Ep 147: Dedicated, Purposeful Teens

Episode Summary

Pete Davis, author of Dedicated, speaks to us about the power of commitment in an age of infinite options. Plus, what to say to a teen who’s trying everything to gain status.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Some teens just don’t want to commit to anything! They go to one lacrosse team practice but quickly lose interest, quit piano lessons when the songs get difficult and avoid debate team meetings after school…even though they signed up for the whole year! As a parent, it can be frustrating to watch them shrug off any kind of obligation. You know getting involved in activities will help them gain new skills and make friends. So how can you get them to see how valuable commitments can be?

The truth is that kids these days are stuck in browsing mode. With so many distractions, it’s hard for them to focus on one thing. And even when they find something they care about, society tells them not to settle, not to get tied down, not to stick with anything that isn’t their “perfect” calling. But if we can help kids understand just how rewarding it is to find a lasting passion or commit to a craft, we can guide them towards a brighter, happier future.

This week, we’re talking to Pete Davis, author of Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in the Age of Infinite Browsing. Pete spoke at Harvard University’s 2018 graduation ceremony about the value of being committed to something meaningful. Since then, the video of his speech has been viewed over 30 million times! His inspiring message about dedication might be just what your teen needs to hear. 

Pete and I dive into the power of commitment in this week’s episode. We cover the importance of helping teens find a craft, discuss why kids should give up on the notion of finding their “calling”, and explain how it can be valuable for young adults to pick something and stick to it! If you want to help your kid find a fulfilling future but don’t quite know what advice to give, you won’t want to miss this episode!

The Importance of Getting Involved

We know that playing football keeps teens in shape and learning the guitar allows kids to play their favorite songs…but these benefits are just the tip of the iceberg. Teens can gain so much from finding a craft they love and committing to it. In the episode, Pete and I chat about how hobbies and extracurriculars help teens learn to take feedback, persevere through difficulties, and find community.

Pete and I talk about his time playing the piano as an example. From the age of 5 to 13, he worked with the same piano teacher, constantly improving his playing along the way. By committing to one mentor and one activity for so long, Pete was able to track his progress, see his evolution and create strong connections to both his teacher and other students. By the time he stopped taking lessons at 18, he experienced what he describes as one of life’s greatest pleasures: looking back and understanding the beauty of the journey.

Pursuits like painting and baseball are about so much more than just winning games or getting into galleries, says Pete. They empower teens by showing them that they’re capable of greatness! Plus, they teach kids that there are forces bigger than themselves that they can contribute to and feel good about. These lessons will help them head into adult life with confidence and purpose.

In addition, crafts help teens find heroes and mentors who encourage them to strive for excellence. Along with his amazing piano teacher, Pete was constantly encouraged by idols: famous folks who’d accomplished extraordinary feats. He advises parents to indulge in a teen’s interest in prominent figures, as it will allow teens to see how greatness is achieved. If your teen is into filmmaking and fosters a love for Steven Spielberg, it might be a good idea to get them a Spielberg biography!

Sometimes however, even when teens have an inkling about what they like to do, they’re not quite ready to commit. They fear choosing the wrong thing, wonder if they’ll regret their decision, fuss over what others think. This indecisiveness can lead teens to a state of analysis paralysis, where they just sort of do…nothing! Pete and I delve into how we can prevent teens from getting stuck in this space, what he calls the “menu screen of life.”

How Commitment Cultivates Passion

Our society tells young people that they shouldn’t settle for less than the perfect pursuit. Teens are told that they need to hold out for a flawless opportunity, the thing that ignites the fireworks of their passion without any drawbacks! Now, it’s pretty obvious to those of us who’ve been around a little longer that these shiny, spectacular opportunities…don’t really exist! No job, extracurricular or subject of study is going to be perfect. Everything requires sacrifice and compromise.

If teens spend too much time twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the “right” thing to come along, they’ll only find themselves with nothing at all! That’s why Pete recommends teens find something that interests them and simply stick with it. Of course, if teens are miserable or end up involved in a toxic situation, they shouldn’t trap themselves by committing to it.  But studies show that when we buckle down on an activity we have  at least some interest in, we often find ourselves becoming incredibly passionate about it–even if we aren’t quite sure at first.

