Until next time…
Stephen