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.