Why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But if you do, try this.

2013 Yield

Last week, a producer at HuffPost Live emailed me to ask if I’d be willing to talk about New Year’s resolutions for an upcoming segment. In particular, she wanted to ask me about a piece I’d written about willpower and whether I’d been able to accomplish this year’s goals.

It seemed like something that I should do, and so at first I said yes. But I hedged my response by saying that I don’t really make resolutions. We had a bit of back and forth – What exactly did I mean? – and I finally said, you know, I think you should talk to someone else.

Until this conversation, I hadn’t quite realized how deep my resistance runs. Simply put, New Year’s resolutions strike me as a set-up. A set-up for failure. A set-up for staying stuck. Resolutions assume a fixity that, in my experience, simply doesn’t exist. The goals I set last year – or last month – often aren’t the same as those that will move me forward today.

This is especially true in times of transition, when life is inherently unpredictable. This blog – Plan B Nation – began as a personal exploration of strategies to navigate loss and uncertainty after the Great Recession. One of my major ongoing lessons has been the importance of staying open – of not insisting that the future take a certain form.

As I drafted this post, I happened on a print out of writer Virginia Woolf’s New Year Resolutions that I’d totally forgotten about until now but likely had been saving for just this moment. (I’m pretty sure these must have come via my Virginia Woolf scholar friend Anne Fernald.) Dated January 2, 1931, the list begins:

Here are my resolutions for the next 3 months; the next lap of the year.

To have none. Not to be tied.

Indeed. (And I especially love the fact that even the resolution of making no resolutions extends only three months forward.)

Speaking for myself, I could never have predicted the events of this past year – that I’d move back to Boston to start a new job in a totally new field. This wasn’t a path I could have envisioned, let alone planned. And yet, it’s turned out to provide much of what I most needed.

This is why I don’t think of goals as endpoints – I think of them as stepping stones and experiments. This means staying curious and open even as I take action. Is this goal still serving me? Or is it time for something else?

Which isn’t to say that goals don’t have their place, just that it’s best to hold them lightly. Actionable goals are the means to an end. They are not the end in themselves. Goals can be great tools, but they are terrible masters.

That said, of course, we do need to get stuff done. Whether your goals are for a year or an hour, here are a few tactics you may want to try.

Be strategic in how you use your limited stock of willpower. (I talk about the specifics of this in my Huffington Post piece, which draws heavily on the book Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney.)

If you’re struggling with a goal, reflect on whether you’re contending with a competing goal. This strategy comes from my one-time professor Robert Kegan, who proposes the following four-column exercise. Identify in turn: (1) Your goal (e.g., I want to find fulfilling work), (2) The behaviors that run counter to this goal (e.g., I take jobs that aren’t meaningful to me), (3) Competing commitments (e.g., I need to maintain a certain income and level of savings), (4) Assumptions that underlie and support the third-column commitments (e.g., If I go back to school or take a job that pays less, everyone will think I’m irresponsible.)

The point here isn’t to  promote a particular course of action but rather to gain a better understanding of what drives you – an awareness that can lead to a profound shift in perspective. (The example above is based on an interview I did with Kegan earlier this year for this piece in Psychology Today.)

Keep your eyes on the prize. The true goal isn’t to go to the gym every day or write a novel or organize your office or any of the other zillions of tasks that we set for ourselves. The true goal is to live a happy life – a life infused with value and meaning, whatever that is for you.

I wish that for myself, and I wish that for all of you. Thank you for sharing my 2012. Here’s to the year to come.

Heckuva job, Charlotte Allen! (You too, NRA!)

[Children aiming sticks as guns, lined up against a brick building, Washington, D.C.?] (LOC)

It has been a jaw-dropping couple of days for reasoned minds tracking the national conversation about what lessons we should draw from the Newtown massacre.

First we had conservative ideologue Charlotte Allen’s bizarre claim that the murder of 20 children and six adults can be traced to the “helpless passivity” that permeates such a “feminized setting.” “Congratulations, National Review: You have published the single most brain dead, idiotic and offensive response to a national tragedy,” is how Salon prefaced its report on Allen’s instantly notorious ramblings. “Noted Asshole Says Sandy Hook Massacre Wouldn’t Have Happened If There Had Been Men Around,” read a headline on Jezebel.

