April 19, 2011

What Good is a Commitment?

Last fall I happily agreed to put my writing for Satisfying Retirement on hold for four days to help one of my daughters move back to Phoenix from LA. I pitched in to help with last minute packing and driving the rental truck. She is her father’s daughter. Arrangements had been made well ahead of time for people to load the truck, take a TV and microwave she didn’t want to move, pick up a car she was donating to a charity, disconnect the cable, and do the final walk-through of the apartment. Each of these was reconfirmed one or two days beforehand.

On the day of the move, the packers had dropped her from their schedule. The fellow who was going to pick up the microwave decided after several text messages that he didn’t really want it enough to come get it. For some reason the women who was getting the TV thought she was to pick it up on Sunday, not Friday. The cable company had no record of the pick up of the equipment. The tow truck to pick up the car was late. Even the apartment representative was 45 minutes later than the agreed upon time.

Do you see a pattern? We certainly did. It was the absolute unimportance of of keeping commitments. Not one apologized, except for a few, insincere “Sorry about that.” The insensitivity to the inconvenience, and even the anger shown when we suggested their actions were harmful taught us a very valuable lesson.

Keeping a commitment used to be a rather serious matter. It was understood that a promise had been made. A commitment meant you and I could trust each other to do something at a specific time or in a certain way. Today, it seems more likely that a commitment is considered very flexible. When it suits the person or business that made the promise is when it will be fulfilled. I can’t begin to detail the reasons why commitments are not that important anymore to an increasing segment of society. But, I would like to take a stab at discussing why I believe it is mistake.

A commitment kept shows respect for others. When a promise is made to do something, there is another person or business that is counting on you. Mae West once said, “An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.” To make a commitment and then treat it as not very important, or flexible in its execution, says the other person isn’t as valuable as you. It says your convenience and your needs must always come first.

A commitment kept shows respect for yourself. You are putting your personal integrity and reputation on the line. You are not willing to fail someone else who is depending on you. You want to be known as someone who delivers what he promises. You believe you are able to take responsibility as it affects others.

A commitment kept shows an understanding of your time and energy. Sometimes I have over-committed myself. I think I can do more than I can. I have promised more than I can deliver based on my available time or abilities. I don’t want to say “No” to someone who asks me for something. But, I have had to learn my limits. The amount of time and energy I have is finite. A commitment that I can’t keep is much worse than no promise at all.

A commitment kept is essential for success. From a business perspective, a company or a salesman that promises something will happen or a product will be delivered on a specified date will soon be out of business if that commitment isn’t kept. Trust and a good reputation are essential in business. They are earned when everyone's interests are considered and respected.

The same premise exists for an individual. My personal reputation, the belief in my trustworthiness and my honesty, must be above question. When I make a promise the other person must believe that I will do everything in my power to keep that promise. Trust is a very fragile thing, and once it has been broken there's a chance it may never be fully repaired. A commitment is a test of that trust.

I’m afraid the experience in Los Angeles wasn’t an isolated instance. Think about your own day-to-day life. Did the doctor really intend on seeing you at the time set for your appointment, or is any time with an hour of that time acceptable? Is the car really going to be repaired for the estimate you received? Will you definitely e-mail the information I need today like you promised?

It doesn’t help to get angry when someone else doesn’t understand all that a commitment implies. You only have the power to not patronize that merchant again or avoid a person who has misled you. You can’t change that person’s understanding of responsibility.

But, each of us has the ability to understand what commitments stands for and to keep them. If a promise is made a promise will be kept. It is that simple. Even if you may be the only person doing so.

Why are commitments seemingly not as important as they once were? Hearing what each of us have experienced as we strive to build a satisfying retirement helps make each of us better equipped to build the retirement lifestyle we crave.

(Note: I wrote this post last year for Pick The Brain. The response was strong enough I thought readers who missed it there would find it interesting. It has been changed a bit from my original article)


  1. We are both beginning to sound like old people reminiscing ;). But you are right commitments don't seem to carry the significance they once did. Civility is another thing that seem to be disappearing from our society. Especially in the blogosphere. There are just so many nasty comments attached to almost every news article out there. When did we become such a bitter and self seeking society? It just isn't like the good old days (ha). I think I am beginning to sound like Grandma Pearl!!

