Have you made your New Year’s resolutions yet? Be careful.
For many, these resolutions are at risk of becoming a sorry joke. The cynics say that these are useless exercises that make us feel good for a few months, but that no one really has the intention or fortitude to follow them beyond that. We've all heard the statistics about how gym memberships spike early in the New Year but that the crowds quickly thin out and the gym is empty again by the end of February.
Does it have to be this way? As an optimist, I believe that the New Year can be a powerful time for reflection and commitment to achieving more in the year ahead.
But, in my experience, that’s exactly the problem: few of us really use this time to reflect on our life’s journey and what we really want to accomplish. Instead, the resolutions tend to be a random and ad hoc collection of “wishes” that come to us top of mind when we realize that resolutions are expected at this time of year. It shouldn’t be a surprise that few of us have the determination to follow through on these resolutions, especially given the increasing number of distractions we encounter on a daily basis.
There’s a better way. We might all benefit by using an approach that I’ve written about in the context of business strategy, but that I’ve found can be very powerful for us as individuals. The approach that I call “zoom out, zoom in” can be very useful because it requires us to step back and reflect on where we want to go and what steps we can take today to accelerate our movement towards that destination.
This approach starts by challenging us to pull out of the day to day activities that tend to consume us. It urges us to “zoom out” to a ten to twenty year horizon. On that horizon, we’re asked to reflect on what the world might look like that far out into the future. That’s a challenge, I know, given how rapidly the world is changing, but it becomes a catalyst to step back and reflect on what the long-term forces are that are re-shaping the world we live in and what kind of world those forces are likely to produce.
That exercise provides us with the context for reflecting on what we would most like to accomplish in that world ten to twenty years from now. For some of us, it may truly be some kind of world changing impact like solving climate change challenges or extending human longevity. But for most of us, our aspirations may be a little closer to home, like becoming a coach to others who are overwhelmed by mounting performance pressure or developing a craft skill like woodwork or weaving that will delight others with products that are unique and highly creative.
The key is to look inside and identify where and how we can achieve much more of our potential, given the world that we are likely to be living in ten to twenty years from now. Without a clear view of the context that we’re likely to be living in, it’s hard to know where and how to pursue the passion that we have discovered within ourselves.
I’ve written a lot about the passion of the explorer here and here, but as passionate explorers our commitment to achieve an increasing impact in whatever domain we’ve chosen would surely benefit from a better sense of how that domain is likely to evolve. And that’s not to say that one should take the future as a given. Part of the reflection process is to think about how the world is likely to evolve given the forces at work and then to ask if you might be able and willing to try to materially alter that future. Don’t fall into the trap of passively viewing the future as a given – we all have the potential to re-shape that future if we have enough conviction and the ability to mobilize others.
I hasten to add, too, that this zoom out view isn’t a detailed blueprint of the future. It will necessarily be high level, given all the uncertainty that exists, but with enough specificity to help us make key choices and decisions in the short-term. It will also be determined by the focus that our particular passion of the explorer gives us. For example, if our passion is to become a coach who will help people become more effective participants in their community, it would certainly help to have some view of how communities are likely to evolve and what the needs of communities might be ten to twenty years from now.
As we begin to get more clarity on who we want to become in the future, this can then help us to zoom in to a very different time horizon – six to twelve months. On this horizon, the key question to ask is: what are the two or three initiatives that I could pursue over the next six to twelve months that would have the greatest potential to accelerate my movement towards the longer-term opportunity that I’ve identified for myself. Then, we need to ask: am I allocating enough resources (especially time) to these two or three initiatives in the next six to twelve months to achieve the progress that I aspire to achieve? Finally, we need to ask: how would I measure progress at the end of six to twelve months so that I could reflect on, and learn from, the experience and achieve even more impact in the following year?