And today, of course, we had the spectacle of NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre – the ultimate hired gun – making the case for why there should be a gun in every school. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” was how he put it at this morning’s NRA press conference. (You know another way to stop a guy with a gun? Take away his gun. But I digress.)

LaPierre is not the first to make noises along these lines, and in recent days, I’ve been unable to resist such tantalizing easy pickings. “And I mean, not to over think this or anything, but might it not be a wee bit dangerously confusing to law enforcement when they arrive and see a teacher brandishing a gun? And, oh dear, what about the danger of friendly fire? And — I mean, just because we should consider the possibilities — is there any chance there could be liability issues if a teacher intentionally or inadvertently shoots a student or colleague?” is one typical comment from my Facebook feed.

But you know what? I was wasting my time. Logic isn’t the issue. Not for Charlotte Allen. And not for the NRA. Their goal isn’t to persuade. Their goal is to make money.

On the Internet, provocation pays—just ask, Ann Coulter.  The more outrageous your argument, the better your metrics. (And no, that’s not always true. But very often it is.) Is Charlotte Allen delusional or a clever manipulator? It doesn’t really matter:  Either way, it pays off for the National Review.

For its part, the NRA is about selling guns.  What better way to enhance profits than an arms race in public schools?

There’s one thing that keeps me from slipping into an impotent fury here: A growing sense that such voices are fast becoming victims of their own success.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll gives the Second Amendment-brandishing Republican Party only a 30% favorable rating, down significantly since before the presidential election. (In the meantime, the Democratic Party is on the rise.) When asked to give a word or short phrase to describe the GOP, 65% offered a negative comment, including more than half of Republicans. Among the descriptions: “Bad,” “weak,” “negative,” “uncompromising,” “broken,” and “lost.” “Republicans have gone off the image cliff,” Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart is quoted as saying.

Shortly before the November election, Lizzie Skurnick—my brilliant writer friend I’ve never met—humorously chastised Obama supporters for going to such great lengths to identify Romney campaign missteps. “We should be all ‘Heckuva job, Rove!'” she proclaimed, referring to George W. Bush’s post-Katrina plaudits for soon-to-be-disgraced FEMA director Michael D. (“Brownie”) Brown.

Which got me to thinking. The more provocative, confrontational—and yes, crazier—folks like Allen and LaPierre sound, the clearer the line between sensible regulation and sheer lunacy.

Thanks, Charlotte Allen.

Thanks, NRA.

You’re making my case way better than I possibly could.

“I am Adam Lanza’s mother.” The story is (still) unfolding.

First Advent and first candle is lit

Yesterday, along with hundreds of thousands of others, I clicked “like” on Liza Long’s eloquent, compelling, and now notorious “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” blog post, with its searing depiction of life with a violent mentally ill teen. “I love my son. But he terrifies me,” was her memorable summation.

Today, if not predictably then unsurprisingly, I (along with hundreds of thousands of others) awoke to a vitriolic explosion over this same post. The opening salvos came from blogger Sarah Kendzior, who blasted Long’s piece as both dishonest and exploitative.

“Liza Long, the woman who wrote the viral post ‘I am Adam Lanza’s Mother’ is being held up as a heroic woman warranting sympathy for bring [sic] the plight of her mentally ill son to the public. Her blog tells a different story,” is how Kendzior began her own soon-to-be-viral post.

But does it? Does it really?

To make her case, Kendzior points to what she described as “a series of vindictive and cruel posts about her children” in which Long “fantasizes about beating them, locking them up and giving them away.” She also questioned Long’s grasp on reality: “In most posts, her allegedly insane and violent son is portrayed as a normal boy who incites her wrath by being messy, buy too many Apple products and supporting Obama.”

First of all, let me stipulate that I’m of the view that Long’s public airing of her parental frustrations went well over whatever line is relevant to such things. What starts on the Internet stays on the Internet and Michael (or whatever his real name is) is likely to live with the fallout here for a good long time.

But there’s a second line of attack here that strikes me as far more problematic: The notion that Long’s seeming inconsistencies are tantamount to deception. (Slate’s Hanna Rosin—one of many piling onto the Liza Long backlash—went so far as to call her “an imposter,” pointing to the blog as evidence that she is “not to be trusted.”)

Maybe. Maybe not.  In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we tell our stories – in part because I just taught a college seminar where (as I talk about here) this was a central theme. And this is what I think. Or rather, this is what I know: Finding the storyline in trauma tends to take a lot of time.

