Our pastor recently preached a sermon on strategic bridge-burning. He didn’t really call it that, but that’s what it was about. The biblical passage was 1 Kings 19, where the prophet Elijah calls his successor Elisha. The story begins with Elisha behind a team of oxen, plowing his field. Elijah approaches and puts his cloak around him, a gesture signifying prophetic calling in ancient Israel. Elisha responds by hosting a giant oxen-barbeque for the whole village, fueled by his plowing equipment. With no plow and no more oxen, there is no turning back for Elisha. Israel’s new prophet is born.
Elisha understood commitment and its costs. But as a university professor, one of the great dilemmas I have found within the millennial generation is that millennials possess two contradictory desires:
- A yearning for existential meaning by uniting their lives to a greater and higher purpose
- A desire to be free from the kind of serious commitment necessary for (1).
Again and again, my students tell me that they made a certain decision to “keep their options open.” That millennials like to keep options open is borne out by the data: only one in four (26%) millennials are married, nearly one-third (29%) are not affiliated with a particular religion, and half (50%) consider themselves political independents.
So what gives? From an economist’s perspective, millennials seem to measure decisions by what we call “option value.” In economics, if a decision like the purchase of an asset has a high option value, it means that there is a significant probability of a very good outcome. However, in the case that things don’t go as well as hoped for, it is easy to break ties and cut losses. Of course, this is only possible in a world of limited commitment. If one needs to be committed to something even when things don’t turn out as well as hoped, then the option value is lower.
I find that many of my university students fall into the same pattern of thinking in decisions related to graduate school, careers, marriage, and even spiritual commitments. Decisions are made based on their option value. It’s all about keeping the options open.
But it doesn’t work.
There is no student I know who has been successful in college by keeping all of their academic options in play. There is no older adult I’m acquainted with that has had a successful career while perpetually keeping their career options open. I am unaware of any married couple with a happy marriage without narrowing their relationship options. Frankly, I can’t think of anybody who has succeeded in anything by keeping all the options open.
Whether explicitly or implicitly, successful people understand the concept of strategic bridge-burning. I try to illustrate this in the game theory class I teach at the University of San Francisco in a game called “Marriage Game III”. (Yes, there are two other marriage games, I and II.)
The game goes like this: Alvin and Betty have been dating long distance for some time and want to get married. But Alvin has a problem. When Betty visits him in his hometown, she notices that he likes to go out in the evenings with his old high school buddies. If she moves to Alvin’s town, she knows things will go badly. He cannot pre-commit to a healthy relationship with Betty because the temptation to go out with his buddies remains too strong. But if he moves to her town, she has every reason to believe things will be better because this option will be unavailable.