The Wisdom Project Bunsen Burner

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column by subscribing here.

Story highlights

Don't think of long-term commitments as a means to an end, but the goal itself

The theory of "deliberate practice" is linked to success in medicine, sports, spelling bees, chess and playing the piano

CNN  — 

Life unfolds by the scientific method, in a series of theories we test and outcomes from which we learn. We’re all just trying to figure out the best way to live and we do so by trial and error every day.

We are kicking bad habits, searching for happiness, improving relationships, saving the planet, advancing our careers, getting in shape and so on. Or at least trying to, by converting our thoughts into action and then trying over and over again until we discover what works (and doesn’t). “All life is an experiment,” wrote the science-minded transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The more experiments you make, the better.”

Life itself is an experiment, but you can turn up the heat on that Bunsen burner by concocting your own DIY experiments toward various short- and long-term objectives. I personally have about a half dozen going at any given time, which is probably too many, but good fodder for Wisdom Project columns.

The spoils of long-term commitment

One of my longest is the choice I made to become vegetarian 20 Thanksgivings ago. The only other idea or project I’ve committed to longer has been keeping a journal (26 years and counting).

A longitudinal experiment that spans decades has unique challenges and rewards. The challenge is sticking to it, not just in moments when it’s a struggle, but also during periods when you lose touch with its value or purpose. The rewards come later, sometimes subtly and unexpectedly, so you have to keep faith in them in the absence of short-term payoffs. There’s no easy hack for this. The closest I’ve come up with is revisiting the initial reasons for my choice and, when that doesn’t work, sticking with it anyway.

This theory is often referred to as “deliberate practice” and research has linked it to success in medicine, sports, spelling bees, chess and playing the piano. Simply persevering and sticking to any long-term goal has the added benefit of increasing the likelihood of general success. It’s more predictive than IQ or talent. You may even be able to extrapolate that the benefits of long-term dedication to a goal or ideal are akin to benefits of a long-term, committed relationship, which research ties to a greater sense of life satisfaction and happiness.

Related: Backcasting to the future

Sticking with vegetarianism for two decades has taught me a lot – about myself, about ethics, food, culture and even human nature. Some lessons took years to reveal themselves. What started as a simple and surprisingly easy ethical choice has been a portal of growth and self-improvement when it pushes me outside my comfort zone.

Make the action itself the goal

Most of our experiments (resolutions, mantras, lifehacks, diets, new habits, etc.) have some end goal in mind. But despite the worth of those goals, we often don’t stick with them. New Year’s resolutions, research has shown us, have a discouraging 8% success rate, with more than half given up by summer.

So part of the secret of a long-term commitment is not thinking of it as a means to an end, but as the goal itself. Instead of focusing on losing 15 pounds, make two hours of exercise every week the commitment. By staying resolved to that week after week, the weight loss will follow, along with more energy, better sleep and perhaps a longer life.

Some commitments bring less predictable outcomes. In a fascinating TED Talk, “planet walker” John Francis reflected on unexpected lessons in environmentalism and education over 30 years of refusing to take motorized transportation, and an overlapping 17-year long vow of silence. “Leave behind the security of who we’ve become,” Francis says, “and go to the place of who we are becoming.”

Having a self-improvement goal be the action itself is often more successful than trying to reach an objective. The Japanese have a business philosophy that sums up this concept of small changes, over a long period, leading to big change: kaizan. And if the idea – or person, or religious faith – to which you are committing, is good and pure, it follows that the outcomes eventually will be, too.

Vegetarianism: Day one, year one

I started my two-decade-long pursuit by giving a lecture at Thanksgiving dinner 1995. “To quote George Bernard Shaw,” I told my assembled family, “‘Animals are my friends … and I don’t eat my friends.’ ” My grand pronouncement was met with groans, communal eye-rolls, and my father’s prediction that I’d be chomping on a turkey leg a year later.

Parental gauntlets are their own motivation (that’s perhaps another column), but what really pushed me to commit initially was a column I wrote for my college newspaper two days before. In it, I pledged my vegetarianism, knowing that by putting it in print, I was throwing down my own gauntlet and that I’d have to follow through or live as a hypocrite.

As my Thanksgiving toast/lecture suggests, I was rather insufferable back then. My poor college roommates endured mealtime soliloquies on the environmental and ethical implications of their dining habits. I may have been convincing myself more than trying to convert them, but either way, I made for an obnoxious dinner companion those early months.

That was my first lesson: You convince no one of anything by putting them on the defensive. John Francis stopped speaking, in part, because he was tired of defending his choice not to ride in cars. These days, I deflect the debate. Sometimes people genuinely want to engage in the ethics of my choice – though I’ve noticed this happens a lot less than it used to – and I’ll often say, “I’m happy to talk about it, but I’ve learned that vegetarianism makes for terrible dinner conversation.”

I’m grateful for the debate, however. It adds resolve, but also nuance to my reasoning. I recognize now that most people have thoughtful, at times conflicted, reasons for their food choices. My own ethical logic to vegetarianism should lead me toward veganism, maybe even fruitarianism. But I still eat eggs and cheese and wear leather shoes, and don’t mind trying to defend that arbitrary line.

Years two to 20

There have been long stretches when I’ve been out of touch with the reasons for my dietary mandate, but grateful I stuck to it anyway. Other times, I’ve been forced to consider my choice out of inconvenience, usually when traveling in countries where meat-free options are harder to come by. Rural Mongolia was a steady diet of rice porridge with raisins, salty vegetables, fermented mare’s milk and vodka. I didn’t fair much better in Morocco and parts of Spain.

Related: Success path rarely travels a straight line

And before we had our first child, my wife (who enthusiastically eats all manner of animals) and I had to sort out how to raise her, diet-wise. All parents make this decision, and base it on their own philosophy of food, but it was an opportunity to re-question my own belief about why vegetarianism mattered.

It’s not a radical or even difficult commitment I’ve made, and its impact on others and the planet is a miniscule part of a larger progressive movement with environmental, ethical and consumer repercussions. But it has changed me, slowly and subtly, for the better.

Maybe one day I’ll start eating meat again. I do miss the taste of some of it, especially crab, the staple of my hometown of Baltimore. Or maybe I’ll stick with it until the end (which may come years later just by staying meat-free). I do know the longer I continue the experiment, the more I learn. So I think I’ll stick with it for another decade or two and see if anything else surfaces. Perhaps there’s a third column on the topic to come – on the decision to end this experiment with a plate of Old Bay-seasoned crabcakes – in 2035.