When it comes to our resolutions for the coming year, most of us add tasks. We know from experience this doesn’t work so well! Exhausted by the extra labor, we give up after a month or two at most.
So the December 30 post offered a resolution that involves cutting back on effort. The starting point? Stepping back and recognizing that here and there in our individual lives and as a nation, there are many ways we’re digging ourselves deeper into this or that undesired hole.
Don’t lie, you know we’re all doing this!
The suggestion? That we each make inventory of such misdirected digging in our lives, and try dropping at least one or two such misadventures for starters. If we succeed? Guaranteed to make us feel better, to free up energy and time for more productive work…
…including thinking of additional ways to reduce our burden, simplify our lives in 2012.
In that spirit, here’s an additional second suggestion you and I might contemplate. It hinges on a brief story…
…when I lived in Boulder, my wife and I played a lot of tennis, and we hung out with a lot of tennis players. One of them was a guy named Ned Crow. Ned was a statistician at NIST. He was in his late sixties at the time, and playing tennis at a national level. He was looking forward to his seventieth birthday because this would put him in a different age bracket and his national ranking would improve. He shared a secret. “The main difference between masters’ tennis and that of the younger players,” he said, “is this. The older fellows chase fewer balls they aren’t going to reach.”
Chasing fewer balls they aren’t going to reach.
If you’ve ever played tennis you know what Ned meant. In the heat of the point, your opponent hits a hard shot to your left or your right. You know that if you don’t dig out some of these difficult shots you’re going to lose. You also know that this ball is a long way off, and going by fast. But instead of thinking, it’s out of reach, you fantasize…but if I do get it, what an achievement…or you think, I can impress a spectator or my opponent with my grit and effort.
Maybe not so smart. Save that energy, and you might have more for a point where that energy can make a difference. Play smarter, be more realistic along the way, and you might prove more successful in the end.
But you don’t have to be a tennis player to appreciate this. All other sports offer similar lessons. Chasing down that fly ball. Reaching over home plate for a pitch that’s really way outside. Trying to keep that errant basketball in bounds. And so on.
Life itself offers similar lessons. At the individual level, we can reflect on our educational goals, or financial aspirations, or our relationships. In all these arenas there’s a line dividing realistic objectives from idle daydreams. In most cases, the boundary is fuzzy, but nonetheless real. How much do these matter to us? Why? Which are achievable? Which are not?
And the maxim applies to national hopes and aspirations. Cornelius Ryan’s World War II best seller, A Bridge Too Far, comes to mind. The book chronicles Operation Market Garden, the biggest Allied airborne offensive of the war, which took place from September 17-25, 1944. The Allies had hoped to end conflict in the European theater by Christmas of that year. The key was a capture of several bridges which would allow the Allies to penetrate quickly into northern Germany. In the event, they found themselves overextended and failed to capture and hold the last of these bridges, at Arnhem. The war subsequently dragged on through the following winter.
Or take the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC), a large U.S. high-energy particle accelerator first conceived in 1983. The ring circumference (a crude measure of the hoped-for energies) was over 50 miles (compare with the largest such device operating today, at CERN in Switzerland, with a circumference of 16 miles). The SSC facility was supposed to achieve 20Tev energies (again, greater than the CERN capability of some 7 Tev). Department of Energy spent seven years reviewing the plans and an additional year choosing a Texas site before work started in 1988. After five years, the projected cost, originally estimated at some $4B, had climbed to over $12B. Further cost escalation looked likely. At this point, the project was terminated. After attempts to convert some of the completed structures into a data archive failed, the facilities today sit abandoned. The action in high-energy physics – including the search for the elusive Higgs boson, tantalizing results suggesting some particles may be moving (slightly) faster than the speed of light, etc. – has shifted to Europe and CERN, at least for now.
Closer to home, and deeply painful, not just for me but for many others who may read this blog, was the recent effort to establish within NOAA a National Climate Service, and the Congressional decision to put that on hold. And just as in the case of that tennis ball…it’s important for our community to remain disciplined, to remember that the goals are improved climate science and services, and better national outcomes based on such knowledge and capabilities, versus a particular label or brand.
“But wait, Bill,” you say. “What about Thoreau’s wonderful encouragement to ‘go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.’ Or his contemporary Emerson, who said, ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’”
Indeed. But for today, make a list of those areas in your life where you think you’re quite possibly chasing a ball you can’t reach. Chances are good that after some reflection, you’ll decide you should give up your chase of some of these for 2012.
Resolve to do so.
Chances are also good that there’ll be at least a few such unattainable goals you don’t want to jettison. In fact, you can’t bear the thought.
Good on you! You care about something. You’re passionate.
Tomorrow, some further New Year’s Resolutions – again, involving rest, as opposed to additional, Herculean effort – that’ll help you attain the unattainable.