I enjoyed reading Dedicated by Pete Davis about a year ago. I loved the idea of choosing depth over breadth and absorbed the message, and felt like Davis was preaching to the choir. I read it, enjoyed it, then put the book away and moved on. Recently, I stumbled across this eight minute commencement speech the author gave when graduating Harvard Law School. This speech, apparently, became the impetus for the book. The speech is wonderful and it’s refreshing to see someone so young speak with such wisdom. I plucked the book off the shelf and gave it another read.
Pete Davis’ book Dedicated is about the clash between current culture and fulfillment. We live in a world that avoids commitment and cherishes choices. Yet, the problem is with all the exciting options available to us, we remain unsatisfied. Those that chase breadth over depth seem less content. From music, to movies, to meals we have so many options available to us that choosing becomes complicated. It’s also the case with respect to career directions, partners, and vacation destinations. If we’re supposed to be excited about all of the opportunities available to us, it isn’t working. We’re encouraged to keep our options open, to avoid closing doors. We don’t want our resumes to paint us into a corner. Adaptability is offered as a virtue suggesting there’s strength in being able to go with the flow. We’re blasted with news clips and sound bites. Our attention spans shrink. Moreover, our culture prods us to develop a broad range of skills instead of committing to a craft. We’re trained to be ready to pivot, told to avoid loyalty to a profession or an organization, and reminded of how frequently formal relationships break up. However, this focus on optionality has consequences. Work ethic wanes, we shrink from struggle, we recoil from pain and abandon perseverance. With less action, we develop little traction. Progress stalls and our institutions crumble. Davis builds the case for the virtue of dedication for both our individual benefit as well as for that of society.
Davis encourages readers to contrast what messaging we’re receiving from our culture against what we see with our own eyes. Who are those you know and look to with respect? Are they those bouncing from relationship to relationship, job to job, and education major to major? Or do those you most admire and those that seem happiest in life seem to be immersed fully in a given subject? How about historical and famous figures that you have studied, did they achieve their recognition from dabbling or diving deep? How is skill, mastery, and greatness achieved in any domain whether it be music, art, writing, or sport? Isn’t devotion and dedication the path to progress across domains? Davis writes, “There’s nothing more epic than watching someone grow up and so consistently sustain global excellence in a craft for decades.”
The comparison is seeing the difference between builders and browsers, stewards and strivers, and devotees instead of drifters. Those that continuously commit instead of those kicking tires and looking at the next option. Those that see boring as beautiful instead of as a burden have gratitude in each day being Groundhog Day. Commitment over change. Doubling down against looking around. To be dedicated is to be devoted to depth. It’s becoming a lover of the long haul, to crave a constant crawl. We respect these types of commitments. We admire dedication. Being in a position to voluntarily choose a commitment is a privilege we should embrace not fear. It’s less about looking for the billboard hit, the bestseller, and the magnum opus and more looking at our careers as a corpus. Our body of work over time as a greater expression of our efforts than a single example.
The commitment of others that have come before is what has created the world we enjoy. Soldiers, citizens, and builders have sacrificed a lot in order to create the society we enjoy. Davis notes that commitment is required in order to create change because meaningful change takes time. It can be decades or more than a generation for change to accrue. Learning, reversing injustices, building, all take time. Davis notes that dedication has two meanings. We can dedicate something as meaningful. We dedicate buildings, memorials to impose meaning. We can also dedicate ourselves to pursue something for a long time. The blend of these two ideas is what Davis is promoting in Dedicated. He’s suggesting we devote ourselves for decades doing something we deem purposeful. To commit is to dare to care. It’s the strength of stick-to-it-ive-ness.
