One year ago on New Year’s eve I was home in California with my parents, my brother, and his girlfriend. Someone (probably my brother) made a joke about how I was the fifth wheel and how I should get a girlfriend too. I remember thinking, “you know what, screw this. I’m sick and tired of being alone. I’m going to celebrate New Year’s next year with a girl on my arm or else, damn it.” Or something to that extent.
Well, as of midnight two nights ago, I was alone, in my apartment, cleaning my room. Oops.
Yeah, so New Year’s resolutions don’t really work. They don’t really work at all. The reason they don’t work is that when you want something, and it’s as easy as telling yourself, “Okay, let’s do this now”, guess what, it’s probably already done. How many people need to make a resolution to eat a piece of chocolate cake that’s sitting right in front of them when they’re hungry?
The only time that resolving is actually useful is when a) you know exactly what actions you need to take, and b) the only thing in your way is inertia. This is actually the case reasonably often in life, but the kind of stuff that crops up around the resolving time of year only sometimes fits into that category. For instance, let’s take the perennial favorite, “lose weight”.
A) Most people don’t know what to do. They think, okay I should eat less and let’s try to run 30 minutes a day, but that won’t work well.
B) Even if that did work well, there’s more than inertia in the way: there’s time management (how do I get that thirty minutes a day?), impulse control (how do I make my future-self do what my present self is saying, instead of doing what it feels like in the moment?), and monitoring (how do I actually know I’m eating less? Am I being truly objective?), all of which are challenging problems that require some amount of skill to solve.
In my experience, most positive changes don’t come from applying more discipline or will-power. Rather, they come from new insights. For instance, for a long time I was telling people that I was writing a philosophy manifesto, and before that, for a long time I was dreaming about writing it. This year I actually finished it (it sucked, and I feel great because now all those ideas I had are out of my head so I can start thinking about new stuff). The thing that turned it from a pipe dream to an actual written document was the realization that the various barriers I kept running up against such as “I don’t know what to say next” or “I have writer’s block” or “I’m not in the mood to work on it” or “I’m not feeling inspired” were all rationalizations of an underlying fear of making it a reality, and that whenever I just forced myself to sit and type whatever I could think of, after thirty minutes of agony or so I actually started to make forward progress.
Resolving can be damaging, because if you resolve and then don’t succeed, it damages your trust in your ability to follow through, and reinforces the difficulty of the problem you’re trying to solve. So let’s resolve to stop resolving so much. As a substitute, my suggestion is reflecting. What went well last year? What went poorly? What would you do differently if you had to do it again? What lessons did you learn? If some resolutions naturally arise out of that, so be it… but no need to force them.
This year I stopped working on The Funscape, co-founded KeywordSmart, and then as of a few weeks ago quit KeywordSmart to start a new company. I made some new friends and ended some connections with old friends. I finished my manifesto. A lot went really right in all of that and a lot went really wrong. Some of my major takeaways:
- Cut losses fast. I spent too long in situations, both personal and work-related, that weren’t working for me. It’s hard to see it when you’re in it, because there’s good and bad to everything, but when you step back and ask big picture, is this really healthy, is this really what I want, is this flowing somewhere or is this stagnant water, and the answers are “no”, hit the eject button. This is a carry-over from last year, where I stayed at my hedge fund job longer than I should have, but this year it really hit home for me the degree of pain this causes. I feel literal physical grief for the fact I wasted years of my life sticking around in relationships that weren’t healthy. I don’t want to do that anymore.
- If you’re not passionate, it’s not worth it. KeywordSmart is a great company and I’m confident that it will continue onward to be successful. I left, though, because personally, it’s not life-or-death to me whether or not it succeeds. Up front, I didn’t think that level of deep commitment was necessary, but I’ve been learning that any tough challenge that you can’t fully compartmentalize as a “day job” is only worth it if you really, really want it. I ran into this problem last year too, at my hedge fund job: it wasn’t just a job to me, but it also wasn’t something I deeply cared about. That’s an awful space to be in. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in being purely mercenary: you go in, you give a defined amount of effort to the best of your abilities and with pride in your work, you collect your paycheck, and you peace out. But if the goals are at all ambiguous, if you’re responsible for bringing something new into the world, then that’s not a day job and unless you have a motivator for doing it that comes from somewhere very deep inside of you, it’s not going to be worth it.
- Just sit down and do the work. See above re: my manifesto.
- Connect with humans. I spent too much time this year making friends with the characters in my favorite TV shows and not enough time making friends with the ones walking around in real life. This came home to me a few days ago when some of my good friends were just hanging around talking and I realized how much external perspective I was missing out on, how much bigger the world is than it exists in my own imagination, and how the only way that I can access that bigger world is by interacting with other people who will show it to me.
- Create space. This one is tentative, it’s my theory on what I need to do so that next New Year’s, I do actually have a relationship. It’s the Bruce Lee “empty your cup” thing; you can’t get something new without getting rid of the old stuff you’re hanging onto. Two nights ago I cleared a lot of stuff off my bookshelf, various books and mementos. I still like / care about a lot of them, but I decided it was time to put them aside, shelve them as a memory, and clear up the space for new things to happen. Emotionally, dating and connecting with people requires a lot of compassion and a lot of willingness to experience new things. The only way of having that is to take all the old emotions, all the sadness I feel, all the anger, all the reasons and stories and stuff I’ve clung onto, and let go of it. I don’t want to start dating someone right now, was my realization. I still have too much clearing-out work to do.
That’s the other problem with New Year’s resolutions: if you don’t pay enough attention to where you’re really at, sometimes you set the wrong goals. It feels a lot better to set the right goals, and that only comes from listening rather than speaking, not resolving but reflecting.