I have become very, very interested in developing a skill that I call Dependability.
I believe the skill exists on a spectrum, and you can have less or more of it. It’s not a binary where you either have it or you don’t.
I believe this skill can be trained on purpose.
I will briefly describe each attribute that makes up the overall skill.
( All the examples are made up. Also, assume that the examples are only talking about endorsed actions and goals. )
To have a vision of a skill or a desirable end state and then be able to strive with deliberate effort towards making that vision a reality.
Ex1: I see a dance routine on YouTube that I think would be awesome if I could perform myself. I’ve never done anything like this before, and I’m somewhat self-conscious or skeptical of how likely I am to succeed. Regardless, I take concrete steps towards learning it (study the video, practice the moves that I see, repeat for many days until I’ve achieved competency at performing the dance). There is some possibility I fail for whatever reason, but this doesn’t stop me from giving it my full effort for at least a week.
Ex2: There’s a job that I really want. I’m unclear about what steps I need to take to acquire the job, and I’m not sure I’m qualified. I research what kinds of skills and traits are desirable in the job by asking people, Googling, and looking through applications. (I am more encouraged than not by this initial research.) I sign up for workshops and classes that will give me relevant training. I read books. I practice in my free time. I make useful connections / network. I build whatever reputational capital seems useful via blogging, social media, in-person meetings, running events. I apply for the job. If I fail, I figure out what needs work, fix it, and try again until I obtain the position.
To form an intention to do something (generally on a longer time scale), be able to say it out loud to someone else, and then be certain it will happen one way or another, barring extreme circumstance.
Ex1: I commit myself via marriage to another person and promise that I will try everything to make the relationship work before giving up on it. I say it out loud as a vow to the other person in a marriage ceremony, in front of a bunch of people. Then I proceed to actually attempt to get as close to 100% chance of creating a permanent relationship situation with this person, using all the tools at my disposal.
Ex2: I tell someone that I will be there for them in times of emergency or distress, if they ask. I tell them I will make it a priority to me, over whatever else is going on in my life. A year or two later (possibly with very little contact with this person otherwise), they call me and ask for my help. I put everything aside and create a plan to make my way to them and provide my assistance.
To finish projects that you start, to not give up prematurely, to not lose the wind in your sails out of boredom, lack of short-term incentive or immediate reward, lack of encouragement, or feelings of uncertainty and fear.
Here’s an example of what it looks like to NOT have follow-through: I want to write a novel, but every time I start, I lose interest or momentum after initial drafting and planning. Maybe I manage to build the world, create characters, plan out a plot, but then I get to the actual writing, and I fail to write more than a few chapters. Or maybe I loosen the requirements and decide I don’t need to plan everything out in advance, and I just start writing, but I lose steam midway through. I know in my heart that I will never be able to finish it (at least, without some drastic change).
Having follow-through means having the ability to finish the novel to completion. It is somehow missing from the person I’ve described above.
To do what you say you’ll do (on a lesser scale than with commitment); to be where you say you’ll be, when you say you’ll be there; to cooperate proactively, consistently, and predictably with others when you’ve established a cooperative group dynamic.
This can also be summed up as: If you set an expectation in someone else, you don’t do something that would dramatically fail to meet their expectation. You either do the thing or you communicate about it.
If someone is expecting to meet me at a time and place, I show up at the time and place. If there are delays, I let them know ahead of time. I don’t ever fail to show up AND not tell them in advance AND not explain afterwards (this would count as dramatically failing to meet an expectation).
If someone asks me to complete a task within the month, and months later, I have both failed to do the task AND I have become incommunicado, this counts as dramatically failing to meet an expectation.
Note that it doesn’t actually matter if they feel upset by your failure to meet an expectation. They might be totally fine with it. But I still would not have the skill of reliability, by this definition.
The skill also includes an ability to “plug into” teams and cooperative situations readily. If you are on a team, you are relatively easy to work with. You communicate clearly and proactively. You take responsibility for the tasks that are yours.
To be able set an intention and then keep your attention on something for a set amount of time (maybe about up to 20 minutes).
Ex1: If someone I care about is speaking to me and what they’re saying is important to them, even if it isn’t that important to me, I am able to pay attention, hear their words, and not get lost in my own thoughts such that I can no longer attend to their words.
Ex2: If I am trying to complete a <20-min task, I do not get distracted by other thoughts. I do not follow every impulse or urge to check Facebook or play a game or get food, such that I cannot complete the task. I’m able to stay focused long enough to finish the task.
Being with what is
To not flinch away from what is difficult, aversive, or painful. To be able to make space for sensations and emotions and thoughts, even if unpleasant. To be able to hold them in your mind without following an automatic reaction to move away or escape.
Ex1: If I am trying to introspect on myself, and I encounter ughy, aversive, or uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, or realizations, I am able to make space for that in my mind and stay with them. (This probably involves distancing myself somewhat from them so that they’re not overwhelming.)
Ex2: If someone expresses a loud, big, “negative” emotion (anger, fear, sadness, pain), I don’t panic or freeze or dissociate. I can stay calm, embodied, and grounded. And then I stay open to their emotional state and not assume it means something bad about me (“They hate me!” “I’m doing something wrong!” “They don’t want me around!”). I’m not overwhelmed by anxieties or stories about what their emotion means, which might cause me to go away or stop caring about them. I instead make room in myself for my feelings and their feelings so that they can both exist. I maintain an open curiosity about them.
