The $10,000 question

Could you run an ultramarathon, solve a major scientific problem, or write a bestseller?

What if you had a deadline to do it by the end of June 2009?

Sound too hard? What if you placed $10,000 of your own money with an escrow service (say, a beefed up version of, with instructions that the money is to be donated to an anti-charity that you strongly dislike, unless you provide proof that you’ve succeeded?

In my case, I’d be tempted to nominate something like the George W. Bush Memorial Library as my anti-charity. Maybe ask them to put my name up on a wall listing donors. (If I had more money, I could raise the amount to ten million dollars, and ask them to build the “Michael A. Nielsen” wing of the George W. Bush library if I failed. Mmm.)

I haven’t done this, at least, not yet. But considering the idea at length has sure put the question “Am I doing everything I can to reach my goals” into sharp relief.


  1. This sort of idea does have a dark side. Suppose you pledge $10K to GWB that you’ll finish your book by the end of the year. Three days later, your mother gets diagnosed with terminal cancer — she’s got ’til the end of the year.

    Um… suddenly the book doesn’t seem quite as important? and yet you’d really rather not donate the money to the GWB library. If the book deadline was external, you’d just find a way to deal — you’d figure out which of these two goals (finish book, spend time with mom) was really more important. But I’d hate to be in the position of having created such a dilemma for myself.

    I’m sure the escrow service would have an emergency bailout option for really serious issues… but then we have the question of where to draw that line. How serious does it have to be to get a mulligan? Inevitably, there will be a painful area on either side of the line.

    The basic principle here is to restrict your own freedom of action — you don’t have the freedom to procrastinate on Project X without penalty. And yet… we treasure freedom of action, for good reasons.

  2. In my weekly commitment I have an escape clause for major life events – serious need on the part of a family member or close friend, major disaster of some variety.

    I think, though, that the 10k is just the risk you take: it’s well worth it (on average) for the increase in commitment.

  3. Mmm, I suppose it’s probably possible to make a sensible dividing line (e.g. “major life events”).

    However, “the 10K is…well worth it” is definitely subjective (or perhaps “relative” is a better word here). *I* wouldn’t wager $10K for commitment… even if I had it. But that’s mostly because I don’t have it!

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