December 11, 2012

Pledge. It’s an old word it seems, one you rarely hear anymore. The word has diverse applications but most of us understand it to mean a promise to do, or not to do, something. Simple pledges between friends function as informal oral contracts. In the loan, mortgage, bail and pawn industries, written commitments guaranteeing repayment are formal legal pledges of repayment and security. But perhaps the most pervasive use of a pledge in our society is the oral vow made at weddings.

The most important element of wedding (and addiction recovery) pledges are the witnesses. The public nature of these pledges – the presence of witnesses – is strategic. A wedding unites two families that want the marriage to last; marital longevity is good for society and the children of the couple. Consequently, our society has placed witnessed oral vows at the heart of the marriage believing the witnesses and pledges will serve the pledgers well during difficult times.

Witnesses provide us with strength and external discipline. I have found, therefore, that making pledges can be a highly effective tool in my professional tool chest.

I made my first pledge to you, Opus readers. You may have missed it, but I wrote a column for this newsletter about five-and-a-half years ago in which I said I was writing a book about professional development for visual artists. When Opus heard about my plan, they ordered a thousand books and suddenly I not only had discipline, I also had a deadline. That book led to a nice modest teaching offer from Emily Carr University of Art & Design, a second book, an exhausting number of invitations to lead workshops and present lectures and a new career. I couldn’t be happier and the experience gave me an idea.

I started thinking about how I could use a pledge as a fund raiser. That led, in 2011, to me writing to most of my friends asking them to pledge a sum per kilometer as sponsors of a 1,200 kilometer walk I was planning (the distance from Vancouver to San Francisco). My friends pledged and paid $18,600 and so, when my legs were swollen and sometimes bleeding and I wanted to quit, I kept walking because of the self-imposed pressure of my pledge and my witnesses and all the pledge money went to my favourite charity.

With that project completed, I set a new goal. I have made another pledge to friends that will benefit the same charity. I have pledged to attempt the hardest thing I have ever tried to do. If it works, I will live the rest of my life with a legacy of tremendous pride and fulfillment.

Making public pledges has become a vital part of my creative practice. Now, I have my students at Emily Carr make a career-relevant pledge as an assignment. Besides discipline, public pledging has brought energy, ideas, collaborators and other forms of help to my practice.

The last thing I must say about my new career development tool is about pacing. I only make a dramatic pledge once every two years. To do it more often would ruin the novelty of them. My pledges have to be unique, compelling and motivational to my witnesses and that can only happen with lots of time in between. Try it. It works!

Chris Tyrell Loranger is the author of Artist Survival Skills and Making It!, an arts writer and educator. His popular opinion pieces have appeared in our newsletter since its first issue in 1986. Visit his website, or his art marketing blog, to learn more.