Happy New Year . . . The Craziness of Resolutions

Thinking about the beginning of a new year and all the things I might want to accomplish, stand for, or just remember to do.  Written in the closing days of 2002.


FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE…

And the ball drops.  Kiss your spouse, mate, or significant other.  Pop the bubbly. It’s a brand new year!

I wonder what this year’s going to look like.  Better than last year I hope.  Maybe I should make some resolutions. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.  

“Honey, do we have any paper?”

You know, if I watched less television I could really get some stuff done around the house. Fix those shelves. Clean the garage. Plant a garden. Take up oil painting. Build an addition. Learn to speak Swahili. Make a list. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.  

“Honey, do you have a pencil anywhere?”

Maybe this year I’ll save some money. Reduce our debts. Pay-off our credit cards. Open an account for the kids. Buy a mutual fund.  Refinance our house. Short the market. Go long on defense stocks.  Actually put something away for a rainy day. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.  Put us on a budget… You know, this TV is really the pits. You can barely see the players on the field. We should get a new TV. One of those new flat screen plasma numbers. Yeah, that’s what we’ll do.

“Honey, aren’t they having a no-money down sale on big screen TVs?  I think we need to replace this piece of junk”

This year I’m really going to be a star at work. Set some sales records.  Beat my quotas. Read some sales books. Do more cold calling. Get to work earlier. Stay later. Really bring in the business. Work smarter, not harder. Do the little things. Be committed. Get tough. There is no “I” in team.  Chicken soup. Learn the lessons I never learned in kindergarten. Set some goals. Be focused. Sharpen my saw. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.  

“Honey, a pen would help here. I need to make some important notes.”

Time Management – that’s the ticket. Get more out of every day. No wasted minutes. Listen to tapes while I eat. Do e-mail in my sleep. Get instant messenger on my pager. Exercise while I shower. Learn a language while I get dressed. Make lists. Shave while I drive. Multi-task eight days a week. Get one of those fancy new PDAs to keep track of it all. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.  

“Honey, do we have an eraser? This list is a mess”

Maybe I’ll take some classes this year. Start an MBA. Learn small motor repair. Take a course in accounting. Go online and Google something.  Didn’t I see something about a seminar?  Maybe the company is sponsoring something. Oh, I know – I’ll read a book on self-improvement. Yeah that’s what I’ll do!  

“Honey, do we still have any of those personal improvement books?”

Boy, am I exhausted. All this planning. I need a nap right about…Awwwww come on, Jerry, the ball was right there!  Jeez can’t these guys do anything right? Even I could have caught that pass!  

“Honey, is there any more beer?”

And so it goes.

Only 364 More days Until Next Year

I originally wrote those opening paragraphs sometime in the early nineties (I made a couple of changes to bring it into the new century). It had a different ending then, one that seems sophomoric and silly a decade later, so I didn’t include it in this rendition. Still, every time I read this little dialog, I telescope back to the original thought that got me going . . . So many good intentions. So many unfulfilled promises. Why do we set goals and make resolutions and then experience so little success in achieving them?

Part of the problem I think lies with a foggy understanding of the difference between values, goals, and alternatives or choices. Those can be fun words to parse, but I think the critical distinctions are roughly these:

Values are principles, guides in the dark, immovables, non-negotiables. They’re what we believe in. Real values come from deep inside, not from a book or from someone else, though you may have first become conscious of this or that idea from some external source. Values are what we are, what we aspire to be, what we want to be true about ourselves.

Goals are what we want. They exist in the world of the measurable. You know them when you see them. You can tell when you get there. Someone else can tell when you get there. Often they involve health or wealth in one form or another. Or both. They’re not found in the depths of the soul; they’re usually floating somewhere on the surface. Goals change in a way that values don’t. Goals may help you experience your values, but they’re not the same.

Alternatives are what you can choose to do. In the world of commerce, we call these tactics. Choices dictate how you allocate your resources. Choices direct your attention. Choices turn into action; they direct your hands and feet. Choices lead somewhere, hopefully to your goals.

