(modified from February 2014 article) If you’re like many of us, you enter the New Year full of enthusiasm and hope about what you are going to accomplish. 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 a few weeks, 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 control. 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 addressed how to create an effective theme in a corporate setting in the following Forbes article. The great news is that the personal theme is infinitely more straightforward than the corporate theme. There are only two steps – reflect and project.
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 experienced serendipity -things 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.
2015 - Intentional Optimism
"The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." -Winston Churchill
Not that the masterful Churchill needs my two cents, but I would add one sentiment to both sentences - CHOICE. In 2015 (or as I affectionately call it, The One Nickel), I recommit to choosing to see opportunity vs difficulty. Because if I'm truly honest with you and myself, I was not always successful in making that choice in 2014. And last year was a doozy. My grandmother died of cancer, I nearly died from blood clots, and I was hit by a car while jogging (yeah, don't ask). Every time I tried to dust myself back off and see the good around me, it seemed that I was an extra in the movie Final Destination, and I had angered some pretty vengeful gods.
All joking aside, the older I get, the more challenging it is to be optimistic. Optimism is a trait often associated with youth and naivete. I remember people telling me that with a little more experience, I would see the world differently. And it is true. Choosing to hope and to believe and to try in spite of challenges sometimes seems foolish. And with a family, a job, and a business to take care of, choosing to be an optimist is often beyond exhausting. But when I think of the moments in my life thus far that I'm most proud of, they came about because I hoped and believed and tried. And in many ways the challenges I overcame then were much worse than they are now. So in 2015, I choose intentional optimism not to avoid reality, but to create reality.
I’ll admit that, just like with resolutions, maintaining the steady beat of a theme takes consistent and constant attention. 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.