That commitment can be pretty scary, especially when we’re entering a big office full of people we’ve never met or trying something we haven’t done before. But if we can persevere through the messy parts, there’s so much empowerment waiting on the other side, says Pete.

The more we put time and effort into something, the more it reveals it’s benefits to us, says Pete. In the episode, we discuss a psychological phenomenon known as the psychological immune system. When we commit ourselves to something, our brain essentially just adjusts to match our newfound reality. Lotto winners find themselves just as happy (or unhappy) as they were before winning. And those who commit to something find it becomes their purpose, simply because it’s what they do everyday!

In the episode, Pete and I discuss how we often think greatness will be thrust upon us one day. We imagine that we’ll find ourselves in a circumstance where we save someone from a burning building, or make a grand speech that convinces the love of our life not to fly to Paris after all! But these notions are merely cinematic. If we really want greatness, says Pete, we must commit to waking up everyday and striving for it.

In the Episode….

Pete is not only brilliant, but a blast to talk to! This week’s episode is as fun as it is informative. We answer all your questions about commitment, including:

  • Why it’s important to have “browsing periods”
  • How quitting can actually help teens commit
  • What causes teen’s fear of commitment
  • How you can help teens make big decisions

Although teens might be reluctant to stick to any one thing, Pete’s advice can help. If you enjoyed listening, check him out at Petedavis.org. You can also grab his book wherever books are sold. Thanks for tuning in, and we’ll see you next time!

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Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. To the status-obsessed teen:

“It’s not about the ‘cult of smart,’ or what CS Lewis called the ‘inner ring’–the idea that there’s always an inner ring you’re trying to get to and that’s where you’re going to achieve status. But what CS Lewis says is, there’s no inner ring where you’re eventually happy. And Obama once said, the times when I had the most psycho-drama were the times I was thinking about status, the times when I felt the most at peace and purposeful were the times when I was focused on the work.”

Pete Davis

2. Explain the pitfall of and solution to status-seeking:

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3. Expand on the solution to status-seeking:

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4. Encourage your teen to become the extraordinary:

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5. Let your teen know how long haul heroes works:

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6. Let your teen know why they need cross-discipline skills:

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7. Drop some knowledge about decision making:

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8. Clarify your thoughts on quitting:

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9. Speak to commitment as part of a fluid identity:

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10. Remind your teen of the negative associations with non-commitment:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: The book is called Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing, and this seems like it was inspired by a speech that you gave, that’s been viewed more than 30 million times, by the way, called A Counterculture of Commitment. But how did that start? And how did you get interested in this topic in the first place?

Pete: As I was growing up, I kept getting this message in school, and in other venues where older people were talking to me, which was, the message was, “Keep your options open. Choose a job that will help you get future jobs. Don’t get tied down to a person or a place you love, because you never know what’s around the corner. Don’t speak too much about what you believe in online, it might hurt your career down the road. The most important thing is to always keep your options open.”

Pete: But the thing that was weird was that I kept looking at people that I respected, heroes that I looked up to. And they were the ones who totally ignored that advice. They were people who dived in and made commitments to particular things.

Pete: It was the friend who decided to go all in on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or the person from the town that said, “You know what, I’m going to become a rabbi,” or the person who moved back to their hometown or put down roots in a neighborhood and got involved in civic life. They were the ones that were having the most impact, that were earning the most respect, that were experiencing the most joy and serenity.

Pete: So, I gave the speech, and the speech eventually turn into this book. Because I wanted to rectify that difference, that even though we’re told to keep all of our options open, the thing that our world needs most right now and the thing that each of us need most, is to dive in and make commitments to particular things.

Andy: Yeah. You have a great story in here about taking piano lessons from Ms. Gatley, and talking about the 12 years that you spent in the Gatley-verse. Why was taking piano lessons an example of this type of commitment?

Pete: Well, when you’re growing up, you usually have teachers or coaches that last one year, or maybe two years, at the most.

Andy: Right, yeah.

Pete: In elementary school, you have a different teacher every grade. Maybe in high school, you get a coach for three years. That’s the largest amount you usually get. Often you’re just passing through a class for a semester, or something.

Andy: Yeah.