Davis suggests three fears keep us from committing. We fear regret of making a choice. We fear association. By deciding, we become part of the group. We inherit all of it, including the warts. This can be scary. Thirdly, there’s a fear of missing out. By picking something, we’re saying no to everything else and this, too, is troubling. Being free and unattached has its perks. Davis suggests three reasons we are drawn to browsing. It can be fun for three reasons: Flexibility, Authenticity, and Novelty. We equate freedom with flexibility. We’re looking for the exit as we enter. How do we get out of this? The easier it is to exit, the more freedom we feel. Every decision has little consequence where we can walk away from it. Authenticity is about being your true self. However, we don’t learn who we are unless we’re able to try on different roles. Being uncommitted leaves us free to play different parts in order to find the costume that fits to which we can then commit. The third piece that makes browsing fun is novelty. This is the quick hit of excitement when we experience something new. It’s the notification coming from our phone. It’s signing up for a new hobby. It’s something to which to look forward. Novelty is newness bred by the mantra of you only live once (YOLO).
Browsing has its time and place. It is part of growing up. When we haven’t seen or experienced much, dabbling is desirable. We dream and drift before we commit. It’s part of maturing. It’s also ok to continue to dabble when the stakes are low. From entertainment choices like music, books, movies, and meals, sampling is a fine approach. There’s nothing wrong to trying new things and not committing. However, when it’s consequential, committing is the path to purpose and fulfillment in life. Picking a profession, a partner, and a place to set roots are life’s big decisions implying dedication as a precursor to satisfaction.
The downsides of dabbling are also threefold according to Davis. Dabbling SAPs our lifeforce through Shallowness, Anomie, and Paralysis. When we’re constantly shifting from subject to subject we never get further than skin deep. We stay shallow. Our thoughts and experiences are shallow. The only way to develop expertise is to go deep. To devote time to a craft for years. Our shortened attention is reflected in the shallowness of our culture.
Anomie is a term Davis adopts from Emile Durkheim who suggested it reflects a sense of alienation. Where we feel like we don’t fit in, aren’t sure of our values, and feel that life is too fluid, we suffer a form of alienation known as anomie. It’s the pain of having no standards or moral compass to guide us. This is what we suffer when facing abundant choices. Where we don’t know for what we stand, we fall for anything. Being ho-hum is dumb. If we’re too chill, we become mentally ill. The paradox of pain is that none of us want to struggle, but it is through struggle that we gain our sense of self.
More choice leads to less likelihood of decision. We become mired in paralysis by analysis. We use all our energy deciding and not doing. We’re burdened by decisions from the earliest moments of our day. Consider ordering a breakfast at a restaurant. We simply want something to eat but are asked how we want our eggs, what kind of toast, what kind of meat, what kind of hash or potato, and if we’re ordering juice, what flavor of juice and whether we want it squeezed or with pulp. We’ve made close to ten decisions evaluating dozens of options within minutes of starting our day. It’s exhausting. We’re majoring in minors. Our attention is being spent deciding trivial things. No sooner have we placed our order do we see the server bringing dishes to others which look delicious and are different from what we ordered. We start to second guess the choices we’ve made.
Between total paralyzing freedom and rigid constraint, lies a middle ground that is suggested. We are blessed with the choices we have today for careers, relationships, and places to live. A generation or two ago, these choices simply weren’t available. People followed in the footsteps of those ahead. Keeping options open wasn’t a consideration. Now, keeping our options open is society’s mantra but it has its own flaws. Yes, we want to be free, but not free for freedom’s sake, free to choose our own commitments. We’re bouncing like a teenager between feelings of “don’t tell me what to do” and “I don’t know what to do.” It’s dizzying. Happiness doesn’t follow hedging. There’s little wisdom in waffling.
In a culture that encourages us to want it all and to want it all right now, we’ve lost the value associated with taking time to earn things instead shifting our focus and our location to what’s hot and popular. Engineer, Dan Slaski, in an online article notes, “What we do not need is dilettantes. Dilettantes come into the picture and hang around only so long as their fickle interests hold. Then they move on, chasing another shiny object, leaving behind a mess of misinformation and unfinished business for others to clean up.” Dilettantes are the opposite of dedicated.
