Not a lot of people know this but compromise costs less once you’re in it
Life is full of compromises, the proverbial fleas that come with the proverbial dog that we put up with for that dog’s company.
How many fleas, is therefore a good question to ask before embracing the dog. Trouble is, you won’t have a good count until you embrace. Surprisingly, when we’re deciding whether to commit to a compromise, the cost of its inconveniences appear higher than they are once we commit.
You’re dating someone with a few irritating habits. You’re trying to decide whether it’s worth committing to a real relationship. To assess the pros and cons of committing you’ll pay attention to the irritations. Every encounter with one will be a red flag, a reason to say “Maybe this isn’t worth it.”
Only when you’ve committed to the relationship will you begin to work in earnest on getting efficient at withstanding the irritations. You’ll cultivate benign neglect, strategic obliviousness, the water-off-a-duck’s-back non-response that lowers the red flags.
Before committing, your question is “Can I make this work?” and every inconvenience matters. Once you have committed the question becomes “How can I make this work?” and you begin to work on making the inconveniences matter less.
After all, you’re in it, so you have incentive to lower the cost and maximize the benefits of your commitment. When you’re in up to your elbows, you have to tuck in your elbows to make room for your partner, to humor your partner strategically, to not sweat the small stuff.
It’s not all small stuff, of course but more of it is once you’re in it. In a word, you adapt to what you’ve embraced. Once you’re in, you do what you can to make sure the fleas eat at you less. You have to. You can’t afford to bolt at every little red flag. The costs of bolting gets too high, so you do what you can to minimize the costs of not bolting.
The same is true of all commitments. Having kids, for example is a huge and daunting commitment to compromise. The commitment is, of course, more abstract before you have them, which explains why so many parents are blind sighted by how much work childrearing turns out to be. Thinking about getting up through the night to nurse them is one thing; doing it is another. In this respect, commitment to the compromise of childrearing is different from dating. You don’t get hands-on experience with the baby until you’ve had the baby.
Still, parents put up with a whole lot that they wouldn’t tolerate before they had their children. Once they’re in with two feet, their feet become more nimble. They’re less ruffled by every little thing because they’re locked in. They can’t say, “I’m not going to put up with this!” and mean it. They’re forced to learn to put up with it as efficiently as possible.
Behavioral economist and Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman speaks to part of the explanation with his Focus Illusion, the fact that nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it. His Focus Illusion applies to delights and disappointments. You won’t be as excited about getting something you want once you get it, because you will be thinking about other things. And you won’t be as disappointed about getting something you don’t want, because you’ll have it.
People consistently over-estimate how miserable they’d be after a big loss. Once the loss is upon us we make due within the compromises it imposes. We accept and shift our focus elsewhere, and in the process minimize the cost of the compromise.
Goethe is famously misquoted as saying, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back… the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
I’ve long thought this was a half-truth masquerading as a whole truth, and not at all a surefire reason to “begin it.” Yes, providence moves, but does it move enough in your favor to make your commitment an assured success? It moves against you too as when you commit to fight something or someone, which stirs providence to work against you.
Still, I think there’s an inverse notion that pertains to compromise:
Once you commit to a compromise, you innovate to minimize the cost of that compromise. Providence changes you. It resigns you to the costs which is the first step toward adapting to them.
Necessity is the mother of cost minimization, the invention of ways to withstand the compromises you’re in. And of course, that’s no reason to commit to all compromises. It’s a reason to weigh carefully the cost of committing and in that weighing to expect less fleas once you’re in with two feet.