More on New Year’s resolutions

This is the third in a series of posts on New Year’s resolutions…and on giving ourselves a fighting chance to keep them. How? By making resolutions that involve giving up efforts that dissipate our energy and enthusiasm while returning little or no satisfaction in the bargain. So far we’ve vowed that when we find ourselves in a hole we’ll quit digging, and we won’t chase after goals that are unrealistic.

But what about realizing those aspirational goals that seem unattainable but which are so hardwired into our sense of purpose and our souls that we can’t (and shouldn’t!) give up? We resonate with Thoreau’s powerful, encouraging quote: “go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.” Are there practical ways to live this out?

Actually, Thoreau himself offered one. His quote is frequently taken out of context. In the next line, he goes on to say this: “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.”

Hmm. Pretty deep. A range of interpretation possible here, and you and I should certainly take free rein.

But perhaps, given our present context, we could start by taking at face value his invitation for us to simplify our lives. Perhaps he remembered the words of Hebrews 12:1: “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders…and let us run with endurance the race marked out for us…”

If you and I are honest with ourselves, we realize we’re carrying a lot of baggage with us everywhere we go. Our military confronts this problem. Today’s infantryman can find himself in a combat zone carrying between 60-120 pounds of weapons, electronics, armor, and other equipment. Defense Department staff and contractors alike are losing sleep in efforts to reduce this weight, by even as little as an ounce here and an ounce there. You and I aren’t carrying that many extra pounds around (or maybe we are, given the popularity of dieting resolutions) – but even so, we carry other baggage of other kinds in our lives and work. Self-imposed rituals and habits chew up large amounts of our day. Administrative tasks take us away from the jobs at which we’re skilled and for which we’ve been trained. Some of our baggage is psychological, attitudinal. We’ve talked ourselves into an unhealthy distaste for much of what we’re doing.

Thoreau invites us to take time for a frank appraisal of all this, shuck as much of it as possible, and travel light.

“Great, Bill. You’re inviting us to get rid of excess baggage, distractions, wrong-headed and misdirected efforts. But give us something positive. What about some help with the things we want to do?”

Thoreau offers advice for that as well. Go back to his invitation. Read the fine print. He doesn’t say, “Set goals for yourselves that will frustrate you.”

He encourages us instead to set a direction. And head that way. He says nothing about arriving. And in the year 2012, realistically, that’s just as well. For most of us, the average day will be nothing but setbacks, delays, frustrations, reverses. In such a world, the most important thing? Maintain our bearings.

Here’s a final tip…one Thoreau doesn’t make explicit, but which he’d fully support. Exchange your unrealistic goal of accomplishing something – anything – by yourself, for the much more enriching and satisfying goal of accomplishing a common goal in collaboration with others. You hunger for just a little encouragement? Well so do those around you. Give it to them, and in generous measure. Mentor them. Coach them. Put their interests ahead of your own. Share with them why the direction you and they are going matters. Help them see progress even when it’s difficult to find.

We’re not talking hundreds of people here. Work with a small number…just a handful. But share with each of them the value and culture of working themselves to encourage another handful. Do this, and two things will happen. In the short run, you’ll be so lost in the joy and satisfaction of it that you’ll forget the frustration of failing to meet your goals. Longer term, you will see amazing accomplishment, significant and meaningful change. Your original purpose will at most be barely visible in the result, but that’s because your original purpose has been supplemented by something far superior – transformed and remade by others’ new ideas and creativity into accomplishment and change far better and more enduring than you could have imagined on your own.

2012? It’s going to be a good year.

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One Response to More on New Year’s resolutions

  1. As an interesting [at least to me] add-on to your line of thought, yesterday I read a very relevant post on the Harvard Business Review site called “Developing Mindful Leaders.” The author makes the point that personal development [and isn’t that really what New Year’s resolutions are all about] is hard to accomplish alone: “People grow best in communities.” While the article is about personnel development, it can be applied to personal, and community, development as well.

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