Starting something new? Commit from the heart, or don’t at all!

Starting something new? Commit from the heart, or don't at all!


He had an idea. We developed it together and thought it could work well as a business. I was going to leave my job anyway, so we decided to give it a go. We were polar opposites in personalities and thoughts but he said that we needed the difference in our business partnership. Everyone I consulted seemed to agree. So I committed.

After six months working on the project at the weekends, I quit my job and we were ready to launch. But something just did not feel right. I was not at all excited about the work ahead…

As I immersed in the entrepreneurial world and he remained in full-time employment, our thoughts diverged further. Our relationship came under considerable strain. We were quick to reconcile after each argument but it was not long before I resented the business for the stress entailed. Yet no matter how I felt, I could not bring myself to break my commitment – I had promised to give this project a year from the day I left my job.

Eight months from that day and fourteen from when we started working together, I received an email from him saying that he was upset with me and wanted to terminate the partnership. I myself had come to terms with the fact that my heart was not in it and we were probably not the right people to bring our idea to life, but I had not expected such an abrupt end to it all.

We have not been in contact since.

Mistake of form over substance

How I wish I had questioned my commitment earlier, when my heart said “something was not right”. Without the prolonged discontent, maybe we could have parted on better terms…

It was not the first time commitment had kept me in a bad place.

Why then, is commitment so universally desirable? I get that “commitment unlocks the doors of imagination, allows vision, and gives us the right stuff to turn our dream into reality”[1], but surely I am not alone in seeing a commitment backfire?

Reflecting on my different relationship commitments – romantic, professional and fraternal, I have realised that they were essentially misplaced. With every relationship, I typically tied myself to the form rather than the substance.

Building a business is like carrying, birthing and raising a baby really. Challenges abound and it takes the power of love to persevere. Love for a vision. Love for a belief. Love for fulfilment.

I did not have that love. I cared about what we set out to do. I thought the business idea could work. But I was not compelled by the vision. My commitment was not to make that vision come true at all costs. My commitment to stay in the partnership for an agreed period of time was like being determined to carry a foetus without being bothered if it was going to be born at all!

Yet my misplaced commitment was disguised in a self-righteous illusion of “doing the right thing”. I chose to quietly grapple with my discontent rather than questioning my commitment because I could not bear the thought of going against my words. Never mind what my heart felt, how could I uphold integrity without keeping my words?

I have since realised that you sometimes have to break words to keep your internal integrity and to stay committed to something bigger than words given at a point in time.

Commitment to the substance

We often understand a work commitment as something specific, i.e. to a project, a role, a business or a career path, and it is often measured by a specific outcome. This is the form. Underlying each form is usually something deeper and more permanent – a dream, a purpose or a belief. This is the substance.

My current work is about following a calling that gives me a deep sense of meaning. I come alive doing it and I have created a business around it. While I am dedicated to the business, I know that it is only a form. The work is the substance of my commitment. At times when I am despondent with the business, I am open to the idea of changing it or abandoning it altogether. I have never felt that way about my work – keeping the work is non-negotiable. My commitment is in the form of this business now but the path will have to change if it one day proves ineffective in fulfilling my long-term purpose.

For the first time I feel liberated rather than constrained by a commitment. It feels effortless to commit to something that is character-defining. Since I enjoy the work, I do not need to whip myself into action. My drive comes without pressure because this commitment is less about achieving a certain outcome at a specific time and more about giving my inner self an expression.

And for the first time, I experience the true power of commitment. Being dedicated to something of long-term significance means that I do not get disheartened by failures. My commitment fuels creativity when things get tough. My commitment compels persistence when my energy wanes. My commitment keeps my faith alive on a journey through uncertainties and challenges.

While commitments to things or other people can feel more binding than those to ourselves, they are often commitments to forms. Commitments to time-defying substances are commitments to the values and purposes that define us. 

A relationship commitment, at the substance level, is about the experience you want for yourself and your partner. That commitment will keep you fighting through tough times to make things better but it will also liberate you when the relationship experience you want really cannot be had with a specific partner.

A work commitment is ultimately about a vision that you want to bring forth for yourself and others. If that vision is no longer possible with the career path you have taken, your commitment to the substance means you will need to change the course.

Making a commitment at the substance level is important because only when you have committed to internal integrity and fulfilment can you start making meaningful promises to others. After all, it is your authentic self that is the biggest gift to the world!

[1] James Wamock

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