“Something came up.” This is perhaps the most common requiem sung on behalf of failed commitments and unfulfilled responsibilities. And, perhaps relatedly, it is often one of the least heart-felt. Sure, it’s unfortunate that we had to abnegate our duties — but we had no choice. Unforeseen circumstances required us to take extraordinary measures in order to be present in some other space. While the failure is unfortunate, it does not reflect on our integrity or moral character. We did the best we could.
Perhaps. I want to argue that the sense of integrity which is not injured by such a decision is running on an antiquated operating system, and desperately needs to be upgraded to reflect our modern world. Such an upgrade to a fully modern interpretation of integrity will not only allow us to better keep our commitments, but will also feed into our ability to impact the world around us more generally. This modern integrity will ask much of us—I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s worth the while.
So what is “something came up” integrity? Well, to use the framework of human development pioneered by Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, often it is a sort of integrity which presupposes a stage-3 communal self. This version of the self identifies as a set of relationships, all of which impose potentially unlimited obligations on us at all times. According to the communal mindset, integrity comprises in meeting whichever one of these infinite obligations presents itself in the moment. If multiple obligations happen to present simultaneously, we break the tie between infinities by following our emotions; i.e. we planned to give a talk, but then our friend’s goldfish died, and, well—something came up. Because we’re always under these infinite obligations, any commitment we make comes with a laundry list of asterisks attached—it becomes provisional.
This might sound reasonable—after all, even the most cold-hearted would probably agree that there are some unpredictable events in life that do indeed impose obligations that overwhelm the ones we formed in previous commitments. We probably should not walk over someone dying on the street in order to make it to our meeting on time. But, it can be overused, with dire consequences. How many marriages failed because “work came up” on one too many date nights? How many companies failed because personal matters came up for one too many mission-critical workers at the wrong place and in the wrong time? How many careers sputtered because “something came up” and impeded one too many crucial actions? Many of the best things in life depend on commitment, and I challenge you to think of one which hasn’t been jeopardized for someone you know by something that “came up” which wasn’t truly enough of an emergency to warrant it. Once you look for it, you’ll hear its somber tune all around you. We sing it every day.
Fortunately, there is an alternative. According to Kegan, the next stage in human development is the stage-4 institutional self. Here, obligations depend on context, which for all but a few is non-global. We might be a parent, child, boss, subordinate, friend, partner — but we are not subject to unlimited obligations coterminous with each role at all times. We can leave our work phones on silent while bonding with loved ones and tell our bereft goldfish-keeping friends that we will console them after our mission-critical work meeting. It might seem cold to draw boundaries like this, and perhaps even uncaring. But is the best way to communicate care to someone really the extent to which we’re willing to neglect duties that third parties are relying upon? As long as we keep boundaries firm all-around, no one should get shortchanged, and everyone will be able to count on us. Our voice will be one fewer added to the morbid chorus of something-came-up dirges.
Life will become more predictable, which is a prize of its own. The communal model of self is perfect for a small hyper-egalitarian community whose time constraints on work do not bind — exactly the kind that dominated before the invention of projectile weapons and agriculture. But in a world characterized by complexity where time constraints bind tightly, it’s simply not a viable way to make an impact. If we follow Professor of Neuroscience Karl Friston’s model of intelligent agent action and consider cognition to be guided by a process which seeks to minimize surprisal (free energy), we can get a clearer picture of why this might be.
Under a Fristonian model, there are two main sources of surprisal: goal-related and means-related. We can think of goals as expectations; we expect to eat every day, and if we didn’t, we would, at some level, be surprised. To ensure we don’t encounter this surprise, we take actions; we might go to a restaurant with some friends. Of course, this introduces potential surprisal as well — what if the restaurant turns out to have a pest problem, or a fight breaks out at a nearby table? As long as the expected surprisal penalty you incur by the means is less than the surprisal you’d suffer from not eating, you’ll take the trade. If it’s not, you’ll probably find yourself skipping lunch — and perhaps minimizing surprisal some other way, maybe by scrolling through social media.
What does this all have to do with impact and integrity? To the extent that actions are downstream of obligations, a sense of self guided by obligations which are clear, pre-determined, and context-dependent will pre-potentiate predictable actions. When we are able to fully commit to future actions, the amount of variance — expected surprisal — that those actions will “cost” is drastically reduced. Eventually, it might become so low that we take the actions almost unthinkingly; habits are the epitome of non-provisional commitment. While most of us can’t live a life constituted 100% of unthinking habits, we can extend the fundamental principle they depend on: that the derivative of success with respect to expected action surprisal cost is negative.
This is a principle we all intuitively know: when we want to finish a big project, we might write down all the necessary tasks into a list, or maybe even vividly imagine ourselves completing them. We set clear expectations and align on goals and strategy. Computationally, it’s (not-so-simple) arithmetic. Predictability means less action cost means more goals met over the long run. If we wish to make an impact, the answer is clear: ditch stage-3, and embrace stage-4. If our goal is to change the world for the better, we can’t accept a life whose soundtrack is that oh-so-familiar song on repeat, whose commitments are provisional and wherein we pay out the nose in terms of expected surprisal for the actions we need to take to achieve our goals.
When we have a second to reflect, let’s ask ourselves: Do I show that I care for others by carving out and defending quality time with them, or by reneging on my commitments to third parties when something comes up for them? Do I let myself off the hook a little too easily when I don’t follow through? Do I minimize the expected surprisal cost of the actions I need to take to get things done, or do I vainly blaze a new trail through the jungle of chaos and unpredictability every day? Do I ever fail to reach my potential because I’m unsure, uncertain, or uncommitted? These are tough questions, but all we have to lose is our expected action surprisal cost — and an old earworm.