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.
The point of the game is clear. The only way Alvin gets his best payoff is to credibly eliminate the option of going out with his buddies. He needs to engage in strategic bridge-burning by moving to Betty’s town. Only then will she marry him and will they live happily ever after.
This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of cohabitation. It’s an alluring but feeble institution. By keeping everyone’s options open, the commitment necessary to work through difficulty and create the foundation for a lasting relationship too often fails to materialize. The data bear this out; couples who cohabit before marriage are more likely to be divorced later. A recent meta-study of 16 individual studies estimates that the odds of cohabiting couples staying together after marriage are only 81% of that of couples who do not cohabit before marriage. Despite these numbers, cohabitation has only grown in popularity. It’s an arrangement that keeps options open.
One can tell the same story about choosing a college major. Some students choose majors because they are easy, fun, and allow for maximum flexibility. They leave difficult vocational choices for the future, kicking the career can down the road. Some majors are hard and involve a laborious investment of time and energy that requires some strategic bridge-burning of other career options. And there is a greater possibility of failure. But the future rewards to a challenging major are great, at many levels. The rewards to a non-challenging major are working at your high school job.
Economists value decisions at their opportunity cost or the value of the best forgone opportunity. By this criterion, if our decisions do not involve a significant opportunity cost, they are probably not very meaningful decisions.
Spiritual commitments are the same. Ultimately, one must choose one god or another one. Choose comfort. Choose popularity. Choose mammon. Choose God. But we cannot be fully devoted to more than one.
How do we choose between one commitment and another? How do we know when it’s time to end our involvement with one thing and begin something else? These are often weighty and highly contextual questions, and my meager attempt to address them is only to offer a few basic principles for making commitments.
First, a larger sense of calling on our lives creates the foundation for commitments. What allowed Elisha to burn bridges to his past was commitment rooted in a deep sense of calling. We discern God’s calling on our lives through a consistent life of prayer, devotion to discipleship, and pursuit of wise counsel.
The second is to keep our focus on calling, even as it may evolve over time. God’s goodness toward us means that there will be nothing that will give us more joy in the long run than our faithful response to his calling on our lives despite that our commitments consistent to this calling will involve significant opportunity costs.
Third, the smaller choices we make should revolve around our larger calling. They should be congruent with it, supportive of it, and involve hundreds of little sub-commitments that are made in light of this bigger picture of what we sense God is calling us individually to do—and more importantly—be.
When I was a visiting graduate student at Eastern University a generation ago, sociology professor Tony Campolo made the point that people are defined by their commitments. Continually searching inwardly for meaning is like peeling away the skins of an onion. We keep peeling and peeling, ultimately finding that there is not a whole lot there except that little pale bulb inside the onion—not the most impressive part of this vegetable. I don’t think he studied game theory, but Campolo would have agreed with strategic bridge-burning. We are defined by our commitments, but like Elisha, our commitments are defined by what we leave behind.
Bruce Wydick is professor of economics at the University of San Francisco and distinguished research affiliate at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
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