Pete: What was really special about piano lessons is they were over 13 years. Ms. Gatley had me from five to 18, and there’s a type of lesson that you cannot learn, many types of lessons that you cannot learn, over one year. You need to learn them over a long period of time.

Pete: I talk about some of the experiences of being part of these piano lessons. I started young, and I saw the older kids in Ms. Gatley’s classes do much better than me. Then I got to experience, “Oh gosh, I wish I could play like that,” and then, learning how to play like that, and have the younger kids looking up to us. That’s a real special experience, that it teaches you something.

Pete: I had a person who saw me grow up, and was able to notice patterns about me, and had the kind of authority to go deeper in her moral education, because she knew me very well. Just the learning of a craft skill over time, that sometimes you can’t learn everything you need to know about something in a year.

Pete: It takes 10 years to really master a craft, and I don’t even feel like I’ve mastered piano. To get above water on piano, that was kind of, play intermediary songs, but you have to really master it another 20 years, maybe. But that ability to see that if you stick with something, you become part of a community, you have the deep impact.

Pete: You feel a sense of purpose. I feel like a person who’s part of the world of music, because I learned how to play piano. And you get to feel the joys that only come at the end of a long haul.

Andy: Yeah, it’s funny. We had a guest on the show, who studies music and music education in children, and she specifically had said that studies show there’s a lot of benefit to kids from studying music, but really, in order to get the full benefit, they have to play the same instrument for at least five years.

Andy: And if they switch from one instrument to another to another, and play five different instruments for a year each, nowhere near the same level of benefit. Because you don’t get the depth that you get from the sticking with the same thing for such a long time.

Pete: Yeah, because in the end, it’s not about the instrument.

Andy: Doesn’t matter what instrument it is.

Pete:  That’s what Miss Gatley always said, too. “It’s not about piano here. That’s not the most important thing.” You have to say that it’s about that, because that’s the kind of magical craft that pulls you in.

Pete: But in the end, it’s about the virtues that you develop, while trying to master a craft. You develop the virtues of patience. You develop the virtues of subsuming yourself in a community larger than yourself.

Pete: Matthew Crawford, in his wonderful book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, which he writes about learning crafts, he says, “You learn this lesson of being able to take feedback from something that is objectively real outside of yourself.” So much of a teen’s life or a kid’s life is people giving them feedback, someone telling them they’re doing something wrong. But what’s amazing about craft work, and especially long-term engagement with a craft, is the craft itself gives you feedback. You know if you played that well. You know if the ball went in the hoop. You know if the audience laughs at your joke.

Pete: Then the good coach—they don’t get you turning to the coach. They don’t get you shooting the shot, and then looking at your coach, and being, “Did I do good?”

Andy: Right, exactly. Right.

Pete: The good coach will say, “Go look at the basket, and see if it went in the basket or not.” The good piano teacher will say, “Well, did you hit the right notes? Did you feel like that went well, do you feel, emotionally?” And when you get to the higher levels, do you feel emotionally moved by the piece you just played?

Pete: That’s another lesson you learn, and this sounds negative, “You got to do better, you got to be patient,” but there’s positive sides to this too, the joy of mastering a song that sounded crazy. Miss Gatley used to play the song first, when you got a new song, sometimes. And you’d be like, “Wow.”

Andy: Yeah. “Ooh, that sounds good.”

Pete: “You’re telling me I’m going to be able to play that song later this year?” Then she’s like, “Well, let’s go take it one measure at a time ,and see what we can do.” Then you eventually play it, and that’s an amazing feeling.

Andy: You bring up another point, though, a little bit later here on page 27. You’re talking about how, during your freshman year of college, there are many people who join the college versions of whatever they were doing in high school. They played orchestra in high school, they sign up for the orchestra. If they’re a math whiz, they took math classes.

Andy: Then in the summer after freshman year, there’s this big wave, where everyone quits whatever that thing was. So I thought that was really interesting. It’s like, there was this commitment to this thing in high school, but then you start getting exposed to more things, and maybe you want to try something different. And maybe you realize this wasn’t the thing for you, or something like that.

Pete: Yeah. I wanted at the beginning of the book to give browsing its due, because the book is set up as, “We’re stuck in infinite browsing mode, we’re always jumping from thing to thing. We’re always not picking a movie. We’re remaining in the hallway of life, or the menu screen of life.”

