Pete Davis is a writer and civic advocate who works on projects aimed at deepening American democracy and solidarity. He’s 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 civic guru Robert Putnam. His Harvard Law School graduation speech, “A Counterculture of Commitment,” has been viewed more than 30 million times.
He’s the author of Our Bicentennial Crisis: A Call to Action for Harvard Law School’s Public Interest Mission (Amazon, Bookshop), and the co-author of How To Get Away: Finding Balance in our Overworked, Overcrowded, Always-On World (Amazon).
I couldn’t wait to talk to Pete about happiness, habits, and relationships.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Pete: Every few months, I take a day to leave the bustle of daily work life and think about the larger story of what I am doing. It’s a day when I don’t think about the what or even the how of my work life, but rather the why. Remaining close to my why helps give meaning to my difficult moments, helps keep me on the path of purpose when boredom, distraction, and uncertainty are getting the best of me, and even helps me make wiser decisions at forks in the road. Whenever I take time away to sit with my why, I always return to daily work life feeling energized.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I have always been told that “life has many chapters” — that you can wake up in five years and be in a totally different (perhaps even unimaginable) place than you are now. But when I was young I never really believed it — I thought now was forever. But as I have grown older, I have witnessed how true “life has many chapters” is—and it has been a hopeful idea to internalize, especially during hard times. It reminds of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel quote: “We must learn to be surprised.” Over the past decade, it’s been a joy to have learned a bit more about how surprising life can be.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
There’s a short poem by the farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry that really distilled for me the most important lesson about both social and personal change: “In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter, war spreading, families dying, the world in danger, I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.”
The poem hit me — in such a concise and deep way — with the message: Things can be very dark, but you can always start planting the seed of an alternative. And that humble sowing of life in a situation devoid of it is not a small thing — it is perhaps the most powerful thing we can do.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
I work in politics. I think many people think of politics as a series of random clashes, one after another — and the work of politics to be about brawling well in these various clashes. That’s what cable news and twitter drama makes us believe. But underneath the surface of all these one-off clashes is actually a series of long-haul projects: dedicated people and groups cultivating ideas, building coalitions, and advancing causes over decades. The public at large may only see the endgame of these causes—when an issue finally breaks through to the public consciousness—but most of the work happens before these breakthroughs.
When you understand this, you start seeing that the people who have the most impact in politics are not the cable news brawlers or clever tweeters, but those doggedly engaged in causes over the long term. And, most importantly, you start seeing that the skills and virtues needed in long-haul cause work are different, too. Remember that old mantra: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”? Each of those phases lasts a while—and to move through them requires a whole lot of imagination, patience, collaboration, creativity, and dedication.
And this isn’t just the case with politics. Everything that matters takes time—there are no shortcuts. Teaching a student, advancing a cause, healing a divide, rectifying an injustice, revitalizing a town, solving a hard problem, getting a new project off the ground—they all take time. If change happened quickly, we wouldn’t need commitment—our initial elation or anger would be enough. But when change takes time, we need something more—a deeper spirit that can get us through the boredom, distraction, exhaustion, and uncertainty that can plague any long-haul effort.
What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
I study civic organizations—what makes people join up with others to work on shared projects. One of my favorite counterintuitive observations in the study of civic life is that the groups that demand more of their members often do better than those that ask less. You would think that the groups that make it easier to be a member—the ones that say “come whenever you want and do whatever you can, no problem”—would have more engagement than those that give members big, hard responsibilities. But the group flourishing most are in fact those that say to volunteers “we need you, we’re ready to put you to work, and we are all relying on you.”
You can see a similar phenomenon in school. It’s often the case that the teachers and coaches who are the biggest sticklers—the ones who have the highest expectations for their students—have the most devoted followings.
Why is this the case? People want expectations to meet, aspirations to seek, and honor to earn. Accountability—to a community, to respected mentors—gives us meaning.
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
I love Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (Amazon, Bookshop). It’s an exploration of two types of relationships: gift relationships and market relationships. Market relationships, Hyde writes, are based on short-term, one-off exchanges. You get something, I get something, immediately. These exchanges can be made between strangers, because they don’t require commitment. But gift relationships have a different set of rules: They involve the circulation of goods around long-term communities. They require trust and commitment. To receive a gift leaves you closer, perhaps more obligated, to the gift-giver than you were before. And unlike market transactions, gifts have a synthetic power: When gifts are exchanged between strangers, they tend to establish lasting relationships.
The book gave me this new lens through which to see all the relationships around me. One of my neighbors has a contractor friend who helps fix things around her house. Their relationship is a complicated dance. He never accepts payment, so she bakes for him, gives him elaborate Christmas and birthday presents, has him and his wife over for meals, and hires (and overpays) some of his friends for other odd jobs. The whole exchange would be simpler if she just used a handy-man app. But that’s not the point. Their complex exchange keeps gifts circulating and deepens their relationship over time. You’re not going to get that from an app. And when it comes to happiness, I’ve seen a pretty strong connection between daily joy and the number of gift relationships you are in.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
One of the people I interviewed for Dedicated, the Texas developer Monte Anderson, shared some simple, wise advice about how to keep an even keel throughout a long haul: “When you’re down, get grateful; when you’re up, get humble.” It’s like a spiritual version of an HVAC device that turns up the air conditioner when it’s too hot and turns up the heat when it’s too cold. I love how simple and actionable it is: When things are going bad, count your blessings; when things are going good, remember the warning that ‘glory fades.’