Hey, so quick question, it’s the middle of January: Who feels like 2019 – with its freshly-minted New Year’s Resolutions – is still shiny and new? Anyone? No?
The generosity of a day each year when we all get to declare better intensions and set higher ambitions can wear off so quickly, like by March, or, you know, January 2.
If your new year is taking shape like mine, you’ve already racked up stories of political intrigue, heartbreaking loss, disappointing shortfalls, and unexpected opportunities. I mean, toss it all into the salad. Wilted vegetables and stale croutons, too. It’s like that.
What happens to our goals when life gets messy? You defined your trajectory – you can see it so clearly – but then an unexpected promotion gets tossed your way. Or someone you love gets sick. Or your salary is cut. Or you simply get fuzzy on what you wanted in the first place.
It’s the real stuff of life and then some.
Suddenly, the resolutions of two weeks ago seem like garage-sale trinkets on the $.50 cent table, not the guiding beacons you designed them to be.
I am reminded again that messiness is a part of our contract with life. Just because a goal might change, or get relegated to the bench for a while, doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you are meeting life on life’s terms, and you have some important choices to make.
Lots of coaching is about processing the messiness so that we can honor it, experience it, and continue living because that is what we are here to do, to keep going.
A few years ago, I took the job of executive director of an arts education nonprofit. At the time, I wasn’t feeling particularly confident in myself. In fact, that’s a bit of an understatement. The truth is that I was a wounded, confused mess, and for the first time, I was questioning my professional worth.
The chance to lead an organization seemed a bit daunting, and I wasn’t sure I was up for the task. But I also knew that my bigger goal was to develop leadership, and this was an organization that also did amazing work in a field I loved.
I remember waking up each morning and thinking, “I’ve got nothing to give.” I had to gin up the energy to get busy . . . and it was an energy that had to come from something me because my tank was low on fuel.
Here’s the weirdo part. This was during the presidential primary elections leading up to the 2016 campaign, and the morning news was saturated with stories from the campaign trail and its field of candidates. I remember listening about the seemingly endless slog of events and speeches and baby kissing, and thinking, “Where do those people get the energy? I don’t get it. How do they keep going?”
I realized something that is both obvious and profound. The candidates who appeared like a super-human specimen were just people too. If they could find the guts and stamina to aspire to run an entire country, then I could certainly manage an arts agency.
Don’t get me wrong, my insight wasn’t about the field of politics at all. That just happened to be what dominated the news cycle at the time. It wasn’t about any particular candidate either, but the idea that anyone who puts themselves in service of a higher calling or a big goal has to channel the resources to keep going from somewhere.
The human being-ness, that life force of energy, isn’t relegated to a privileged few. We all have access to it, whether we’re fighting injustice or teaching students or building a new business. It shows up like hope, like optimism, like energy, like grit. And it is a renewable source.
The funny thing about goals is they will change. They will evolve. Just because we articulated them the best we could on New Year’s Day (or any other date) doesn’t mean that’s the end: It’s the beginning. It’s simply the best you understood them in the moment, but maybe you have more clarity now.
Think of new goals as rough drafts.
Rough drafts are imprecise, but the best ones contain something brilliant. And if – or when – you evolve your goals, you’re not giving up. You’re growing. You’re going a layer deeper and finding what’s truly important.
Sometimes goals are expressed as a particular tactic but what we really need is to back up and think about what’s underlying them. (I wrote about that last week.)
Maybe you thought you wanted was a new job but you really crave more autonomy. Maybe you set a goal to take more vacations but what you actually need is to unplug on the ordinary days. You get it.
Here’s the other thing: There’s no shame in quitting.
Seth Godin talks about the concept of “strategic quitting.” His idea, which is crazy good to me, is that we’ve turned quitting into a moral issue when it should be a strategic one. It’s time to let go of the childhood schema of a “quitter” as someone who lacks fortitude and instead consider it a swift move toward the best path.
So good, right? It’s so empowering to evolve the concept of quitting into one that honors our intuition and intention.
But here’s the other side of the equation, and this is the tricky part because the call is yours to make: Sometimes giving up is a mistake.
Quitting when the end is in sight, when a breakthrough is on the horizon, simply because you’re tired . . . well, then you’re going to miss out on what could be. Yet we rarely know how far we’ve got to go. Life doesn’t offer us mile markers or Gatorade stands along the roadside, complete with encouraging volunteers cheer us on and pick up our trash. Toss that Dixie Cup like you don’t even care.
I’m reminded of hiking up the Bright Angel Trail switchbacks in the Grand Canyon. You’re tired, thirsty, and ready to free your feet from boots and get an ice cream at the lodge. But every time you look up and see that the rim is only a few steps away, you turn the corner to discover there’s another mile to go.
In the face of life’s messiness, we have options. If it’s time to quit, quit with intention. If you’re realigning, do it because you’ve got more clarity. If you’re staying the course, open yourself to a power greater than yourself to keep going.
And if something else crops up that’s more important than your personal goals? Then it’s time to meet life on life’s terms.
What’s your next move?