The late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman described life in the modern world as living in “liquid modernity,” or a state of constant change and uncertainty. Having liberated ourselves from traditional social structures and hierarchies—and with the rise of technology, cheap and efficient travel, and the internet—we now have infinitely more options available to us than at any time in history. Our religious beliefs, occupations, and social relationships are no longer pre-established at birth, freeing us to craft our own identities, careers, and lifestyles out of an endless variety of choices.
Faced with this overwhelming variety, we feel the tension of being pulled in opposite directions. On the one hand, we feel compelled to commit to a specific profession, cause, relationship, or residence, but on the other hand, we feel the need to keep our options open. And with so many options right at our fingertips, and with a culture that encourages distraction, novelty, and change, we experience this tension in virtually every area of our lives.
Whether contemplating major life decisions like choosing a career or a spouse or simply settling on which Netflix movie to watch, we live in near-constant fear that we’re making the wrong decision. And with so many possibilities available to us, there’s no shortage of opportunities to feel like we’re missing out on something better.
The problem is, while keeping our options open is the safer choice, it’s not, in the end, the more satisfying choice. The life well-lived is often a life of deep commitment to a specific cause, profession, or project, and we know this intuitively based on the fact that, while we feel compelled to keep our options open—to stay within “infinite browsing mode”—we also tend to respect those the most who fully commit themselves to specific endeavors, all while feeling a sense of shallowness in our own indecisiveness.
And so we have a paradox: we admire those who belong to the “counterculture of commitment” while ourselves remaining in infinite browsing mode. Finding our way out of this paradox—and the reasons why we should all strive to join the counterculture of commitment—is the subject of Pete Davis’s latest book, Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing.
Davis uses a useful analogy. He describes the situation of having our life choices forced on us as living in a locked room (involuntary commitment), whereas the opposite situation—what we now face in the modern world with unlimited choices—is like living in a hallway, forever going from room to room but never committing to any of them (infinite browsing mode). Either scenario leads to dissatisfaction; the ideal way to live, instead, is to browse for a bit, as all young people must do, but then to pick a room and stick with it, thus achieving voluntary commitment.
This is, of course, easier said than done. The modern world is designed to encourage novelty, flexibility, change, and the constant consumption of new experiences. Fear of missing out, buyer’s remorse, and other psychological phenomena haunt our every decision.
But, as Davis points out, endless browsing leads to its own, more insidious, problems: namely, paralysis, anomie, and a feeling of shallowness, isolation, and dissatisfaction with life. Individually, as we pass from project to project, place to place, and relationship to relationship, we never truly feel connected to something larger than ourselves in a more than superficial or fleeting way.
Collectively, this leads to apathy and disconnection. In prioritizing individual freedom without any corresponding sense of duty or obligation to others, modernity has caused us to collectively lose our connection to the community and to the common good. We are free to do anything, we commit to nothing, and social problems remain unsolved as a result of our collective indifference.
This culture of open options has infiltrated our sense of morality, our education, and our careers. Our education prioritizes resume-building and the attainment of abstract skills over commitment to craft and specific subjects, thus encouraging breadth over depth. And when we graduate, we bounce from job to job with no sense of dedication to any one company or position—and with no reciprocal commitment from our employers to us.
We’re in perpetual “preparation for advancement” mode, more concerned about achievement and money than about our passion for the type of work or social causes we’re fighting for. As Davis wrote:
“You never have to switch gears from preparation and advancement to purpose and attachment, because everyone is still set on keeping their options open. High school is all about keeping options open for college, college is about keeping options open for jobs, and now the jobs are about keeping options open for other jobs. It is “preparation for advancement” all the way down. There’s a precise word for this: careerism. It’s valuing our individual journey of achievement over everything else.”
But this constant striving for advancement is the modern equivalent of the Sisyphean task of forever pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down, ready to be rolled back up all over again. Not only is this detrimental to our individual well-being, it causes the breakdown of institutions and democracy as we become so self-absorbed and apathetic that we no longer participate in our civic duties or notice when our political representatives sacrifice the common good for their own benefit.
But Davis is optimistic that anyone can learn to live a more enriching life, as he offers a plethora of stories about individuals who broke out of infinite browsing mode to become “long-haul heroes,” dedicated to a craft or cause and doing their part over the years to make the world a better place. He tells the story of Karen Washington, a former physical therapist who—instead of complaining about the empty lot filled with trash next to her New York home—took it upon herself to clean up the trash herself and replace the empty lot with a community garden. She has since committed to food justice activism, community gardening, and farming, making New York City a better place to live. It is through this sort of connection to a cause, to the community, and to others that people can best lead satisfying lives.
Overall, Davis’s argument is compelling and, I think, largely correct, but the problem is that there’s a whole lot of repetition involved to stretch this concept from its original form as a Harvard commencement speech to a 250-page book. In the second part of the book, for example, the fear of regret, the fear of association, and the fear of missing out each get a dedicated chapter despite the fact that these concepts were adequately covered in the first part of the book. The reader may enjoy all of the individual stories (I myself was not a particular fan of the excessive number of religion-based examples), but the argument itself can be expressed in far more concise terms.
And the argument itself is not without need of qualification. Obviously, it is only through commitment to an extended project that people can accomplish great things, and it is often the case that long-term commitments lead to greater life satisfaction and collectively to a better-functioning democracy. But at the same time, it’s important to note the dangers of committing too early; without sufficient experience, how can one even know what they’re passionate about?
Davis, to his credit, does address this concern, but there is a larger point he fails to consider; namely, the importance of cultivating a wide-range of knowledge and experience. In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein makes essentially the opposite point: that diverse experience across multiple fields is more relevant in today’s society than specialization because the problems of the modern world require interdisciplinary knowledge in the implementation of creative solutions.
Creativity itself—the crafting of something new via the connection of previously disparate elements—often requires a broad range of knowledge and experience that Davis downplays throughout the book. Think of Steve Jobs taking a calligraphy course in college that led to Apple’s beautiful typography, or to the great polymaths of history like Leonardo da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin who, due to their breadth of knowledge, contributed to the betterment of society by making advances in several fields.
In the Harvard Business Review article titled Sometimes the Best Ideas Come from Outside Your Industry, the article’s authors provide several examples of innovative solutions that came from outside the field, such as “an escalator company that borrowed a solution from the mining industry in figuring out how to install escalators in shopping malls.” As the authors write:
“When you’re working on a problem and you pool insights from analogous areas, you’re likely to get significantly greater novelty in the proposed solutions, for two reasons: People versed in analogous fields can draw on different pools of knowledge, and they’re not mentally constrained by existing, ‘known’ solutions to the problem in the target field. The greater the distance between the problem and the analogous field, the greater the novelty of the solutions.”
This applies on an individual level as well: the more range you have in terms of knowledge and experience, the more information you have at your disposal in creating novel solutions. This ability to bring fresh perspectives to a problem is not, to my mind, adequately considered by Davis.
So take the argument for what it’s worth. Dedication to specific projects and causes is usually necessary for the pursuit of individual happiness (by connecting us to other people and to larger social causes and crafts) and in the solving of social problems at the local level. At the same time, one should guard against taking this advice too far, committing too early or too intensely and thereby limiting their own cognitive flexibility and capacity for creativity.