It’s so cold outside the tips of my ears are actually hurting. In the pitch dark, I can see the retreating reds of my in-law’s rear lights as their well-worn Volvo trundles down the rocky and uneven lane towards their house. The Volvo has many things — character, a treasure trove of found objects, a way-way-back — but good suspension is not one of them. Dan and I have decided to walk the rest of the way.
While Dan furiously taps away on his Blackberry, taking advantage of a rare moment of peace — and good phone signal — I take the opportunity to consider the upcoming New Year (while jogging on the spot to maintain circulation). It’s a good time to reflect on new things because the cold, country air makes you feel so clean, and the wide, expansive night sky, littered with stars, allows you experience the vastness of the world and the limitlessness of the human spirit in a way that the view from my bedroom window in London just never does.
Given my extreme and recent break from my previous career as a lawyer, I realised that I was approaching 2014 with more energy and enthusiasm than I have ever mustered before. Anything is possible, I can do whatever I want – any project, any job, any hobby. I have so few constraints it is dizzying and a little unnerving. What to do when you can do anything? 2014 would be the perfect year to make some huge changes in my life and make my resolutions count.
There are many laudable and challenging resolutions I could take on, like running a marathon or climbing a mountain, and each would no doubt have a huge impact. But I’ve decided to go even bigger. I’m resolving to change the way I live. I’m starting with the (wo)man in the mirror, so to speak. I’m not making a few New Year’s resolutions; I’m making a few years’ worth of resolutions. 54 to be precise.
The idea came to me via an excellent recommendation from the inspiring Smiley Poswolsky. Smiley is a friend, of a friend, of a friend (one of Meg Jay’s “weak ties”!) who last year gave up his steady job at the US Peace Corps headquarters in DC to move to San Francisco and follow his dreams. I reached out to Smiley for advice on how he made this transition because I wasn’t finding it easy myself. Given that he had lived through it, and is writing a book about it (“The Quarter-Life Breakthrough”), I thought he would be the perfect person to ask.
I explained that I was trying to live a little, to experience the life that I hadn’t been able to enjoy from behind my desk. I was making pizza from scratch, I was getting loads of sleep, I was reading books faster than I could download them. Sensing my need for some inspiration, Smiley suggested that I take a look at The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin for ideas on how to use this time to ground myself before taking on any big projects.
The Happiness Project follows Gretchen’s quest to bring more happiness into her life. She spent one year pursuing a series of resolutions, with each month focussing on a different area of her life – energy, marriage, parenting, health, etc. Her resolutions were based on advice gleaned from a wide range of sources – from academic happiness research to spiritual leaders. Using a method borrowed from Benjamin Franklin, she came up with a resolutions chart to track her adherence to her resolutions on a daily basis.
As soon as I started reading The Happiness Project it was like a light went on in a dark and dusty corner of my mind.
You see, knowing that I would need some detox time — time for the side-effects of working in a corporate law firm to work off — I had strategically planned my exit from law for mid-November, giving me a glorious six-week “holiday” in which to enjoy my freedom before knuckling down “in the New Year” (that sounded a long way away in November). What I wouldn’t have done for six consecutive weeks of holiday back in May when I was pulling endless all-nighters! I promised myself that I would make the most of it. I pledged to enjoy myself to the max.
Unfortunately, it hadn’t quite worked out that way. I was enjoying myself well enough, and the days were passing, but it felt kind of aimless, as if all the happiness and cheer I was banking in December would disappear as soon as I started to work again in January. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t making the most of the time off at all.
The Happiness Project was the cure. It showed me what I had been missing all along. Just like Gretchen Rubin, my search for fun, calm, and – yes – happiness, needed some boundaries. Just like her I yearned for, longed for, needed structure. It didn’t surprise me at all to learn that in a previous life she had been a high-flying lawyer gradutating from Yale and clerking for a Supreme Court justice. All the cliches about over-achieving, control-freak lawyers are true.
Dan laughed at me as I spent days and nights frantically highlighting and annotating my copy of the book — truly a comedic sight on my early generation Kindle which has no keyboard and on which notes must be painstakingly entered one letter at a time using the 5-way home button; surely a testament to my dedication to the task. By the end I had my plan for 2014.
For me this isn’t really about making resolutions to improve my happiness. It’s about setting myself up with the kind of life I want to lead, before I re-insert work into the equation. It’s about achieving big, lifetime goals bit by bit and day by day. It’s the equivalent of the old proverb about savings: “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”. Or what Maya Angelou has to say about courage:
“One isn’t born with courage. One develops it by doing small courageous things—in the way that if one sets out to pick up a 100-pound bag of rice, one would be advised to start with a five-pound bag, then 10 pounds, then 20 pounds, and so forth, until one builds up enough muscle to lift the 100-pound bag. It’s the same way with courage. You do small courageous things that require some mental and spiritual exertion.”
By checking that I am doing the kinds of things I want to be doing every day, I hope to be the kind of person I want to be — and have wanted to be — every year since I started making resolutions.
That’s why this year I’m going all out with 54. 54 things I really want to do but just … don’t. Some of them are about how I am, some of them are about the way I live, and some of them are about the way I spend my time. I strongly doubt I will have a single day of perfection, where I can tick every box on my chart and know that I have kept every resolution. But by trying to be a bit better every day I think I can get a lot closer to my goals, and hopefully a bit more content in the process.
Love links, hate distractions. Now that you’re done, here are some internet bits to put this article in context:
You can check out the awesome blog of Smiley Poswolsky at What’s Up Smiley. His book The Quarter-Life Breakthrough is available for pre-order – I will definitely be getting myself a copy! [And, no, he hasn’t paid me to say that. He doesn’t have to.]
Meg Jay’s TED talk on Why 30 is not the new 20 has probably been the single most influential video on my life. I have written about my emotional reaction to this video on my first (and now neglected) blog Click.Flash.Blast. Meg Jay advocates making the most of your 20’s by (i) investing in identity capital by doing something that adds value to who you are; (ii) exploring your weak ties (friends of friends of friends) to expand who you know, what you know, how you think and how you speak; and (iii) working on your marriage before you have one by consciously choosing your partners. I am focussing on (i) and (ii) (it’s kind of too late for (iii), but luckily I got that bit right). Reaching out to Smiley, with only a very tenuous connection, was part of that.
Thanks to Nicole Goldstein for sending me this article from the Harvard Business Review on 10 Extraordinary People and Their Lessons for Success, including the quote from Maya Angelou.