Who Else Thinks New Year’s Resolutions Suck?

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Have you got a new year’s resolution that you stuck with for more than a month?

Yeah… Me, neither.

Here’s last year’s top ten new year’s resolutions, according to statisticsbrain.com and the University of Scranton Journal of Psychology:

  1. Lose Weight
  2. Getting Organized
  3. Spend Less, Save More
  4. Enjoy Life to the Fullest
  5. Staying Fit and Healthy
  6. Learn Something Exciting
  7. Quit Smoking
  8. Help Others in Their Dreams
  9. Fall in Love
  10. Spend More Time with Family

Here’s the thing. We all know new year’s resolutions suck. Why?

Let me tell you.

Looking at the list above, I notice something. They are all very outcome oriented. And generic, unspecific and vaguely defined outcomes at that. Action-specific, tightly defined tasks (like, “do ten sit-ups every day at 8am” instead of “Staying Fit”) would work much better (I’d imagine,) but I’m guessing that to most people tasks like that just doesn’t seem ambitious enough.

And then, there’s the problem of: once you achieve your resolution, then what? Does it relate to what you really want or what really makes you happy? Does it get you closer to living the life you really want? The truth is, in my twenties, when I’d write those vague resolutions down for the year, I’d just be banging them out on-demand, without giving much thought to the intentions of the outcomes, or actions needed.

What if you had time to figure out exactly what kind of person you want to be, and set the intention toward that? And create a life that’s designed around that intention? Instead of saying: what do I want this year? And grab the nearest thing that resemble it, you could say: What kind of life do I want to have lived? Who do I want to be? How do I want to be remembered? And, why? Then, you can make everything you do, including things like fitness, habits and money, fit around that?

Those questions are hard to answer, sure. And unfortunately, there’s no readymade templates or cliff-note versions to copy from. There’s no one out there that can teach you the short answers. You just need to commit to some quiet space and time to ask such questions and answer them fully yourself.

The good news? You don’t have to be perfect. The answers to the kind of questions start out really vague, but over time and repeated trials, they will start to gel. They will converge, become simplified and clearer.

My Approach: Jump, then Ask Questions

A picture of West Cork
Yes, more cows than people there.

I started asking these questions when I moved to Ireland, to work for a small startup there, in 2000. It was at the tail-end of the heady dot-com boom. I had known friends who: joined an internet-based startups that flamed out; who made a fortune trading stocks then lost it all; and who started a company and burned out of overwork. But I had no idea it was anything related to my career path.

But unbeknownst to me, the company I joined, too, had suffered the consequence of the crash. One day, I showed up at work, which was in a damp port-a-cabin in a corner of a dairy farm (a beautiful setting when nice weather, to be sure), to find out the company in a dire financial crisis. The founders gathered us all to tell us their problem (they’d just lost a funder who’d promised the money to pay us newcomers), and told us all to come into a room one by one. They were laying off more than half of us, it turned out.

To think the boom-and-bust cycle of Silicon Valley, the farthest thing from my interest or aspirations, reaching out and touching me all the way in the green paradise of West Cork! I was newly married, in a foreign country where I knew no one, without any sort of savings or properties to stick my name on.

I did end up holding onto that job. And spent three more years there after the crisis. But the episode shook my happy-go-lucky, lackadaisical way enough to start the questioning with myself. “How did I end up here?” I asked myself. I was loving the adventure of being there, learning new customs and eating fresh smoked salmon, “scampi” (fried shrimps) and surprisingly good fried chicken box combo from the “chipper” downstairs. I also loved being newly-wed (I wasn’t so proactive in choosing how and when we got married, either, but that’s for another story), and discovering this new place, neutral to both of us, together.

But I wasn’t being intentional about any of these choices. Sure, it was an adventure—but without intention, risk-taking is just that; risk-taking. “Being reckless” as someone said to us before.

I was just going through the motions, not knowing what is down the road, or what I wanted.

Slowly, I started to reach for the answers, and through the process of learning, iteration, more risk taking and practicing being intentional in my days (and countless deliberations, arguments, and dialogues with Dipika, my wife and partner-in-everything) something started to come together in me. I liked to be connected to my communities, for one. I liked to help people. I was a procrastinator (and that, is something that I just have to be okay with, and work around, not against.)

Knowing yourself, in other words. When we started the Design Kompany blog in 2006, one of the first posts I wrote was titled “Know Thyself.” It was written in a instructional tone, but I was really writing for myself, as I realize looking back.

I made it my mission to help other small businesses find their own voices and intentions, and express them in graphical forms, at Design Kompany. Dipika and I also started creating spaces for local creatives to get connected, spend time, and have dialogues together. The two of us have helped hundreds of people ask and answer the same new-year questions about themselves: who are they? what do they do? why?

One of those people we worked with in our early years in Seattle is Jeb Wyman, an educator and an entrepreneur. When we announced our new online course STEER, he signed up right away, and sent me this comment:

“There is a lunacy of ‘assessment:’ the insistence that everything we teach be measurable and moreover directly applicable to some job skill … It occurs to me that I’ve let my own life be dominated by ‘assessment’ and ‘outcomes,’ too.  That is, for too long, I’ve demanded that all my energy and time have some practical output, some productive ends.  I don’t take time for play. For me.

“I’ve felt for years that I’m not being true to myself.  I started my young adulthood with the dream of writing. But I don’t write at all.  Nor play the piano or paint or take photos.

“It’s one thing I’ve always admired about you and Dipika: you live the creative life.”

I’d like to be clear about something here: We are just like all of you, thrashing around and making it up as we go. If it seems like we are living the creative life, it’s only because we are just a little bit more reckless in our life choices; by reckless, I mean we are more willing to listen to our vague hunches over the logical, linear, template-based solutions that are readily available to us.

Going freelance when others are getting jobs. Taking an overseas offer from a tiny startup instead of a steady income and career already available. Traveling around India solo, and getting to know people in real way, instead of sticking to the well-traveled paths. These are a few of the examples. On their own, they’re just recklessness.

But each choice often led to another, and in time, and through consistent questioning of our own motives, we arrived at a place where it might look like we have a control (of course, any time someone says they are in control of their life and destiny, they are deluding you and themselves). Living the Creative Life is certainly our intention. We don’t know if we are doing it every day, every moment, but we try to make small choices daily toward that intention.

In other words: we have to be true to ourselves, or nothing we do will matter to us.

And that, if you have tried at all, isn’t a simple, “I love x, so I will do x” statement. The process of discovering what fires you up, uniquely, the thing you want to pursue with all your heart, and designing your life around that one thing, is a long and hard PROCESS. It’s messy. Scary. And NOT BY ANY MEANS guaranteed. But we have been trying to get there for almost 20 years for ourselves, and 12 or so years helping our clients try. And I’m only starting to see the glimpse of what that PROCESS might look like for us in the end.

Oh, and our new year’s resolutions intentions? Mine’s this: honoring the choices made, while staying alert for more forks on the road. Dipika’s is simpler: Art, and Happy.

STEER, an encapsulation of what we’ve learned all through these years of trying, starts tomorrow, Monday January 14, with 8 enthusiastic participants. It’s not perfect, and it’s not a plug-and-play “solution,” but if you are interested in pursuing this process with a couple of helpful guides, we guarantee it will be a worthwhile trip. Sign up is here. And let us hear from you if you are intrigued, have questions, or comments.

We gather periodically via email to share tips, news and stories about designing our legacies.

One comment

  1. Bria Simpson

    Great advice Akira! It’s all about living your values and being clear with what you really want in life. As a business coach, I work with entrepreneurs who all take risks (or they wouldn’t be entrepreneurs!) and we are continually going back to “What kind of business do you want? What kind of LIFE do you want to live?” The two can’t be separated if you want to be happy.

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