The world never tells you that you’re wrong; it only gives you outcomes.
— Shane Parrish, Farnam Street
Kierkegaard, in Either/Or, makes fun of the “busy man” for whom busyness is a way of avoiding an honest self-reckoning.
You might wake up in the night and realise that you’re lonely in your marriage, or that you need to think about what your level of consumption is doing to the planet, but the next day you have a million little things to do, and the day after that you have another million things.
As long as there’s no end of little things, you never have to stop and confront the bigger questions.
Writing or reading an essay isn’t the only way to stop and ask yourself who you really are and what your life might mean, but it is one good way.
And if you consider how laughably unbusy Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen was, compared with our own age, those subjective tweets and hasty blog posts don’t seem so essayistic.
They seem more like a means of avoiding what a real essay might force on us. We spend our days reading, on screens, stuff we’d never bother reading in a printed book, and bitch about how busy we are.
— Jonathan Franzen, Is It Too Late to Save The World?
The New Year’s Resolution is dead.
Gyms will still likely see the customary uptick in new memberships in January. The lines will be blurred between legs trying to escape yoga pants and a busted can of biscuits.
We may eventually get lunch with that person we said we would the past seven times we bumped into them at the grocery store.
We might even “enjoy life to the fullest” (perpetually in the Top 5 most common Resolutions)…whatever that means.
Odds are, we won’t.
It would be great if The Resolution was dead because people realized that an arbitrary date was unnecessary for making necessary life changes.
Instead, it died because doing what you say you are going to do is hard and people get discouraged by the demands of changing their habits.
At any rate, all of us are prompted by the New Year to think at least a bit about the upcoming year.
If Amazon Does It…
Companies do this too, but their process is more formal. They look forward, budgeting for the upcoming year, and looking forward is what all of us must ultimately do.
A big part of this is looking backward. Management writes a letter to the company’s respective shareholders (owners) explaining how the year went in an annual report.
If you are a stakeholder in the company, or in finance, you may read them. If you have no (financial or intellectual) interest in the company, you would never read them.
Although unnecessary, it would be worth skimming one (Google your favorite public company’s shareholder letter). Management talks about the company’s financials, risks, competition, etc. — all things that impact the performance of the business.
Why do this?
Most businessmen I respect believe that the most appropriate place for projections is the trashcan.
If a business made $100,000 in each of the past five years, next year it is much more likely to make $100,000 than $1 million…unless it changes something.
My experience has certainly reinforced this idea as I have never seen a case of someone projecting that they are going to do badly.
The past does not predict the future, but it is usually the best place to start looking.
Since successful investors and companies do this, I got to thinking: Why don’t I do this for myself?
Replace the business categories with human ones.
Looking at what I did yesterday is often a better predictor of what I am going to do tomorrow than what I think I am going to do.
At the end of 2015, I did this and found it useful. I have since shared the idea with more people and their reaction influenced me to share it here.
Below, I will suggest some categories and questions to get you going, but since this is an individualistic activity, you can ignore mine and come up with your own.
The temptation is to quickly skim it over and answer them in your head like a What Kind of Cheeseburger Are You personality quiz on Facebook.
However, the big idea here is to open a blank Word document, put finger to keyboard, and get the thoughts outside of your head.
If you are still enjoying the holidays, you are in luck because the real purpose of binge eating at this time of the year is to cause such physical lethargy you have no other option but to allow your brain to confront the bigger questions Franzen alludes to in his quote above.
We will start with the most popular New Year’s Resolution category.
Two questions can carry a lot of weight here.
- How did you treat your body this year?
- Is your body fat percentage higher or lower than it was last year?
One area I worked on in 2017 was getting enough sleep.
I (used to) idolize people who can operate at a high level without much sleep, but after trying that out for a year or two, I realized this is either impossible and/or it simply does not work for me.
We have all heard an idiot say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” When have you ever slept four hours each night for a week and on Friday felt like you are performing physically or mentally at the same level as you would have if you were fully rested?
Extrapolate that for a meaningful period of time and you find that is an unsustainable game plan. Jeff Bezos, the boss of that online company the retail industry loves, makes getting 8 hours of sleep a top priority. If Jeff can find time to make everything happen that he does in 16 hours, I suppose I have no excuse.