Pete: My case in this book is, it’s the case for commitment. Pick a darn movie, choose a room off the hallway, but I wanted to give browsing its due. Because I didn’t want this book to be a dogmatic thing, like never quit anything.

Pete: I wanted to say, “it’s very important to have parts of your life where you’re browsing.” And I tell that story to talk about the joy of freshman year of college, or for those who don’t go to college, the joy of your first year out of your house, out in some adventure, in some part of the world.

Pete: I wanted to say, one of the pleasures of browsing periods of our life is flexibility, the ability to be chill about things, not beat yourself up over needing to live up to all your inherited commitments that you took on when you were five. With flexibility comes another pleasure of browsing, which is the search for authenticity.

Pete: When you get to browse around and explore the hallway of life, what you’re doing is, you’re trying to find your authentic self. You’re trying to find what feels like something that is a part of you. What speaks to you, what causes the song of your heart to seem louder when you’re around it?

Pete: That comes with a lot of adventure, and a lot of a novelty, the joy of experiencing new things. But the point of the buck is that these pleasures eventually are haunted by pains. If you jump from thing to thing forever, I’m saying good to jump from thing to thing, at browsing periods of your life.

Pete: But if you jump from thing to thing forever, you eventually will have choice paralysis, and not be able to choose anything. If you always are searching for the perfect thing that fits your perfect authentic self, you’re eventually going to be spiritually isolated, because nothing will fit your perfect self. You always have to join something that’s slightly imperfect.

Pete:

That is kind of messy. That’s what joining up with other people in something bigger than yourself is. So if you’re always so particular about, “This must be my exact thing,” that won’t work. And if you never join up with something bigger than yourself, if you never make a commitment to a person or place or community, or an institution or a cause or a craft, you will miss out on the deepest novelties of all, which are the novelties at the end of long hauls, being five years into something, mastering a craft, celebrating your tenth anniversary, becoming an elder in your community.

Pete: All of these only come from committing to something. So if you’re always fearing missing out because of commitments, part of this book is shaking you to say, “You should fear missing out on the long-term things that come with commitments, not just on the hot new thing that you’re worried your commitment’s threatened.”

Andy: I think a part of it, there’s this notion that we need to find our passion, and something that totally is the perfect thing for us and inspires us. Then once we find that, we are really going to go for it, but we just haven’t quite found it yet.

Andy: You kind of point out in this book, and you talk about some sociologists who studied this, and I thought it was really interesting, that a lot of times, it works the opposite way. It’s not that we get passionate about something first, and then commit to it, it’s that we just kind of commit to something, we just try something out.

Andy: We just say, “Yeah, I’m going to go for it. Then over time, we develop the passion for it, or that as we get more and more committed in the thing, the passion just emerges.

Pete: Yeah. We all, we’re kind of trained by consumer society to think, the Burger King motto, “Have it your way.”

Pete: The big moment is the original choice. Decide what you want, decide it, know it perfectly, make the decision of the exact thing that you want, customized to exactly you, and then you will be satisfied. Have it your way.

Pete: But that’s not usually how things work on the most important things. It’s not totally random. I’m not saying you’ll be passionate about anything, if you are randomly assigned to look at it. Use a little bit of will to decide what you like more than something else.

Andy: You’ll be drawn to some things more than others, and yeah, obviously.

Pete: Yeah. But yeah, but my whole message is, if you’re kind of drawn to something, try it out. Double down on it. You got to try it out. Don’t have it, don’t make the standard be 90% there, make the standard be 65%, 70% there. Because the thing will only get better with your commitment, because one, on the outside level, like the thing itself, it will open itself up to you the more committed you are.

Pete: If you really dive into the friendship, or the group or the relationship or the cause, it will reveal more of itself to you, once you become a part of it. You’ll learn more by going to all the weekly meetings. By developing trust with a person or a group of people, they will reveal more of themselves to you.

Pete: But it’s not just the outside thing that hooks you in. You change, and the way you process a change when you commit to something. There’s this idea out of Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, he popularized this idea.

