Andy Trattner

November 3, 2023

Reversible Commitments

Very few things are permanent in this world.

I'm not sure if it was the Lindy effect or some other concept I absorbed from the 80,000 Hours Podcast. But basically, the idea is this: given nothing but the amount of time a thing has existed—an institution, a company, a state—in expectation that thing will most likely continue to exist for roughly that same amount of time in the future.

My recent blog post Hire Slow, Fire Fast over-emphasized the firing aspect. A friend immediately pointed out: "Surprised you’re firing folks that often with trial periods."

I neglected to specify that all the people I have fired were effectively contractors on short-term trial periods. I could have been better setting clearer expectations in a few instances, but overall none of the people whom I decided to offboard had quit their pre-existing job to work for me. None of them made any gigantic life-circumstance changes or sacrifices. We were merely working together because it was in our mutual interest. When we discovered that was no longer the case from either end, things came to their natural conclusion.

On the other hand, some people have quit their jobs to work with me, and these have all turned into fruitful long-term collaborations. How? Well, before they quit their job, we did part-time projects together, nights and weekends! We stayed in the "part-time side project" trial-period zone until we were confident that things would work out and that making a longer-term commitment together would be a smart move.

Priors are important; the base rate of relationship duration is simply a fact. Having known someone for many years and still wanting to work with them means that it's more likely, all else equal, that working relationship will outlast someone else whom you've only known and worked with for less than a month. 

All relationships are essentially trial periods. Whether the trial ends quickly or never, a good outcome happens when both parties are super-aligned on how long we can expect the relationship to endure.

Hiring slow means there's a sequence of steps (that can last years) of effective trust-building, mutual respect, and candid assessment before anyone is fully able to make a truly long-term commitment. For example: take-home projects, interviews, reference checks, trial projects, touching base phone calls, more projects, etc.

Here is a chart of countries from which I sourced our latest contractor candidates. Some came from referrals, most came from Upwork. I interviewed everyone on this chart and did not include the many applications which were screened out prior to getting to an interview.


Contracting with folks all over the world, I get the sense that the traditional job model comes from a flawed mindset. How the heck can you hire someone out of college in a 2-week interview process and expect to retain them for 5+ years? If you read the bio of certain smart people you'll find they have been doing this project thing for decades.

You are only slightly more than your resume. That slight bit more, I think, consists entirely of your relationships. And your resume itself should be projects, a portfolio. Not titles, certifications, "skills", nor degrees. In those cases, I'm sorry to say, you might actually be a bit less than your resume.

People often ask me how or why I moved to Ecuador 3 years ago, making this huge leap to go from tech professional in San Francisco to cow-pasture art bum in the third-world countryside. People haven't asked as much about my losing a million+ dollars by quitting a lucrative opportunity before vesting my stock options, but I know from observing everyone else that most don't make the same calculus as I do.

Regarding Ecuador, I tell them: every single step was reversible, low-risk, and non-committal. I went with the intention to come back. I only bought land with cash I could afford to lose. Then when Copa cancelled my return flight (airlines bother me), I decided to stick around for a bit longer...but I was still ready, on any given day, to drop everything and book a flight back home pronto.

This sequence of stepwise committing to Ecuador, where I now have permanent residency—and we'll see how long that lasts 🤣 —allowed me to double down multiple times, settling into and out of various commitment levels and time-frames. It was all organic, flexible, comfortable, and super enjoyable as an overall journey.

Now I'm writing to you from Quito this fine sunny morning, and it is glorious. The process of living, day by day, has nothing to do with a fixed destination at all. Things happen brick by brick.

I know making reversible commitments is a bit of an oxymoron. But paradoxically it seems the best way to create strong, enduring bonds.


Thanks Drew for your insightful questions that inspired this post. It's astounding how you always read and reply to everything I write, and I appreciate you being my first subscriber every time over the years.

About Andy Trattner