  2. Good morning RJ,

    Who is Grandma Pearl?

    The shifting nature of commitments and civility is disturbing. What can we do about it? We can do our best to be sure in our little corner of the world we do what we promise and we treat others with respect and civility.

    I'm old enough to remember some rather nasty times during the Civil Rights upheavals and Vietnam war protests. The good old days were were not all good. I don't want to become another grumpy old man. At least for me, it is important to "look on the bright side of life" (thank you Monty Python) as often as possible.!

  3. Another way that commitments aren't honored like they used to be is with invitations that require an R.S.V.P. I don't know if people now don't know anymore what that means or they just choose to ignore it. It makes it really hard to plan for wedding guests especially when you don't hear back from invited guests. Grrrr

    This is my first time to comment on your blog. My hubby is 52 and I will be 50 later this year, so we are still a looooong ways from retirement I'm afraid. I am getting alot out of reading your posts though, especially about relationships. I am caring for my "93 year old difficult to care for" mother. I think that is how I actually found your blog by googling that subject. Thanks so much!

  4. Ever read Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle"? Nasty times back in the era of immigrants. It's one of the reasons that government quality controls as well as union organizing and anti-monopoly measures began.

    Lots of keeping business commitments between "gentlemen" entrepreneurs (I suspect) but not really toward the working class. Even the bloody "gentleman-soldier" method of warfare was only for the gentry (while the peons bled and died in the trenches (I'm currently on a tear of reading historical fiction re: the Hundred Years War).

    Plus I think that we more thoughtful (?) types probably grew up around more ethical people and may have (wrongly?) assumed that that was how everyone else operated. When I went off to Penn State for college, I was astonished at the number of classmates who were gung ho to steal from the local merchants (and other classmates).

    And Bob's take on the preCivil War House melees holds water.

    It was and still is a world/country full of nasty, undependable people out there, despite the many reliable and spiritual minions that we prefer to associate with.

    And of course, if there is a priest, government official, teacher, policeman or whoever found doing something horrendous, we are more likely to hear about it these days in the "Bad News Reports".

    Just gotta keep the faith as well as we can.

  5. Morning Steve,

    Keep the faith and work to make things better. That is really the best approach. To moan about a problem but not seek its solution is a fool's game. We are all in this together.

    And, yes, i read "The Jungle." Well written and terrifying.

  6. Hi Beth,

    You have hit on a sore subject around this household. RSVP is a foreign language (pardon the pun) to a lot of people. We don't even bother including it anymore, it is just ignored.

    The same could be said of answering emails or phone messages that include information that is time sensitive. Unless you send a text message, don't hold your breath waiting for an answer.

    I'm glad you are a reader, Beth. It is never too early to prepare for the next phase of your life. Two things that may interest you: my next e-book will be about preparing for retirement beforehand. And, I will be working on another article on dealing with aging parents that are challenging.

    By the way, I jumped over to see your blog, Cricket Crossing. It looks interesting. I've added to my "check this one out" list.

  7. Bob,
    You are so right, although I see a resurgence of responsibility in businesses these days- maybe the result of the bad economy. Merchants promising to pay if they are late for an appointment is an example. It's in the personal area where I miss the respect for others. No one feels bad about anything anymore- or so it seems. Commitments are not contracts that define your character. They are merely suggestions about what you might feel wiling to do. No need to actually deliver or even apologize.
    All the more reason to stay the course and demonstrate how honorable people conduct themselves. Maybe you will pick up a convert.

  8. Ralph,

    I agree with the change in some business behavior. The mess of the last few years has made in obvious that outstanding customer service can set a business apart from the others.

    It is especially important for smaller merchants to set themselves apart from the big box outlets. Places like Circuit City have proven that being big means nothing if your service and follow up are poor.

    I will give my business to someone who does what he says he will do, will make it right, and will respond quickly, even if he is more expensive.

  9. This isn't about me personally, but it illustrates exactly what you are talking about. My brother in law is a general contractor. His company builds big things, like schools, hospitals, airport terminals, and sports arenas.