Pete: I don’t know if he came up with it, but I think he popularized it, called the psychological immune system, which says that our mind adjusts to whatever we feel is what we’re stuck doing. So if you win the lottery, your mind adjusts to being someone who’s much richer. If you have a horrible thing happen and you lose mobility, your mind adjusts to being someone who has that disability.

Andy: Right.

Pete: The same happens with commitments. If you get married to someone, your mind adjusts to being, “I’m the spouse of this person,” or, “I’m now a father, or I’m now part of this religion, or I’m now part of this cause.” But that psychological immune system, our ability to really adapt to things, to adjust to things, only kicks in if we feel that it’s hard to go back.

Andy: Mm, yeah.

Pete: It doesn’t need to be like, “No going back,” you don’t need to sign a billion year blood oath. It just—

Andy: Post all over social media, “This is what I’m doing, and never going to quit.”

Pete: Yeah, but even just a light post on social media could help, but saying, “Hey, I’m doing this now.”

Andy: “Trying this new thing out.”

Pete: “Look at me. I’m part of this.”

Andy: “Anyone else done this?”

Pete: That is a bit of burning the ships behind you.

Andy: Yeah, yeah.

Pete: And making this what you are, and that will let your kind of adaptability kick in.

Andy: Where you’re just publicly committing to something, even if it’s just a small commitment, you don’t have to sign a huge contract that says, “I’m going to do this for the next 50 years.”

Pete: That’s why we have these ceremonies of commitment. That’s why we have oaths of offense. That’s why we have weddings. That’s why we have housewarming parties. That’s why you have launch parties for a project. It’s there to let everyone know, “I’m doing this,” and add a little bit of imprint on your identity of your commitment.

Andy: Yeah. It makes it that much harder to go back on your word, or whatever.

Pete: Thus, your mind turns off. You have part of your mind, that’s always analyzing things. “Is this good or bad? Should I do something else? Should I find something else?”

Pete: Then you have another part of your mind that’s adjusting to things. When you’re dating, you’re assessing. You have your assessing mind on a lot. “Is this person right for me or not? Or do I like this other person better?”

Pete: But when you’re married, or you’re even in a committed relationship, your mind says, “Oh, I’m in this.” I don’t need to constantly assess, “Is this the right partner for me?” Instead, you free up your mind to assess, “How do we work together? How do we resolve differences? How do we reconcile issues?” That’s part of the joy of commitment, too, because that allows that other part of your mind to kick in, and turn off the kind of anxiety assessment part of your mind.

Andy: There is a famous quote from Shakespeare that you have in here on page 65. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Andy: And I think many of us are just waiting to have greatness thrust upon us, and we’re ready, as soon as that thrust happens, we are just going to be right there to jump all over it. But what you point out in this book is, that’s a little bit of a misperception. The idea of greatness being thrust upon us is, it’s like that saying that it takes 10 years to become an overnight success, right? Greatness is thrust upon you, because you put in the time to get yourself to the point where you’re able to take advantage of whatever the opportunity is, that was years of work.

Andy: You have this great example of Martin Luther King in here, and he didn’t just get up there and give the one speech. We remember him, because he came up there and said, “Hey, yeah, I have a dream.” We think about Martin Luther King as this guy who gave a speech, and really helped to change things. But that is not really the full story.

Pete: Yeah. I call it in the book, “the difference between long haul heroism, and Hollywood dragons.” The Hollywood story of heroism is, greatness just thrust upon you. There’s some big, brave moment. You become the night slays the dragon that appears.

Pete: There’s some moment where you have to give up, and stand up and give the perfect speech. Or you have to put your arm around the kid and tell them it’s okay to cry. Or you have to stand with the jukebox over your head, and outside of your love’s house. Or you have to tell the person in the store, “Stop being a big bigot, I’m kicking you out of the store.” That’s your moment where you’re the local hero, and local news does a story on you. Those moments, Hollywood likes talking about them, because they’re cinematic. You can fit them into a scene, there’s drama to them.

Pete: It’s exciting to watch in a movie. But in life, we’re rarely offered big brave moments. It’s important, when you are offered one, to be brave. Have the moment where someone’s in a burning building, run in and save them. But that’s not our day to day life. So it’s not really good moral guidance to say, “Wait around for the big brave moment, and make sure you’re ready to be a hero when that time comes.”

