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My satisfaction comes from my commitment to advancing a better world.


—Faye Wattleton



Most everyone is familiar with the Goethe couplet “Whatever you can do—or dream you can—begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” The role of commitment in our lives—on a personal, professional or societal level—cannot be underestimated. When we set an intention or make a commitment, we create the opportunity to affect change for ourselves and others.


Our commitments come from our deepest values and are exemplified in the world by how we live our lives. The promises we make ideally are the promises we keep as individuals, as organizations, as communities. Commitments create trust, both of ourselves and for others, and are at the core of building stronger relationships and communities.


This can be challenging in a culture where we are asked to over commit in many instances. In his book about the many layers which make up and often complicate our lives, In Over Our Heads, psychologist, educator, and behavioral theorist Robert Kegan points out that we tend to live with many competing commitments at the same time, some of which are irreconcilable. The tension between our work, our family life, our individual pursuits and our community engagements—particularly within the context of a culture focused primarily on speed and results—can leave us feeling overwhelmed.


To truly honor commitments, I’ve often found it essential to step back and reflect on how much time or energy what I’m asking of myself (or others are asking of me) will take. I also find that making declarations in writing or spoken publicly also can help frame what’s most important to me. An article from about a decade ago appearing in Fast Company provides some similar guidance, although many of us likely experience the overwhelm of multiple commitments regularly.


In a community or business context, it sometimes becomes even more complex as individuals come together to make commitments for a larger group. I’ve worked recently in community settings where there was not alignment on a certain set of commitments where key stakeholders were not involved from the start in framing these guiding principles and actions. And there are countless businesses who make commitments to social responsibility, environmental stewardship and sustainability, yet are still struggling with creating a culture and changing practice to align with these noble goals.


T.S. Eliot quipped that “ours is in the trying, the rest is not our business” and in the work of social change and creating a more sustainable society, this couldn’t be more true. It’s vital to embrace thinking for the longer-term, to make the big commitments and take the small steps that result in positive change over generations. We have come so far, and it always seems that there is much farther to go. But commitment can serve as our compass and determination as our inspiration.


Ultimately, powerful commitments require a return to what is important, a stripping away of distraction, a focus on what is both meaningful and accomplishable. This is not to say that we shouldn’t dream and challenge ourselves, our organizations and our communities to redefine and reach for what is possible. But we do have to take the time to create the space and clear the path for following through on what is most important.


October 2008