I have no trouble – no trouble at all – imagining a mother in Long’s position crafting a story where her troubled son is a normal boy. A difficult boy. A challenging boy. But normal, all the same. And I have no trouble imagining how this story could evolve – how a violent tragedy of epic proportions could abruptly catapult her into a place where everything has changed.

Our stories—like our lives—are works in progress. For those of us who choose to share them publicly, there are gifts and there are dangers. It isn’t always clear which path is the right one. But making an unwise choice here doesn’t mean we’re lying.

At the top of Liza Long’s personal blog there’s now a joint statement from her and Kendzior asking the blogosphere to cease and desist from the cyber free-for-all. It carries this preface from Long: “Many of you have seen Sarah’s excellent blog in the past few days. I think she makes some important points about children’s privacy. We have been in contact, and I am truly impressed with her professionalism and her concern for children.” That strikes me as a response of uncommon grace – and a good reminder that we’re all far more than the stories that define us.

Failure: a love story

015 - A moment of weakness

When I told my students that our final class would focus on the topic of failure, there were winces all around. But in the end, most of them told me that this unit was their favorite. “Next time, why don’t you start the class with this?” one student even asked.

The idea of spending a session on failure came to me after listening to an NPR piece about its prominent place in the lives of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. “This is, like, failure central. We are, like, connoisseurs of failure, experts in both avoiding it and living with it ongoing,” said Paul Graham, founder of the start-up funder Y Combinator.

The nine students in my “Living Strategically” seminar are members of UMass Amherst’s Commonwealth Honors College. They are talented, articulate, and thoughtful, with high aspirations and transcripts filled with As. All of them are preparing to apply for post-graduate fellowships. They have lots of experience with success, not so much with failure.

They reminded me of myself at their age, and I wanted to offer them something that would have been useful to me then: The idea that failure can be a fertile starting place. That it’s a natural part of life — temporary, not defining. It took me a long time to learn this. I’d like to think that my students are well on their way to learning it now.

Our jumping off point was journalist Rick Newman’s Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success, which I previously wrote about here. The book had resonated with me when I read it last year – Newman shares my curiosity about the underpinnings of resilience – and happily my students loved it, one describing it as the “punchline” of the semester. In particular, they responded to Newman’s personal story of climbing back from setbacks. The rebounder as role model:  It’s something we could use more of.

Perhaps more than anything, I wanted to drive home the notion that failure doesn’t have to be such a big deal. Like the Wizard of Oz – “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” — failure isn’t really what it claims to be. Behind the curtain is this little guy, madly ginning up the special effects to create a lot of noise. And because there’s nothing like humor to put things into perspective, I had students watch Laura Zigman’s “Failure is the New Success” video, as funny as it is true. Point made.

Finally, we read a piece that I’d serendipitously stumbled across at work the week before – New Yorker writer and surgeon (and Harvard School of Public Health professor) Atul Gawande’s  beautiful meditation on “Failure and Rescue,” delivered as a commencement address at Williams College. Gawande observes that good hospitals have lots of things go wrong – as many as their less successful peers. Research has shown that great hospitals “didn’t fail less. They rescued more.”  (This piece also won student accolades, with one saying that she’d sent it on to a number of friends.)

A major focus of the “Living Strategically” seminar is writing a personal story, and throughout the semester, we spent a lot of time talking about crafting a compelling narrative.  What makes something interesting? What makes it boring? In a fascinating Harvard Business Review piece, Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback reflect on why so many career changers are terrible storytellers. The answer: They rely too much on chronology, failing to craft stories that tap into sources of continuity and coherence. They fail to choose story forms that suit their tales of reinvention.

Stories are powerful. We shape our stories, but our stories then shape us. That has never been clearer to me than it’s been since I started Plan B Nation. Here is what I wish for my students, for all of us: That our success stories are vibrant and expansive enough to incorporate—and honor—our failures.

The why is the how

So yes, I am grateful to be so busy: I am grateful for my job (or rather, jobs), grateful for my many friends, grateful for the opportunities of this vibrant and enticing city.

But I am also frustrated.

In recent weeks, I’ve struggled to get back to a regular writing schedule. One or two posts to this blog each week seems like a reasonable goal. But reasonable though it may be, it hasn’t been happening. Two weeks ago, I forced myself to the keyboard in the chilly darkness of Monday at 4 am. (No time for writing over the weekend? See how you like this!)  And, yes, I did get the post done, but I was semi-conscious at work.

The fact is, most writers also have other jobs. It’s the nature of the beast. So how do people do it? Where do they find the time?

For answers, I turned to friends who have impressed me with their balancing acts.

First to come to mind was Carolyn Edgar, a law school classmate who seems to do the impossible on pretty much a daily basis. The 2012 recipient of the Corporate Counsel of the Year Award from New York City’s Black Bar Association, she serves as VP of a Fortune 500 company—not exactly your typical low-key slacker day job. Outside of work, she’s a single mom and also manages to put in regular time on the yoga mat. And then, there’s the writing: Along with her own very active blog, she writes about relationships, politics, and parenting for sites including Huffington Post and CNN.com. Oh, and last month—just for fun—she completed the marathon NaNoWriMo, a challenge that I’d find daunting even with no job at all.

So how do you do it? I asked her. I really wanted to know. She got back to me the following day, bringing to mind the old adage that, if you really want something done, you should ask the busiest person.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to your question. I ask myself all the time, why do I do this—especially when I’ve stayed up until 3 am editing and formatting a blog post, dragging into the office the next day, and seeing only 3 comments on the post or 4 retweets of the link on Twitter. And then I remember—I do this because I love writing. I blog, even though I have two kids and a demanding, full-time career—because I am a writer. I feel more complete when I write than I do when I don’t.The writing fits into the tiny interstitial spaces in my life, between the conference calls and the drafting, between supervising homework and getting the kids off to bed. It often supplants sleep, but seeing people engage with the thoughts and ideas I share energizes me in lieu of sleep (that is, until my body says enough and shuts down, as it has this weekend). 

Interesting, I thought. All of that resonates. But while I understand the why, I still don’t get the how.

Meanwhile, I heard back from Kate Gace Walton, another mother of two. Along with  full-time employment, Kate launched and edits Work Stew, a fascinating blog about the hows and whys of all things work-related. Who better to ask about juggling writing with a demanding job? Here’s what she had to say:

Being an insomniac really helps! I’m at work from about 8 to 5 Monday through Friday and my evenings are spent wrangling the kids, ages 5 and 3. (My husband has a long commute and travels a lot, so unfortunately he’s not around to do much evening wrangling.) But sometime between 8 and 9 the house finally falls quiet, and from then until the wee hours, I focus on Work Stew—writing, posting, reviewing essays from contributors, and editing podcasts. Also, and this is huge for me: every Tuesday night, the kids stay at my parents’ house. That gives me a free evening to record interviews without any shrieking in the background—and to catch up on various other tasks. I do a little bit on Work Stew over the weekends, but for the most part I try to unplug from it—partly so that my family can have a break from seeing me attached to a screen and also so that I can think about where it should go next . . . and by “next” I mean in the next week or so.

And then, like Carolyn, she headed straight for the whys:

Two reasons: 1) I love it and 2) it helps me. To elaborate on point one: the three things I want from life are Connection, Flow, and Wonder. Work Stew allows me to connect with wonderful people in meaningful ways. Writing and editing are very reliable sources of Flow for me. And the chance to learn how all these different people are grappling with arguably the most fundamental and universal of questions—What should I do with my life?—well that’s  this heathen’s version of church! Truly, I’m filled with a deep sense of wonder when I think through the 100+ stories the contributors have told in essays or interviews. 

And on point two: I find other people’s stories not only wondrous, but helpful. On a very practical level, Work Stew has helped me to think more creatively about my own (decades-old) work conundrums. I still stew, of course, but more productively and pleasantly than ever before. 

As I read this, something clicked into place. We can talk about time management and priorities and hours of sleep, but in the end, the bottom line: There isn’t really a “how.” There isn’t enough time, but you do it anyway.  You write because not writing simply isn’t a viable option.

By far, the hardest time during my long stretch of unemployment was early on when there wasn’t a single solitary thing that I really wanted to do. Nothing called to me. I didn’t have a why. In retrospect, I can see that this was just part of my transition, but at the time, I felt myself veering towards hopelessness.

There needs to be a why. There always needs to be a why. And when the why is strong enough, it propels us into the how.