Founder of Temple University in Philadelphia, Russell Conwell, had a favorite story which he delivered many thousands of times in lectures. It became a separate essay known as Acres of Diamonds. The story is about a Persian farmer that left his thriving farm in search of bigger and better things. He moves from place to place spending his hard won resources trying to find some secret stash of even greater wealth. Eventually, he becomes so frustrated and broke that he hurls himself onto the rocks amongst the crashing waves of the ocean dying unhappy. Meanwhile, the new owner that took over the old estate patiently plows the soil and continues to build the farm. One day while enjoying a walk along the edge of a stream that irrigates the farm, the new farmer sees a shiny object that captures his attention. He looks closer and sees a diamond in the stream. This diamond is just one of many as the farm is littered with them upon closer inspection.
The story is intended to help us see that too often we give up on where we are and search for greener pastures elsewhere when with a little more effort, care, and attention we may find satisfaction beyond our wildest dreams right where we are. It’s a distinction made by philosopher, farmer, and poet Wendell Berry that Davis introduces in Dedicated. Berry makes a distinction between two types of people: Boomers and Stickers. No, the Boomers aren’t those hitting retirement in droves, but those that chase the next hot thing. They happily pick up and pursue the latest boom. Whether it’s a gold rush, oil rush, or technology boom, they are chasing it. Stickers, meanwhile, stay where they are and work to bloom where they are planted. They develop roots and commit to their communities. They accept responsibility for making their worlds better right where they are. They aren’t chasing a better world elsewhere. Stickers are suggested as better role models for those of us interested in the idea of being dedicated.
Committing is not commenting. It’s choosing dedication and passing on Twitter. It’s taking your time, not rushing from one subject to the next. It’s choosing involvement over impatience. It’s seeing the serendipity of the seesaw. We can have a teeter-totter with one end up. We can add rocks slowly to the side in the air. With the first series of rocks, no change occurs. Slowly, then suddenly, the seesaw shifts as the cumulative effort of adding rocks changes the balance. This is the slow power of dedication. Commitment is active whereas browsing is more passive. The only way to develop true expertise is to patiently pursue a path. This idea continues to echo forward from several thousand years ago where, a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, observed, “Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.” Author Liane Cordes reinforces the power of patience writing, “Continuous effort—not strength or intelligence—is the key to unlocking our potential.”
Commitment in our careers leads to contributions which are more rewarding. Leading with Purpose is a book written by Richard Ellsworth. In it, Ellsworth writes, “The highest level of individual development and the greatest happiness are derived from serving ends beyond the self—ends that employees value, that enable them to feel they are ‘making a difference,’ and consequently that bring increased meaning to their lives through work.” It is this dedication to making a difference that makes work meaningful, pleasurable, and engaging. Commit to caring and share your skills in service of a greater good. This is the path to developing expertise and fulfillment. Davis writes of watching his father prepare for work. He knew little about what he actually did. Nonetheless, Davis noted the commitment to his career by watching his father’s patient preparation, “But when I was growing up, all I knew of his work was the monk-like routines I witnessed for twenty years: him waking up at the same time each morning and eating the same whole-grain cereal; him paging through some report, pen in hand, underlining important sections and scrawling notes in the margins; him packing and unpacking his clothes in the exact same way for trips around the world. Before I understood the content of my dad’s work, I understood the steadiness of it.” This steadiness is the result of commitment and it’s comforting to witness (and experience).
Committing to something is reclaiming a sense of ownership of our efforts. It’s seeing how our contributions serve something bigger than ourselves. It’s the path to personal fulfillment, building stronger families, communities, organizations, and nations. Without people working like they care for long periods of time, our organizations and initiatives will dwindle. Dedication is about delighting in the detail and investing yourself fully. Dedicated is a worthwhile read and leaves the reader with hope that we can each contribute to making our small sphere of the world a better place.