I was driving a high school friend home the other day and a couple minutes after starting the car it beeped that the passenger seat belt wasn’t buckled. I said, "Buckle your seatbelt. And commit to me that you’ll never get in my car again with putting on your seatbelt. If we crash, I’m liable for your ass." An easy request, no? His response was startling yet deadly honest: "Ok, but I always make so many commitments to people, and I don’t want to let them down."
We all make dozens of commitments every day. From the trivial ("I’ll email that to you later this afternoon") to the serious ("I will devote my undivided attention on this project for the next three weeks"). In the business-world, it’s easy to be extraordinary by simply following through on trivial commitments. "I’ll get that to you by this afternoon" is usually the next day. "I’ll pick you up at 5" usually means 5:10. "Let’s stay in touch" usually means an email every two years.
I try to write down every single time I commit to do something for somebody. Why? Because long ago I made a commitment to myself: Make and keep promises. We don’t often think about commitments we make to ourselves, yet failed self-commitments are the most destructive to someone’s self-esteem. In fact, self-help gurus suggest sharing your goals with others so they can hold you accountable. This is why I shared my core values. But this is second in importance to reflecting on your values yourself. Think of the thousands of soft commitments we make to ourselves but don’t do anything about. "Gee, I’d like to do yoga" or "I think I’m going to stop smoking" or "I think I’d like to develop a better relationship with Jane." Thinking but not acting on these things chip away at your self-accountability meter. If you can’t hold promises you make to yourself, how can you keep promises made to others? If you can’t follow through on little things, how can you follow through on big ones? Keep self-commitments because you don’t want to let yourself down, not others. Respect thyself, love thyself.
My friend is not alone. In school we are trained to please other people, to impress other people, to try to anticipate what they’d like from us. We want to do well to get good grades, to get into a good college. Such extrinsic motivation is dangerous, in my view.
Jeff Parker, founder of First Call Financial, once told me that entrepreneurs want to control their own destiny. To control your own destiny, you need to answer to yourself. You need to develop your own internal accountability mechanism.