This is a time when people make resolutions and think about the changes they plan for the year ahead. 2005 is past; 2006 is lit by a glow of anticipation. The world of blogs is replete with suggestions for suitable resolutions, notes on how best to implement them and motivational pieces to get you started.
That’s not where I plan to go.
I want to look back to the year that’s past, and try to recall the resolutions I didn’t keep in 2005: all the good intentions that came to nothing; the plans that somehow dissolved as they met reality. What did I want that I failed to act on? What did I hope for, then gradually allow to drift into limbo?
Why do this? Not to berate myself for what I left undone; nor to feel that most useless and pointless of emotions, guilt. What I hope is to learn from what happened—or didn’t happen— and discover things essential for the year ahead.
There are no failures, only experiments that didn’t work. Every action (including inaction) produces a result; and every result is a way to help you learn more. Maybe you resolved to quit smoking, but are still puffing away on that cancerous weed. Ask yourself what held you back you from your resolve. What was more important to you than giving up cigarettes? The good feelings smoking gives you? The belief that it helps you stay slim? Social pressures? Maybe you resolved to lose weight, but weigh pretty much the same as before. What was more important than being thinner? The pleasure of eating? Relief from loneliness? Bingeing on chocolate or Doritos to offset some unhappiness? Did you fail to keep your plan to get better qualifications because of financial stress—or fear of leaving your predictable rut?
There’s always a reason in what you do, and in whatever you fail to do as well. Most often, it’s linked to your values. They aren’t all equal: the more important values trump the weaker ones. Concern for your health may be one of your values, but if wanting to fit in with your friends ranks higher, you’ll continue to smoke, or drink too much, or spend too much, if that’s what it takes to stay part of the gang. Make all the resolutions you wish. Until you change the relative ranking of your values, nothing in your behavior will to alter for long.
The point of this exercise is to discover what rational decisions caused you to step away from what you resolved. Which were the values you acted on because they ranked highest? Not the ones linked to your resolutions. If they had been the most important, you’d be looking back on plans made and kept. Something else was stronger, so—completely rationally, if not always consciously—you did what it told you, and walked away from what you intended to do.
Never make resolutions simply because you feel it’s the right thing to do; they won’t have the force of deep, underlying values needed to produce success. Take whatever time you need time to work out what truly counts for you and link any resolutions to that. If your resolutions don’t draw on your strongest values; don’t spring from feelings and beliefs too important to ignore, they will quickly be swept away. You’ll feel bad for a little while, then forget about them—until next January 1st. A few moments of guilt will be your only reward, not success—nor a valuable lesson in self-discovery.
There are no failures. Your mistakes are experiments every bit as useful as your successes, as long as you learn from them. Don’t rush ahead to a new set of resolutions for 2006 without getting the full benefit from all those you made last year; whether you kept them, lost them or set them aside. Stop, reflect and consider. If you only do that, you’ll have learned the most valuable lesson of them all: the lesson of lifelong learning.
Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for anyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership, and The Coyote Within.