When is it time to change course? (HT legal realism)

Kayak sobre las nubes / Sailing in the sky

Whether you’re reading a self-help book, a leadership guide, or any number of blogs, you’re likely to hear a lot about the importance of keeping commitments.

Indeed, the ability to follow through—to exercise self-control—is critical to success and happiness, according to the new book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by research psychologist Roy Baumeister and New York Times writer John Tierney.

As I recently wrote in Huffington Post, there are a number of proven strategies helpful in keeping us on course, including tracking our progress, limiting our priorities, and keeping our bodies fueled with the glucose that facilitates self-control. One of the more innovative (and amusing) solutions is StickK.com, the brainchild of two Yale professors and one of their students. It works like this: Pick a goal. Report your progress. Fail to do what you promised? You are hit with an automatic penalty, such as making a payment to an “anti-charity”—a group with views you detest.

Such strategies can be especially helpful in Plan B Nation, where continued movement towards important goals can be especially hard to keep up. It’s one thing to finish a project on time when a boss is breathing down your neck. Quite another to plug away day after day alone on a seemingly unending job hunt. Over time, I’ve adopted a number of the strategies the Willpower authors describe—along with some of my own. They’ve helped me to move forward on numerous fronts, including launching this blog.

At the same time, as with pretty much everything, there are limits to willpower. Yes, thriving in Plan B requires a more-than-usual infusion of determination. But it also requires more-than-usual flexibility—a willingness to improvise, to take our opportunities where we find them. If we become too fixated on our goals, we may fail to recognize (and take advantage of) unexpected strokes of luck. Focus is good. Blinders are bad.

These thoughts have been on my mind as I wind up my first seven days of NaPerProMo. This is my personal (and intentionally silly-sounding) answer to National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo, wherein more than 200,000 would-be novelists commit to penning 50,000 words in the course of 30 days. Taking this model as a jumping off point, I announced that on December 1, I would embark on NaPerProMo—National Personal Project Month—with the goal of writing a blog post a day.

It sounded like a good idea—indeed, such a good idea that I recently learned that the BlogHer network of women bloggers just concluded NaBloPoMo (National Blog Post Month).  At the same time, as I’ve found in the past week, it isn’t quite feasible, at least not if I want to write the sort of posts that you’ll likely want to read.  In large part this is because I’ve suddenly (and happily) been getting some paying freelance work, and for me, it was a no-brainer that this had to take precedence.

I remember remarkably little of what I learned in law school, but one thing that sticks with me is an arresting list of conflicting “canons of construction”—rules for how we go about figuring out what a law means.  Legal realist Karl Llewellyn famously listed 28 examples of such conflicting rules. (For example, the rule that “A statute cannot go beyond its text” exists alongside “To effect its purpose, a statute may be implemented beyond its text.”)  When judges go about interpreting laws, there are “correct, unchallengeable rules of ‘how to read’ which lead in happily variant directions,” Llewellyn concluded with dry humor in a 1950 law review piece.

Here, it seems to me, that life is very much like law. Stick to your commitments. Be open and flexible. These are both great pieces of advice so far as they go, but at times they will conflict. And at such points we, like Llewellyn’s judge, will have to find our own “right” answer. For me, right now, this means keeping in mind the spirit of my goal (writing more, building community, connecting with My People) but being flexible in how I go about it. And while I may not write a blog post each and every day, I can still keep moving forward.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “When is it time to change course? (HT legal realism)

  1. Agree with you on both points (and thanks too for the kind words on #2).

    One thing I’ve found in this Plan B Nation foray is that I need to be creative with the promises I make to myself. Sometimes they’re most important for getting me started–sort of like training wheels.

    And another paradox: Hold yourself accountable / Be gentle with yourself. I do think the legal realist analogy works really well here–with life, as with law, we’d love to think there are simple rules, just follow them, and presto we’re done. In fact, both law and life require us to reflect deeply on our underlying (& sometimes unarticulated) values and goals.

  2. Amy,

    Two things:
    As one who makes lots of commitments, I’ve learned to be careful about them. I don’t say yes unless I know when I am going to be able to deliver, for example. I also tell myself and others the truth when it becomes clear that I am not going to keep my commitment. This particularly makes sense when the commitment has an underlying purpose. In your case, writing a blog post every day was at least partly about getting work. Having the work, I would say the original commitment was being fulfilled without keeping that previous one.

    The problem, of course, is that we can easily rationalize not doing something. “I don’t feel like writing a blog post” can morph into a complex set of rationalizations, especially for those as creative as we are. A friend of mine says, “when you’re looking for an excuse, any one will do.” You were lucky to have a really good excuse: the original commitment was fulfilled.

    So, that leads to the conflicting canons of construction. When am I doing it because I am rationalizing and when am I doing it because the underlying purpose has been fulfilled? I know that I can sometimes argue the latter when in my gut, I know it is the former.

    Which leads to #2: Great use of arcane legal knowledge in a non-legal post! You are indeed a master writer. And I particularly like it because to me, this is some what the heart of the law is: integrity. That includes working with paradoxes, looking for interpretations that take into account that there may be good excuses, and that in the end it is about all of us being in integrity with ourselves and others.

    • Agree with you on both points (and thanks too for the kind words on #2).

      One thing I’ve found in this Plan B Nation foray is that I need to be cre­ative with the promises I make to myself. Some­times they’re most impor­tant for get­ting me started–sort of like train­ing wheels.

      And another para­dox: Hold your­self account­able / Be gen­tle with your­self. I do think the legal real­ist anal­ogy works really well here–with life, as with law, we’d love to think there are sim­ple rules, just fol­low them, and presto we’re done. In fact, both law and life require us to reflect deeply on our under­ly­ing (& some­times unar­tic­u­lated) val­ues and goals.

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