So in the name of New Year resolutions, or some strange urging to be better or different, we aspire. We dream. We muse. We resolve. We write down things like, “I want to lose ten pounds,” or “I want to make more money this year,” or “I want to pray more,” or “I’m going to be a better husband, manager, coach, [fill in the blank].” And we really mean it, or at least we think we do.

But what have we really done? Each of those resolutions or goals leaves open a larger question which is, “what exactly have you resolved to do with your hands and feet?” What are you actually going to do continuously, hours, daily, or whatever? 

Having fervently resolved, we too often don’t do what it takes to consistently put our time, money, and effort against making our intentions real. Or to put it another way, we don’t give our intentions our attention. We do too little to convert our hopes into decisions and action. This doesn’t make us bad. But failing to make decisions to actually take action, your goals will remain goals, and fading ones to boot.

But look deeper. Without a clear sense of what’s really important, without a clear sense of your values, what do your goals and choices really get you? The nagging truth is, in the warm glow of our yearnings to be something we think we’re not, or do something we think we should, many of us fail to look deeply enough into the dark lake of our soul. We don’t reach into the muck and mire and confront what we really want, who we really are, what our real purpose is.

We aspire to, and give voice to, things and virtues that we think we want, that we think we should want, that we think some named or unnamed authority source might approve of . . . but at some deeper and more profound level, we do the exact opposite of what we intend. Rather than moving ourselves closer to something important, our goals, we actually move ourselves further from our personal truth. In the process, we commit the worst sort of cosmic transgression. We lie. 

We lie to our selves and our souls. We come to the edge of the lake and rather than dive in to face what lies waiting in the depths, we stay where it’s warm and dry and remind ourselves that it’s not a good idea to go swimming right after we’ve eaten. We tell ourselves we want one thing, and deep down at the bottom of the lake, the small, often obtuse sounding voice of our basic self, says, “no you don’t.” In short, we really haven’t come face to face with our values, and without those, the rest will never really fly.

The Journey Begins

When I was younger . . . all the way up to my late thirties . . . I can’t honestly say I gave any of this a lot of thought. My entry into the world of commerce began in any meaningful way after college and got going with a sense of urgency with the arrival of our first child in 1983. I had bills, not much income, and what I would charitably call a fuzzy sense of purpose and direction. 

If I had values, they were ill defined and not something I thought about in connection with the 80% of my waking life I spent trying to earn a living. That’s not to say that I was amoral, immoral, or unethical. I went to church and was mostly conscious of doing the right thing. I was content to use the values I had been given or borrowed from others while I was growing up. Mostly I was trying to pay the bills.

The goal part was closer to the surface. People have been setting goals since way back when, but the late seventies and early eighties was a time that seemed ripe with books and speakers remonstrating against a lack of purpose and focus. Before there was Tony Robbins and Stephen Covey, there was Napoleon Hill and Zig Ziglar, and we all learned from them the magic of goal setting. I goaled and dreamed about making $50,000, and then later multiples of that. I dreamed of buying a cell phone (what was I thinking?). I dreamed of buying a house, of buying a new car, of taking a vacation. And in time, I achieved many of the goals I set for myself.

And then somewhere along the way, the voice that inevitably goes off went off. Maslow called it self-actualization, Jung called it individuation, and Plato described it as the natural progression of a man’s life. It’s the nagging sense that the “how” matters as much or more than the “what.” It’s the yearning for meaning and context. It’s that stupid song, “what’s it all about, Alfie?” going on and on in the back of your mind. 

One day you think that tree huggers are lunatics, and that 4% growth in the GNP, 12% ROE, and cheap oil are all that matter, and the next you’re struggling with a nearly uncontrollable urge to chuck it all and move to the country and paint. One day you’re picking up a copy of Forbes to go with the latest business book, the next you’re looking over your shoulder as you sneak over to the self-improvement section. Dreams that you used to barely remember and cared even less to understand suddenly haunt your imagination. “I wonder, why did I have my shoes on backwards and why couldn’t I get the airplane to take off? And why am I always naked?”

