Learning Through Commitment

Thanks to eschipul on Flickr for making this photo available for use.

In this recent article written to new college graduates, Caty Borum Chattoo provides six pretty nice pieces of advice. The first seems most significant to me – it’s about the great potential of personal commitment. Though this certainly applies to new grads, even more so I think it applies to all of us engaged in learning, creating, discovering, and growing. Here it is (bold and color added for emphasis):

 (1) At the moment of commitment, the entire world conspires to assure your success.
(This was paraphrased by Norman [Lear], but originally thought to have originated from the philosopher Goethe.)
With a surface-level read, this may seem obvious and potentially overused — as in, work hard and it will all work out for you. But to me, understanding this bit of philosophy in a deep, internalized way only came with age and experience. When Norman first said this to me, I remember thinking that the key to this mantra was the “world conspiring” part of it — the thought that the world owed me success. But not only is this not the key idea, it misses the entire point. What I came to learn, through the messiness that comes from large and small professional decisions, is that the key is the commitment piece, which has everything to do with your own active engagement in your own life, pursuits and passions. At the moment in which you truly commit to a project, an idea, a version of yourself, you may find the world lining up in ways that allows the success to happen — you meet people who make connections, you have a conversation with someone who tells you the exact thing you needed to hear, you find a partner with whom to collaborate, and on and on. In my own still-evolving professional life, I have encountered the most amazing moments of a world conspiring — but only when I was fully, honestly engaged, with the kind of commitment that is felt deeply when no one else is around to see or validate.

I have experienced this same phenomena. When I fully commit to something, everything seems to line up. But it’s not “everything” doing that — it’s me doing that. There is an inexplicable energy that comes with such a commitment.

Right now I am exploring a new project, a potentially big and risky one. When I am ready to commit — and if I am, I must fully commit — I believe I will make it so. It might fail, and it might fail gloriously, but in that I will have committed to it, I will have also committed to learning with, through, and from it, regardless of the outcome.  It’s a refreshing perspective because it can eliminate some of the apprehension and fear that sometimes act as back-seat drivers.

I also wonder if this is where the construct of faith comes from — there is a leap of faith that is involved with such commitments. Because really – are we ever 100% certain something will work out? My quotient of certainty increases as my commitment increases.

PS: The Goethe Society of North America has more about this original quote, HERE. It’s a good read.



This is a picture of my kid with his bike at the age of 3 and 11/12 months:

This is a more recent picture of him with his new bike at the age of 4 and 30 seconds:

Some pretty major things needed to happen to get from picture #1 to picture #2. For example, in our family:

  • Four year-olds need to be able to put on their own socks.
  • Four year-olds need to make their beds when they get up in the morning.
  • Four year-olds need to take their plates to the kitchen after they are done eating.
  • Four year-olds, for goodness sake, need to feed themselves!!!

That’s right. We instituted milestones.

Milestones are constructed to provide reference points along the road. This can be used to reassure travelers that the proper path is being followed, and to indicate either distance traveled or the remaining distance to a destination. ~Wikipedia

Milestones, in this way, promote learning and help us assess how well we are doing toward a learning outcome. In the world of educational assessment, we call milestones a kind of “formative assessment.”

In my family, it’s what got us sanely from three to four.

Ok, ok, in all fairness, we really created milestones so to preserve what’s left of our parental sanity, but we also wanted the kid to have a goal (being four), to work toward something significant and important (and I quote, “Mama, I fed myself my dinner all by myself; now I can be four!”), and to have a sense of accomplishment when he got there.

The payoff for reaching these milestones? Well, not only did the kid actually turn four (which frankly seemed significant enough to all of us), but he also got that new bike in picture #2.

And guess what! To prove to us that he had in fact turned four, he ate 2 pieces of this birthday cake!

All by himself!

With Intention

As some of you who read this blog know, I practice yoga (and have written about my practice here and here). I emphasize the word practice because it’s ongoing, and I don’t think in yoga you’re actually supposed to get to “perfect” (a concept most yogis I know disregard vehemently, for all sorts of good reasons).

Thanks to Tony George on Flickr for making this image available.

Today, in my yoga class, the instructor talked about setting our intentions for the class — what did we intend to do, to focus on, in the next 90 minutes? And I was thinking about how the word “intentions ” is such a better way to think about “things I want to achieve” instead of the word goals. It implies process, it implies practice, and it does not imply this ubiquitous concept of perfection.

I have goals that I want to achieve in yoga — for example, someday I really would like to be strong and flexible enough to do a back bend — but for each class I like the idea of thinking of my intention for that time, on that day, given everything else that’s happening (sore knee, a bit tired, etc.).

A goal implies an end point — something fixed that we are aiming for. It also implies that it’s possibly external to us. An intention, on the other hand, is all about us — what we intend to do to move toward something. If you state your intention, it’s YOUR intention — YOU have to do something. It requires action on your part. If you state a goal, you may be relying on external forces to help you achieve it.

So how does this apply to adult learners in higher education? Well, I propose that we start thinking more about intentions; doing so will serve us as learners better in the long run because we will be in charge, and we will have to act.

Example Goals: I want to learn about X. OR – I want to be a better writer. OR – I want a new job as a Muckity Muck.

Example Intentions: I intend, in this class, to learn what I can about X. OR – I intend, in this term, to  improve my academic writing skills. OR – I intend to interview a person who is a Muckity Muck so I can learn about what it will take to be a Muckity Muck.

I am not proposing that we do away with goals entirely — identifying an end point can be helpful to measure our progress and to feel like we’ve accomplished something once we get there. I am proposing, however, that we also consider intentions — what can I do now to help me move along the continuum toward that goal? To help with my practice of being a learner?

I encourage you to think about what your intentions are for this coming class / week / term / assignment. The goal may be to get an A or to learn about Project Management or for goodness sake to graduate — but what do you intend to learn? What actions will you take? What will you do?