Andy: Would you be ready for it when it comes, I think, is critical. Because if you were a fireman, or if you had trained running into burning buildings before, and practiced that, then you’d be really able to do that when you saw one on fire. But if you just were out there and you saw a burning house, it might not be a great idea.

Pete: Well, yeah, that’s a good point. Even the Hollywood heroes often are long haul people behind them.

Pete: But the point, I guess, is that we are often not presented extraordinary moments, we’re presented ordinary moments in an endless stream. Every day we wake up and we have to decide what we want to do with our life. And we have to decide, it’s a stream of little ordinary moments, not extraordinary moments.

Pete: What do long haul heroes do? They’re not cinematic dragon slayers, Hollywood dragon slayers. What they do is, they become the extraordinary moments themselves. The way they do it is through the long haul, day in, day out, week in, week out, year in, year out work of advancing a cause, healing an institution, building an idea into reality, accompanying people in a relationship, loving a place, and participating in a community by going to the weekly meetings. That is what long haul heroes do.

Pete: And I think our message to kids about heroism, and teens, is less, “Oh, are you going to have your alpha big brave moment?” The other one is, why don’t you make a commitment to a particular thing, and become a long haul here? Why don’t you find a person that you want to be there for? Why don’t you find a community that you want to take a part in?

Pete: Why don’t you steward an institution, and pass it along, and keep watch over it? Why don’t you advance a cause? Why don’t you master a craft, and join a community of practitioners in a craft, and then spread the joys of that craft to more people in more ways? That’s the challenge of long haul heroism.

Andy: I think that there’s a notion that when we do that, then that is going to limit us. And we’re then, like you say, we like these open options. We like to feeling the world is our oyster, and we haven’t boxed ourselves in.

Andy: But you have an interesting story in here about this guy, Max Pollock, who founded this organization, that they salvage and resale bricks and wood, but he started out in law school, and one day, he just was walking around Philadelphia. He saw some guys fixing up an old house, and said, “Man, I don’t want to be in law school anymore.”

Andy: Then he quit, and went off into this thing that now he’s doing, that’s really cool. And you make an interesting point, that quitting isn’t necessarily inimical to this commitment. In order to be a long haul hero, it doesn’t mean that we can’t ever quit anything, or that we’re signing up for something, and we can never stop.

Pete: Yeah. That is a real thing I wanted to underline with this book, which was that this is not a book that says, “Never quit.” It’s not a dogmatic book like that. It’s more about, it’s not even aimed at people that are 10 years into a long haul, and it’s extra encouragement to not quit. It’s mostly aimed at people stuck in the hallway of life, or on the menu screen of life, who have never embarked on a long haul in the first place.

Pete: In that chapter, I talk about Max Pollock. I’m talking about the steps it takes to commit to something. What I say the first step is, is actually to lower the stakes of your commitment. To know that in the end, it’s still possible to quit.

Pete: And I wanted to show that by showing a positive story of quitting, which was a guy quit, he quit law school to make room in his life for a commitment to this design and build firm, or salvage firm he started, called Brick + Board, that salvages old wood and bricks in Baltimore, and helps people get started in the trade of design and build.

Pete: The two lessons of that is one, look, I’m not saying quitting isn’t bad, quitting can lead to good things, and two, it’s about that. But the goal is not to just quit and quit and quit, it’s to find your thing eventually, and really dive in.

About Pete Davis

Pete Davis is the author of three books: Dedicated, Our Bicentennial Crisis, and How to Get Away.

A writer and civic advocate, Pete works on projects aimed at deepening American democracy and solidarity. He is the co-founder of the Democracy Policy Network, a state policy organization focused on raising up ideas that deepen democracy, and is currently co-producing a documentary on the life and work of civic guru Robert Putnam. In 2015, he co-founded Getaway, a company that provides simple, unplugged escapes to tiny cabins outside of major cities. His Harvard Law School graduation speech, “A Counterculture of Commitment,” has been viewed more than 30 million times — and was the impetus for his book, Dedicated.

His opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Daily News, Aeon, The Guardian, Fast Company, America Magazine, and The Falls Church News-Press.

Pete is part of the Falls Church, Virginia community.

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