And then, there it is . . . you face to face with your soul, you staring into the long shadow bag you’ve been dragging around for the first half of your lie wondering who you are, what are you doing, why are you doing it, and can you really find meaning in life and still go to work in the morning? 

For some of us, this moment of terror barely registers on the psychic radar. Too much discipline. Too many cares. Too much to do. Too much fear. “I cannot think about these things.”

For others, the strange stirrings lead to unaccountable actions. Have an affair, buy a sports car, trade in your spouse, have a mid-life crisis, all of which becomes a self-cartoon of what is supposed to go on in the second half of life, which is you using all that experience and context you’ve accumulated to do something that’s personally significant.

For some, the whispering turns into a cacophony of seemingly disconnected words and hard to understand symbols and dreams. Stuff happens. Synchronicities occur. You might even take a metaphorical hard right to the jaw or come to a chasm with only a tattered rope bridge leading to the other side. You come ultimately to the lake at the edge of town that you haven’t been to since you were a kid. And there by the shore, you hear once again the voice from the deep calling you to the soul’s real purpose which is to become whole, to lead one life, not many, to blur the distinctions between business and whatever it is you call the rest of your waking time, and commit yourself to really living.

Your Personal Codex

Assuming any of what I’ve just written resonates with you, it’s no wonder that what passes for resolutions and goals come up so short. We’re missing the clarity and indefatigable purpose that comes from being true to what’s personally true which, in turn, propels and gives wings to action and what some call a calling or a journey. 

The question, “what does all this mean?” both launches a journey and defines both the rules and the destination. The issue isn’t as much having a goal as it is finding the jewel that is your own sense of yourself and your place in the order of things. Lose weight? Why, because someone said you’re fat, or the model on the cover of Men’s Health or Cosmo has 2% body fat? It’s not that it’s a bad thing; it just may not be you.

Rather than set goals this year, why not go sit down by that lake, or better yet, why not dive in, and think about what’s really important to you. Figure out what’s really valuable. Hammer out your own Philosopher’s Stone. Make your own compass. You get the idea.

This is not a one time activity. It’s not something you can think about for a couple of hours and then be done with it. You’re purpose is nothing less than what my friend and colleague Jeff Belkora calls the creation of your own ethical code, “. . . a code of conduct, guidelines, and heuristics to govern my actions on my journey through life.” He goes on to say in a wonderful essay he sent me called “Straight Edge: My Ethical Code”, 

I spend a few hours every month updating my ethical code. This may sound like the Marx Brothers joke about how I’ve got principles, and if you don’t like these, I’ve got others. An ethical code sounds like something that should be fairly stable. Why does it need constant revision? In fact, the hard-core ethics part of my ethical code is quite stable: no coercion, no lying, no cheating, no stealing, or misleading. The other parts are mirages: shimmering in the heat until I actually have to drink from them, at which point I sometimes end up with a mouthful of sand, sometimes get to drink the cool refreshing water of “living in accord with the promptings that come from my true self” (Herman Hesse). The bottom line is that grand statements of intention, such as my ethical code, must be reflected in actual practice or else updated for congruence. And that takes vigilant monitoring.

Jeff has worked his principles into a wonderfully framed one pager, something I have a goal to complete (notice the word choice), but something I’ve not yet chosen to do. I just can’t get them all into something neat and memorable, which probably speaks of muddle headedness or worse, but then, I view this as a journey and not an exercise in packaging.

When I started the year (2002), I took a shot at creating what I then called a personal code, things I thought I believed in and might want to live by. Here are some of the things I wrote then:

  1. Direct your purpose according to divine will, not human will.

  2. Live truthfully, honorably, and with complete integrity

  3. Decide, take responsibility, choose. Don’t wait for someone or something to do it for you.

  4. Embrace failure. It’s a lesson to be learned.

  5. Don’t live in between. Once you know, go. Until you do, be still and wait.

  6. Don’t give or accept the gift of blame. Nobody is at fault. 

  7. Be in the moment.

That was a scary list to write down. Did I really believe those things? Given that I spend a large portion of my waking life consulting with large corporations, could I really use those as my true north 24 hours a day, or did I need a separate set for business? 