    Since I teach contract law, he and I have had many conversations over the years. He has told me so many times that his success has been built on keeping his word and knowing that the people he does buisness with will keep theirs.

    My favorite story is that he started building a hospital on a handshake. They drew up the documents later, but the deal was sealed and performance started on nothing but the confidence each had in the other to act honorably. I love that story!

  10. Galen,

    That story is a perfect example of the power of personal integrity. All the marketing in the world can't overcome the handicap of being less than open and trustworthy.

    Your brother-in-law is smart. I bet he has to turn down business because people will flock to someone who operates the way he does.

    Thanks for sharing, Galen.

  11. So far, I've been lucky as far as meeting people at a specific time. Agreed, most are friends and also a few business meetings. However, the RSVP thing, as Beth mentioned is a very different story, for a party. it's almost as if, I want to see if anything better comes along before I let you know,

  12. Good morning, Sonia,

    Based on the time you added your comment you are an early riser! RSVP no longer seems to work with anyone younger than my parents' age. The Internet "Envite" service for announcing parties seems to work OK, but even so there are a substantial number of folks who don't make their plans known.

    What we do is plan for the number we invited minus those who definitely said they couldn't make it. If that means we have lots of leftovers, then we have part of next week's menu done.

  13. Commitment shrugged. And we count the ways ...

    Commenter Beth rightly points out RSVP non-response problems (example: a wedding reception with catered sit down dinner). GutsyWriter brings in a possible motivation for some, "It's almost as if, ...[they] want to see if anything better comes along...".

    Unfortunately, some married and living together partners seem to have a similar attitude about dishonoring a commitment


  14. Hi Quick (!),

    I wonder if there is any research available on the use of RSVPs for events today versus 50 years ago. I would imagine it is going the way of newspapers and stand alone bookstores.

    Maybe in this case it isn't so much an issue of commitment as it is a question of how people tend to communicate. I know that e-mails have fallen out of favor with many, voice mail isn't checked as often as it once was, and snail mail is pretty much been abandoned to junk mailers and magazines. If you don't text message many people, don't expect a response.

    A good example: my wife has been working on a massive project at church for Easter. If she sends an e-mail to two particular people she has to wait 3-4 days for a response. If she texts the same information, she hears back in 30 seconds.

  15. I have a response for the text vs email. My internet was down for three days!!! but I my cell phone worked. My mother only turns on her computer weekly---but answers her phone on the third ring.

    As for the RSVP I am a bit concerned. My son is getting married and my family is TERRIBLE about the RSVP. I am planning on calling each one since it is a sit down dinner at boo kooo a plate.

    Otherwise- what is commitment? My nephews have been living with their gals for over four years. They just are not "ready" to commit. Even the substitute line at school has problems with people "taking" the job and then not showing up!
    Lack of commitment is at an all time high!

  16. Hi Janette,

    I'm afraid this failure to keep a promise or to make a commitment, like marriage or a job, has become too easy. Since "everyone does it" there is little accountability. We just shrug and carry on.

    We expect politicians to say one thing and then change their position when elected. We expect people to live together without taking the next step. We are afraid our kids won't take care of us when the time comes.

    Is there an answer? I certainly don't have one.

  17. Hi, Bob... I agree with every single word you've written. For, right or wrong, I judge a person by one factor -- Did he do what he said he would do? Bill

  18. Hi Bill,

    That's pretty much what it boils down to. Seems kinda simple, doesn't it!

  19. My world is small but it seems I deal with this on a weekly basis and there is always an excuse about why a certain time was not met or commitment kept. But I have had to take a look around me and see that I have made some pomises that I have not kept lately and it bothers me to the point that I have started working on them all and making some progress. Good article and a great reminder to do what is right. I posted it to FB.

  20. Sue,

    Thanks for the FB post. That is always appreciated.

    Interestingly, my wife and I were talking last night about some problems with broken commitments that left Betty in a bad position at a major project at church. After the anger and hurt passed, we both realized we have a plank in our eyes that we need to deal with before we complained about someone else's speck.

    Really, that is all anyone can do. keep your promises and hope you lead by example.


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