Dependability

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. )

Try­ing

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.

Commitment

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.

Fol­low-through

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.

Reliability

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.

Ex­am­ples:

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.

Fo­cused attention

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.