Now, we have a framework to craft the two or three resolutions (no more) that could really help us to achieve a lot more in the year ahead. Rather than random and ad hoc, these resolutions are now grounded in a much clearer view of where we want to go and what kind of impact we are trying to achieve. We can be inspired by that longer-term opportunity and understand that there are ways we begin to achieve that opportunity starting tomorrow (or even today). It can begin to give us conviction that these resolutions really matter – they are key to helping us achieve far more of our potential.
Finding your passion
But, wait a minute, I can hear some of you saying, what if I don’t have a passion? What if I don’t know what kind of impact I want to achieve ten to twenty years from now? What do I do then?
Well, not to worry. Many of us haven’t yet found our passion. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, that’s not because many of us aren’t capable of discovering and nurturing our passion of the explorer. Far from it – we all have a passion of the explorer deep within us that is waiting to be discovered and drawn out.
The reason many of us haven’t yet found our passion of the explorer is at least in part because we’ve grown up within a set of institutions, starting with our schools, that are determined to discourage us from finding a passion. Our institutions are built on a model of scalable efficiency that wants us to follow instructions predictably and reliably. In these institutions, the passion of the explorer is deeply suspect. The only kind of passion that is encouraged in these institutions is the willingness to work nights and weekends on our assigned tasks – that’s not the passion of the explorer.
While it’s understandable that many of us haven’t yet discovered our passion of the explorer, we all need to find this passion, because it’s precisely this kind of passion that will be key to success in a world of mounting performance pressure. Those of us who don’t find and cultivate this passion will experience growing stress and ultimately burn out and drop out.
So, if you haven’t yet found your passion of the explorer, use this time of year to zoom in and craft a set of two to three resolutions that will have the greatest potential to help you discover the passion that’s patiently waiting to be discovered. Typically, these resolutions will involve taking you out of your comfort zone and exposing you to a broader range of experiences that will increase your chances of encountering that passion within you. Don’t give up and don’t get stuck in a rut – expand your horizons and search for that passion.
For those of you who haven’t yet discovered your passion of the explorer, your zoom out will be to imagine what your life could be like ten to twenty years from now once you have discovered that passion and had an opportunity to pursue it. The zoom in will be entirely focused on pursuing initiatives that will increase your likelihood of finding that passion.
Crafting your narrative
For those of you who have been following me for a while, you might begin to see the connection with the need for a compelling personal narrative that I’ve discussed here and here. If you’ve zoomed out and identified an inspirational opportunity to achieve impact out in the future and if you’ve zoomed in and identified a small set of near-term initiatives that can help you achieve that opportunity, you now have the basis for a call to action to others.
You see, this is another problem that we typically have when we set out to frame a set of New Year’s resolutions. They tend to all be about me. But here’s the thing – anything worth achieving is likely to be helped by the participation of others. That requires a call to action to others, not just yourself.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, a narrative the way I define it is not yet resolved - there’s some kind of significant opportunity or threat out on the horizon and it’s not clear whether it will ever be achieved or not because there are some significant obstacles and challenges along the way. And the resolution of the narrative hinges on a call to action to others – their choices and their actions will help to determine how this narrative resolves.
So, when you’re framing your New Year’s resolutions, don’t just make them about you. Think of others who might have similar aspirations in terms of the zoom out opportunity and frame your resolutions as a call to action not just for you but for others who could help you in achieving even more impact by coming together. Share these resolutions with others and explicitly ask for their help. You might be surprised at how much more progress you could make by coming together in the year ahead rather than just trying to do it all yourself. And, if others have joined you on your journey, it can provide you with the reinforcement you need to stay the course.
Don’t give up. That’s the last thing you want to do in a world of expanding opportunity and mounting pressure is to give up. You have so much potential that is waiting, and yearning, to be achieved. But use this time of year to shift how you frame your New Year’s resolutions. If you want to achieve lasting impact with your New Year’s resolutions, put them into context – both long-term and short-term. That context will help to provide both the inspiration and conviction to pursue the resolutions. Also, invite others to join you on the journey. Together, you will be able to support and challenge each other in ways that help you to achieve much more of your potential. Remember: small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion.