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April 8, 2016

The 3 Levels of Commitment

When I was in high school I was on the swimming team. At that time Doc Counsilman was world’s the preeminent swim coach. Among others, he coached Mark Spitz whose record for Olympic gold medals was finally topped by Michael Phelps. Counsilman’s book The Science of Swimming was essential reading for every serious swimmer.

In his book Counsilman described three levels of training discomfort – hurt, pain and agony. Average swimmers, he said, push themselves in practice until it hurt. Good swimmers push through the hurt and are willing to endure real pain during practice. But truly great swimmers – like Spitz and Phelps – pushed through the pain and consistently practiced in a state of agony. You can see it on the faces of every Olympic competitor as they hang on the lane markers at the end of a race.

Hurt-pain-agony is a useful way of assessing the level of commitment you are willing to make to something before you actually make that commitment.

Hurt: It only takes a hurt level of commitment to show up every day for a job you really don’t like and do only what’s necessary to collect a paycheck, or to make a phone call to ask someone for a date or to make a donation to a charity that you are volunteering for.

Pain: It takes a pain level of commitment to be the sort of leader – whether or not you have a management title – who really cares about coworkers and both enables and inspires them to achieve their full potential – or to make a commitment that you will raise a certain amount of money (even if you have to write the last check yourself) for your favorite charity.

Agony: You have to be willing to face an agony level of commitment if you are going to start a business where other people are depending upon you for a paycheck, and you know that in tough times you will be the last person paid (if you are paid at all). It takes an agony level of commitment to assume a volunteer leadership position on the board of a charity knowing the tough decisions and substantial contributions you will be called upon to make.

Before you make a decision to make a new commitment – starting a business, writing a book, getting married, having children – this is a useful construct for gauging your own level of determination.

Knowing whether your level of commitment is hurt, pain, or agony will help you avoid getting into opportunities and obligations that end up causing frustration, failure, and feelings of guilt later.

Before making a substantial commitment you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth the inevitable agony it will entail. I’ll leave the last word to a man who thought it was…