That last question is in many ways the corker as it cuts to the heart of who I think I am: two people or one. When I was younger, I was happy to be as many people as I needed to be to be: a wage earner, a father, a husband, a friend, a weekend warrior on the basketball court and golf links. Today, I’m convinced it’s all I can do to be one person. I’m past the mid-point of my life. For that matter, I may be dead tomorrow. No, one code was what I was after, so I better be really clear on what I believe and then live it.

At the end of the year, I sat and wrote what I thought I had learned over the previous 12 months, sort of a code in reverse or by inference. My reasoning was that if these were the key learnings or themes of my life this past year, they must point to something important, otherwise, why would I have sought out the lesson, either consciously or un? So I wrote.

  1. When the journey calls, go.

  2. Compassion. Love yourself. Be patient. Love everyone you can. Be patient with them. Do the best you can. They’re doing the best they can.

  3. Good, bad, are not what they seem. Don’t spend so much time judging. The events of your life are symbols. Learn to interpret what you see.

  4. Listen to your dreams.

  5. Do no harm.

  6. Do everything with full integrity and attention. Spend every moment you can in the now. Be mentally present. All the time would be great, whenever you can remember is a good place to start.

  7. Don’t be afraid of the stillness. Spend time there. Emptiness is not bad.

  8. Choose responsibly. Each choice you make is a spiritual and symbolic act of great power. 

  9. You need a craft. How you do what you choose to do matters. Learn to do what you do well. 

  10. Not everyone has to understand you. Not everyone has to like you.

  11. Love isn’t an effort. Love is infinite. The more you love, the more you experience love as an opening to what’s already there.

  12. Go Naked. Stuff isn’t bad, but clutter is. Take what you need and leave the rest. 

  13. Meaning matters. It’s possible and necessary to work soulfully.

  14. There’s a lesson in every moment. The ones you learned in kindergarten don’t necessarily apply now. In fact, they probably don’t.

This last point in many ways strikes me in retrospect as the most important. Too much of what I used to call my values came from someplace else. They weren’t drawn from personal experience. They didn’t well up from the depths of my soul. They didn’t emerge from the terror of my own introspection or from the faint whisperings of my own intuition. The ones I had seemed good enough, but they clanked rather than rang when I hit them with the hammer of my life. 

It was the word “kindergarten” that caused me to recall a book that was written a few years back called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a small volume that has since taken its place in that pantheon of books like Who Moved My Cheese and Chicken Soup . . .that salve the searching soul with aphorisms and assurances that leading an authentic life really isn’t that hard. Knowing a gift horse when they see it, authors and publishers have since rushed to jump on this particular nag in what is an unwitting confirmation of this very point. 

  • Everything I Needed to Know About Business I Learned in the Barnyard

  • Everything I Know about Dating I Learned in Business School

  • Everything I Know About Parenting I Learned from My Puppy 

  • Everything I Know About Women I Learned From My Tractor

  • Everything I Know About Business I Learned from Monopoly: Successful Executives Reveal Strategic Lessons from the World's Greatest Board Game

  • Everything I Know I Learned in My Garden: Life's Lessons in My Own Backyard

  • Everything I Need To Know I Learned In the First Grade

  • Everything I Know I Learned on Acid

They’re funny titles when you read them, and the contents may even be good, though I doubt it. The truth is, there is no shortcut. It’s a heroic journey that leads to the well of your soul. It’s meant to be hard, that’s why it’s heroic. Finding what’s really important to you is a life’s work, a cosmic remembering of your original innocence and wholeness, not a greatest hits from kindergarten or a furtive vow to live up to some imagined larger purpose that might be inferred from a board game or a farm implement.  

Set the goals and by all means support them with decisions and actions that will bring your desires to fruition. But don’t tarry there. The really interesting work is to find your purpose, find your values, own up to what really matters to you, and then bring that to life in whatever it is you choose to do today, tomorrow, and the next day. That’s the essence of making this year a real new year.

Kevin Hoffberg