More thoughts on Dependability
I claim that all these skills are tied together and related in some important way, and so I bundle them all under the word Dependability. Although I do not myself understand exactly and precisely how they’re related.
My sense is that the smaller-scale skills (e.g. focused attention, which occurs on a moment-to-moment scale) add to your ability to achieve the larger-scale skills (e.g. commitment, which occurs on a month-to-month scale).
If I had to point to the core of the Dependability skill and what the foundation of it is, it is based on two things: the ability to set an intention and the ability to stay with what is. And all the above skills apply these two things in some way.
In general, people seem able to set intentions, but the “staying” is the tricky part. Most people I’ve encountered have some of the Dependability skill, to some extent. But the skill is on a spectrum, and I’d grade most people as “middling.”
I think I’m personally much worse at setting intentions than average. In certain domains (emotions, realizations), I’m above average at staying with what is. In other domains (failure, setbacks, physical discomfort), I’m much, much worse at staying with what is.
I suspect children are not born with the overall skill. They develop it over time. The marshmallow test seems to assess part of the skill in some way?
My stereotype of a typical high school or college kid (relative to an adult) is terrible at the overall skill, and especially reliability. I was a prime example. You couldn’t rely on me for anything, and I was really bad at communicating the ways in which I was unreliable. So I just fell through on people a lot, especially people with authority over me. I would make excuses, ask for extensions and exceptions, and drop the ball on things.
Over time, I learned to do that way less. I’ve drastically improved in reliability, which was helped by having a better self-model, learning my limitations, and then setting expectations more appropriately. I’ve also just obtained more object-level skills such that I can actually do more things. I’ve learned to extend my circle of caring to beyond just myself and my needs, so I can care about the group and its needs.
The other skills, however, I am still quite bad at. Some of them I’m completely incapable of (commitment, follow-through).
How do you train Dependability?
I personally feel crippled without the skill. Like I will never achieve my most important goals without it. And also, I feel particularly disabled in gaining the skill, because of how I reacted to childhood trauma. My way of being, so far, has completely avoided making commitments, trying, and having follow-through. I’ve found workarounds for all those things such that I’ve lived my life without having to do them. And I got by just fine, but I won’t be able to achieve many of my goals this way.
(It’s a blessing and a curse that an intelligent, precocious person can get by without the trying skill, but here we are...)
Fortunately for me, I currently believe the skill is trainable with deliberate practice. Possibly better in combination with introspective, therapeutic work.
I don’t know what kind of training would work for others, but for myself, I’ve found one plausible way to train the skill deliberately.
I spent a week at a place called MAPLE, aka the Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth. The people I met there exhibited above average skill in Dependability, and I was notably surprised by it. I was so surprised by it that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about MAPLE and talking to people about it. And now I’ll be spending a month there as a trial resident, starting in April.
But this post isn’t where I talk about MAPLE. I mention it primarily as a hint that maybe this skill is attainable through deliberate practice.
It kind of makes sense that very deliberate, regular meditation could contribute to the skill. Because maybe the micro-skill (setting lots of tiny intentions, being with what is on a moment-to-moment basis) contributes to the macro-skill (setting large intentions, staying with what is on a larger scale).
The monastic lifestyle also includes being tasked with all kinds of somewhat aversive things (cleaning bathrooms, managing people, being responsible for things you’ve never been responsible for before). You join the team and are expected to contribute in whatever ways are needed to maintain and run the monastery. And it is supposed to be hard, but you are training even then.
It seems possible that this month at MAPLE, I will set more deliberate intentions than I have collectively in my life until then. Which tells you just how little I’ve done things on purpose, deliberately, and with intention in my life. The process of how that got broken in me is probably another story for another time.
But basically, I expect to do a bunch of repetitions of training Dependability on a second-to-second level. And I will be doing this not just during meditation but also during daily work. I will also likely spend a lot of time introspecting and trying to gain insight into my blocks around Dependability. I hope to see at least a little movement in this area in the next month but may need to spend a longer period of time at MAPLE to fully develop the skill. (I noticed that residents who’d been at MAPLE for multiple years had more of the skill than those who had been there for less time.)
[ Note: The following section might trigger people who are scrupulous in a particular way. I want to make clear that I’m not speaking from a place of obligation or shouldy-ness or fear of being a bad or unworthy person or self-judgment. I don’t feel shame or guilt about not having Dependability. I’m speaking from a place of actively wanting to grow and feeling excited about the possibility of attaining something important to me. And I hope the same for other people, that they will be motivated towards having nice things. Dependability seems like a nice thing to have, but I’m not into judging people (or myself) about it. ]
Not having Dependability is a major bottleneck for me. My ultimate goal is to live a life of arete, or excellence in all things. And an especially important part of that for me is living a virtuous life.
I believe that without Dependability, I will not be able to live a virtuous life: Be the kind of person who makes correct but difficult choices. Be the kind of person who is reliably there for her friends and family. Be the kind of person who can become part of or contribute to something bigger than herself. Be the kind of person who wouldn’t sell out humanity for money, fame, power, convenience, security, legacy. Be the kind of person who doesn’t lie to herself about “being a good person” who “does things for the sake of progress or for the good of others”—when in truth the underlying behaviors, cruxes, and motives have little to do with the rationalizations.
I consider it my duty as a human being to develop into a virtuous person, rather than just any kind of person. And I believe Dependability is an important feature of a virtuous person.
I notice I don’t meet my personal criteria for a virtuous person as of yet, and Dependability seems like a major missing piece.