The Zone of Sustainable Commitment

I was first recommended the book “Leadership and Self-Deception” from Stewart Butterfield during Y Combinator Growth program late last year. I finally got the chance to open the book recently and the story resonated so much that I recommended this book to our entire company.

A high-level summary might go like this: if you get into self-betrayal, you go “in the box” where your perspective of the world starts to distort in your favor. By self-justifying, you find ways to blame others, while inflating your own virtue.

The result is making your relationship worse and inviting others into the box along the way, starting a vicious cycle. Below diagram shows the inside of Bud’s mind, one of the characters in the book. Bud’s baby son David wakes up in the middle of night. The diagram shows what goes through Bud’s mind as he thinks about whether to get up and tend to David or not, while his wife Nancy is asleep besides him.

While Nancy didn’t do anything yet, in Bud’s mind, after betraying himself of what he thinks he should do, he quickly finds a way to justify himself from not getting up, starts to blame Nancy, then build a whole world based on his own betrayal where he himself is already a good dad and a husband.

This can happen in personal relationships, but equally in professional relationships. Do we commit and act on the responsibility, or do we betray ourselves and find ways to justify our thoughts and emotions. Everybody, without exception, all betrays ourselves constantly throughout our lives, and it’s not a matter of whether we do it or not, but how we bring ourselves back to out of the box, is the key.

To draw in a simple diagram, we may have something like this:

Once you go into the zone of self-betrayal (“in the box”), you blame, self-justify, and the perception gap between your view and the others diverge. If you stop yourself from self-betrayal, and commit instead, you build trust not only with others, but with yourself. You start to get in the ‘flow’ as you are no longer focusing on yourself and your own justification, but on the task itself and your positive relationship with others. Naturally, the accountability between you and others go up, as you have committed and are inviting others to be “out of the box” as well.

Then I’ve been thinking about the other end of the spectrum. What happens when you over commit? When your level of effort and commitment goes up beyond your own capacity, and starts to feel like a real sacrifice. You do it any way, because you ‘feel responsible.’

For example, a group assignment in school, where one student takes over the assignment and get it to the finish line, staying up all night while other students went home, or in a team project at work where you feel like you can’t depend on others’ outputs so you feel the need to finish it yourself and polish up to present to the executive on Monday.

When you get ‘addicted’ to responsibility, you commit beyond your normal capacity. Over time, you build resentment towards others, who “didn’t put in as much effort as you did” and you feel like other people are free riding on your work. But you are actually doing all the work! You didn’t self-betray. And as time goes by, you feel like the others are taking advantage of your commitment. You start to lash out at others and feel burnt out because there’s no hope of this getting any better. The work only gets larger and you feel even more responsible now. You feel the need to be compensated somehow. Of course, you deserve it!

So we have the other end of the spectrum:

Now if we put these two spectrum together, in the middle, we have what I call the “Zone of Sustainable Commitment”:

Here, we are in the sweet spot — where we don’t betray ourselves from the situation nor responsibility. And we don’t go too excessively towards over burdening ourselves with task into building resentment towards others. As long as we are self-aware and keep ourselves positioned in the middle, we can pursue a sustainable commitment.

The two things to think about here are:

  1. Self-awareness and discipline: Knowing where we are currently, and what tactics and frameworks can we use to keep ourselves in the zone of sustainable commitment.
  2. Leadership development: To expand our zone of sustainable commitment, so that we can keep ourselves from self-betrayal more easily, while increasing our responsibility without resentment nor burnout, we need to be thoughtful about what kind of leadership you want to cultivate in yourself.

I believe everyone starts out with a different width of the spectrum and where the thresholds are for each zone. It is heavily influenced by our capacity as well as physical and mental state.

Simple things like, are we in a good mood? Are we feeling hungry? Have we slept well? Do we have a good relationship with the loved ones? Are we feeling safe? Any one of these can have immediate effect on our zones and our positions in it.

So it is up to us to be more cognizant of where we are in our own zone of minds and develop our methods to maintain the right position while training ourselves to broaden the zone of sustainable commitment, so that we can be a better partner to our colleagues and the loved ones.