Birthdays, Self-Reflection, and a Better Year Ahead

I recently had a birthday. As I’ve gotten older, birthdays have become for me a time of intense self-reflection: where am I in my life, where do I want to be, what could I improve? They don;t depress me, like they do so many others, but they do make me think.

Birthdays are also natural times for me to make new resolutions. New Years Day has never felt like much more than an accident of the calendar, but birthdays – especially with mine falling right at the start of the academic calendar that has dominated most of my life, when I really am making a new start in much of my life with the dawn of a new academic school year – seem like a natural time to start making choices about the year ahead.

Now, I said “resolutions”, and we all know resolutions fail. My fellow Lifehack writers have written about the failure of resolutions over and over again, as for instance in Steve Errey’s post entitled pretty unambiguously New Years Resolutions Don’t Work – Here’s Why. But I think we need to reframe the idea of resolutions, to think about them not so much as goal-setting but as problem-solving.

When we think about resolutions, we tend to think of them as a matter of resolve, that is, of willpower. “I resolve to do x, y, and z.” Of course, if we had the willpower to work on our novel, pass on rich desserts, or be more outgoing at social events, we wouldn’t need to resolve those things in the first place. And so yes, they fail – and often leave us bitter and disappointed with ourselves.

But what if we thought about resolutions not so much as a matter of resolve but of solutions – that is, as a re-solution to life’s problems? My father, a great collector of quotes, likes to repeat Einstein’s dictum that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”; it seems to me that most of life’s problems remain with us because the solutions we’ve adopted don’t really solve them – and so we try the same solutions, over and over, harder and harder, thinking eventually those problems must give ground.

Consider, for example, this situation which many of us are or have been in:

  • Problem: Your aren’t advancing in your chosen career.
  • Resolution: Work harder, put in longer hours, apply for higher positions more often.
  • Re-solution: Are you still committed to this career? Maybe you don’t have the passion and drive you had when you entered it ten years ago. If money weren’t an issue, would you still want to do what you do? What would you do? Inventory your skillset and your passions today and start looking into changing careers.

Maybe that isn’t how you’d address the problem, but you get the idea: a real re-solution needs to address the problem not in terms of what you aren’t doing often or well enough but at the very core, questioning the assumptions that the problem itself is grounded in. If you’re stalled out in your career because you no longer have any passion for it and are just putting your time in to collect a check, then a career change may well be in order – and if so, then it no longer matters that you’re stalled in your current career.

Let’s try applying this to a personal matter:

  • Problem: You’ve been dating for months/years/decades and can’t seem to find someone with whom you’re interested in a relationship.
  • Resolution: Get out more. Join an online dating service. Visit a professional matchmaker.
  • Re-solution: What are you really looking for in a partner? Maybe you’re spending too much time and energy dating people because you should be interested in them, not because you are. Or Maybe you’re dating anyone who seems interested in you at all “just in case”. Take time to figure out the pattern in your past dating life and then act to consciously break that pattern.

Again, this may not be your re-solution, but the principle applies: whatever you’re doing isn’t working, so don’t do more of it, do something entirely different. And you can’t know what to do differently without really examining not just the behaviors that make up your current practices but the reasons you are behaving that way in the first place.

For the last few weeks, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing – re-thinking my goals, my choices, and my habits to see what simply isn’t helping to solve the things in my life that I’m not quite happy about. And, at the same time, the things I am – this  isn’t about self-flagellation, but about an honest inventory of strengths and shortcomings, so that the one can be applied to the other.

Two years ago, that process led me to embrace a fledgling second career as a writer; last year, it led me to seriously rethink my approach to relationships and what I wanted in a partner; this year, who knows? I think I have some answers I didn’t have a month ago – and I have another 12 months to figure out what to do with them.

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