If you’re like many of us, you entered the New Year full of enthusiasm and hope about what you were going to accomplish in 2014. Maybe you put a picture of “the new you” on your refrigerator or a list of 5 specific goals on your dresser mirror. Fast forward to February and you might be avoiding those painful reminders of how your aspirations have not quite translated into the actions you wanted for yourself. While you probably already know you are not alone, what you might not have realized is that it’s not too late to salvage the year. When people make New Year’s resolutions, they are generally looking to change something about themselves or within their sphere of existence. Where the resolution often falls short is in its static-ness; it’s a fixed point that is easily under- or over-shot. This can leave resolvers either claiming victory and twiddling their thumbs in March or spending the better part of the year trying to gain some traction before finally throwing in the towel.
My solution to the New Year’s resolution is simple, yet effective – the theme! Like the resolution, it’s a framing for personal growth, change or achievement. The theme, however, is meant to be dynamic and grow with the person. I will address how to create an effective theme in a corporate setting in an upcoming Forbes article. The great news is that the personal theme is infinitely more straightforward than the corporate theme. There are only two steps – reflection and projection.
The first step is to reflect on the past year. Where have you been? There is no right or wrong way to do this, but it is important to look holistically at who you are and what you do. I’m partial to using my personal and professional vision Live.Learn.Grow.TMas a framework, but it can be as simple as listing your roles and evaluating your performance. I know, I know, those words—“evaluating” and “performance”— can make us cower. Why would we subject ourselves to a performance evaluation when we don’t even stand a chance for a raise? Can’t we just swear off carbs and call it a day?
Well, to that I have two responses: 1) This step is necessary in order to lay the groundwork for the next step and for ultimately surfacing a substantive theme and 2) You're right. It’s daunting. To take inventory of how we’ve fared as friends, members of our communities, parents, spouses and professionals might sound like an exercise in self-flagellation but the reality is that we’re already always taking inventory. This just gives us the chance to call it out, acknowledge the good and change the not-so-good. Three other guidelines for this step:
- Don’t beat yourself up.
- Be honest, but not judgmental, with yourself.
- Repeat step 1.
The next step is to project what you’d like for the upcoming year. Where are you going? Projection is the trickier step, as most of us find it relatively easy to list the things about ourselves we want to change. What’s more difficult is channeling that dissatisfaction into the productive next steps on the path to improvement.
What I’ve found helpful in the past is giving myself enough time to marinate on my reflections. Instead of trying to come up with a tactical plan that addresses each challenge I uncover, I try to go about my days with an increased intention on those parts that need attention. I read books, go to movies, hang out with friends and family. I basically expose myself to the things in life that I love and make me happy. What inevitably happens is that my theme for the year “emerges” as a result of steeping myself in what I consider healthy and important to my well-being.
Since this process is not necessarily linear or prescriptive, I thought I would share my themes for the past few years as examples should you wish to come up with your own.
2012 – Goethe’s poem “On Boldness”
In late 2011 I was tickled that I had secured my first client, Walmart. I had struck out on my own in July, just a few months earlier. After some research and with Keith’s support, I had cashed in my 401K and was off and running. I had learned from my first startup that when I pursued my passion, I was often left a trail of what I called “spiritual breadcrumbs”. These were the signs I was given along the way that affirmed I was on the right path. Sometimes a breadcrumb was an opportunity being presented at just the right time, sometimes it was a person, sometimes resources or connections. It was an uncanny occurrence wherein I felt things were serendipitously presented to me just when I needed them, often before I even knew I needed them.
It was also a constant reminder that so many of my opportunities were not due to my brilliance or planning, but were, instead, more like rewards for following my purpose. I explained this phenomenon to my close friend, along with the mix of excitement and fear of doing all this without a safety net. Her response was “Oh, like the Goethe poem 'On boldness!'”
After a bit of research, I discovered a translation of the full excerpt here. Upon reading it, the words struck me so deeply and seemed to meet me exactly where I was. Whenever my fear became overwhelming or paralyzing, I would read it and remember that
…the task begun, this heavenly Providence begins to move; bestows her love's support with means, events, beyond coincidence; assistance past all dreams of human thought …
Goethe’s poem was a lot more eloquent than my concept of “spiritual breadcrumbs”, but in the end the message was the same. When you faithfully pursue your purpose and passion, you’ll be surprised at just how much you can accomplish.
2013 – Gratitude and Faith
After a year of boldness, I had found myself becoming unbearably bratty and annoying. People would congratulate me on how great I was doing for a first year startup. My response was a professional pout – I wanted more faster, and I had become way too dismissive of my great fortune from 2012.
While the theme was simple, I swear this was one of my most difficult to implement. I spent most of the year frustrated and aggravated with all the shortcomings of having my own thing- the cash flow, the brand challenges, the “unbelievers”. Gratitude and Faith was a drumbeat that reminded me to be gracious and grateful because I was generally failing more often than not.
Some time in October after a particularly contentious rant to Keith, he sent me this article on Marie Curie. No matter how awesome you think you are, reading how the first woman Nobel Prize winner stays motivated will bring perspective. Then and there I found the path to achieve Gratitude and Faith through a mashup of Marie Curie’s suggestions, Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and some team building razz-a-matazz I went to years ago.
- Forget your achievements
- Seek to understand before being understood
- Assume goodwill
- Ignore the naysayers
These four steps helped me directly address the triggers that led me to “underperform” as it related to my theme for the year. If I hadn’t made Gratitude and Faith a specific goal, I hate to see how pouty and petulant I would be today.
“I believe that the first test of a great man is his humility. I don't mean by humility, doubt of his power. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them. And they see something divine in every other man and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.” ― John Ruskin
When I stumbled on this quote, I was deep in the reflection phase for 2013. I was taking a long hard look at the year and what I didn’t like about it. I realized that, gradually over the course of the year I had let my ego occupy a bigger seat at the table. What was worse (or better) was the realization that it was this ego that was holding me back, making pursuits more difficult and less successful.
I had forgotten that my work, at its best, is not about me. Somehow, regardless of my noble intentions, I had let ego-driven pursuits—proving others wrong and transforming the field--obscure why I had endeavored on my own in the first place. And then something amazing happened when I took the chip off my shoulder by following the four steps I mentioned above. Things started to fall into place; there was an ease and flow that I hadn’t felt in a while. I had reconnected to that intersection where Boldness, Gratitude, Faith and Greatness meet, but without ego. I've realized that this is a muscle I have to continue to build if I don't want to regress to the bratty days of 2013, and I'm committed to leveraging Ruskin's quote to build this lifelong habit.
I’ll admit that, just like with resolutions, maintaining the steady beat of a theme takes consistent and constant attention. Remembering to trust in “this heavenly Providence,” to pursue the work of each day with gratitude, and to feel humility through success and accomplishments has taken intentionality.
I put my themes on my mirror and save them on all my devices. I have opened my meetings with them and try to share them regularly with friends, colleagues and anyone with whom I think they might resonate. Another beautiful thing about themes is that, since they are all built on a holistic self-view they are inherently cumulative. My aspiration for this year is to approach it not just with humility, but the boldness, gratitude and faith I have worked on cultivating over the last few years. My themes serve to both affirm my choices and promote new directions, to anchor me and lift me up. I am confident that the right theme can do the same for you.