Is commitment teachable?

Seth Godin clarifies something for me:

[Teaching technique] a waste because the fact is, most people can learn to be good at something, if they only choose to be, if they choose to make the leap and put in the effort and deal with the failure and the frustration and the grind.

But most people don’t want to commit until after they’ve discovered that they can be good at something. So they say, "teach me, while I stand here on one foot, teach me while I gossip with my friends via text, teach me while I wander off to other things. And, sure, if the teaching sticks, then I’ll commit."

I’ve seen what Godin describes, and I still don’t understand it completely’. It’s so obvious that acquiring a skill will involve a long, sustained stretch of failed effort—failed because you don’t yet have the skill. And making the effort is no guarantee you will ever master the skill. But it’s the only path. And there are plenty of secondary benefits that will come from making the attempt, whether or not the effort eventually succeeds. What else but commitment can power you through such a disheartening stretch?

For awhile I thought the culprit here was a general refusal to fail. And I think that is part of it. One current bit of advice for accomplishing something is to publicize the goal, and then using the potential shame of public failure as motivation to stick with the program. I’ve tried this occasionally in the past, but it fails me at the moment I realize that no one really cares whether I succeed or fail. Plus I’m too comfortable with failure, private and public.

As part of my job I’ve watched good teachers engage adult students who need help, only to see those students do anything in their power to deflect that help. Different folks use different strategies, but it boils down to: don’t get too close. Tell me what you have to say, and then let me consider it, preferably after you’ve gone away. The best teachers will get closer than the student wants, then confront the student directly with their deficiency, then tell the student how to correct it—and then wait until the student makes some attempt, right there, to do what the teacher said. Often it’s this last step at which students balk. It’s humiliating enough to be told where you fall short, worse to be given the obvious (usually simple) solution, but worst of all to have to acknowledge it all by doing what the teacher says right then and there. Until that final step we are still able to “stand up on the inside”, but doing what the teacher says forces us to sit down both outside and inside.

(I’m referring here to an anecdote I first heard from James Dobson, telling of a toddler who got into a war of wills with his mother about standing up in his highchair. At the end he plops down, saying—with his glare, if not in actual words—“I may be sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside.”)

So I thought the problem was a refusal to fail, which is essentially a refusal to become a student. Godin suggests that the problem is less severe—that folks are willing to sign up for studenthood and endure a stretch of failure if they can somehow be reassured that success would be the end result. This is heartening if true. I have no idea whether it is actually true.

There are few areas where excellence is in reach of everyone, but surely one is godly living. History testifies to that, and until community evaporated one’s everyday life testified to that through the many neighbors who were unremarkable except in their godliness. Perhaps being surrounded by that cloud of witnesses was enough to generate commitment in a young (or even older) believer, who had a long way to go but also serious reassurance that the effort would end in success.

But I have the sense that today we no longer have such reassurance—and in fact don’t even know what success might look like when embodied. It’s one of the few hypotheses I have for why so few people I know seem to be engaged in the tedious work of discipleship, occasionally discouraging but never mysterious. It’s the only task Jesus has set for us, and the rewards are significant both at the end and along the way. What could keep us from it except a refusal to endure failure, or at least a fear that we can never succeed?


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