Coming off the holidays, this may be a delicate one.
Some people may be crying as they leave their families returning home, while others are getting to the airport three hours early to get away from theirs.
Assuming you have family and respect them…
- Did you strengthen your relationship with them?
- Any new additions?
- Did your roles and responsibilities within your family evolve?
- Do you want the same things?
There must have been a writers’ conference on New Year’s Day 2017 that determined the theme of the year was tech.
I can barely go to a website or read a book these days without seeing a version of how Artificial Intelligence or FANG (Facebook Amazon Netflix Google) is in the process of taking over the world.
On one hand I’m convinced a robot is going to take my job and Mark Zuckerberg is going to have me tilling fields in Farmville.
On the other, an automated customer service system has literally never solved a problem of mine, so I am a skeptical of impending mass unemployment.
Assuming we have a few years left, perhaps we should ask ourselves the following:
- Am I getting better at what I do for work?
- How am I measuring that?
- What skills did I acquire this year?
- What did I create?
I was trying to order a pizza on the phone the other day from Mellow Mushroom and the guy kept calling back the wrong order to me.
As I bit my lip, I was reminded of something the stoic philosopher Epictetus said 1,900 years ago.
If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control.
There is a related idea that when you are right, you can afford to keep your temper, and when you are wrong, you can’t afford to lose it.
A distinguishing factor between a child and an adult is the management of our emotions.
Children cry when they are hungry, adults (usually) do not, although they have the same fundamental desire. This is a never-ending tension, as we are emotional creatures and everything that happens causes us to deal with them.
The good news is we can train our emotions (think yoga). It takes some work, but over time the more we align them with rationality, the more likely we are to get what we want.
- What is a healthy way stress leaves my body?
- What is an unhealthy way stress leaves my body?
Are we really going to learn Mandarin Chinese?
I have Rosetta Stone installed on my computer, but unless I move to China, the odds of me learning Chinese are about as good as Kim Jong-Un beating Dennis Rodman in basketball.
There is nothing wrong with lofty goals, but the whole idea of this post is that many resolutions are sufficiently difficult to the point people give up on many of them before they have even gotten all the glitter off from NYE.
Instead of coming up with big goals, it’s amazing what can happen over time if we simply try to go to bed smarter than when we woke up. We can ask ourselves the following questions to get a feel for whether this happened or not.
- What did I actively learn this year?
- What books did I read?
- Can I explain the big ideas in them to a six-year-old?
Moving onto more prosaic matters, we all worked hard this year and maybe we even got paid for our work.
Money buys things we want, getting things we want makes us happy, boom! Money buys happiness. If we want to be happy, we are probably going to have to think about our finances.
- Is my net worth (value of what I own minus what I owe) larger or smaller than it was last year? By how much? Why?
- What was the highest and lowest quality financial outflow I had this year?
- Did I reduce debt or add debt?
- Most credit cards/bank statements have an Annual Summary that itemizes spending categories.
For more on personal finance, check out The Financial Wisdom of Rap Music.
Since we covered relationships earlier in the year with The Millennial Marriage Manifesto, we will stick to friendships here.
I increasingly try to only spend time with people I like and admire. That seems obvious, but is it?
The older you get the more you ask yourself the types of qualities the people you want to be around would have and realize that your friends are inevitably a reflection of yourself.
You may have heard “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.”
- Who are those 5 people? Are they different this year than last year?
- Did I develop deeper relationships with my existing friends? Make new ones?
What did you do to have fun?
This category reminds me of Kanye West’s lyrics from his song Paranoid: “You worry bout the wrong things, the wrong thing.”
People who are not thinking about fun are the ones that should and the ones who worry about whether they are having enough fun are likely already having enough.
My disposition is geared more towards delaying gratification because I feel like the payoffs are better. Obviously, the future is uncertain, so I could get hit by the proverbial bus and never get to the long-term. We should try to have fun along the way.
In addition to the ones above, some do not fit squarely into any particular section, like acknowledging my terrible habit of mindlessly looking at my phone too frequently.
I also have started asking myself, “What is the dumbest thing I did this year?”
If you are like me, you will find two things:
- These are all interrelated.
- By writing these down, any changes to be made will be glaringly obvious. Making a formal resolution will be unnecessary.
If someone runs over my foot with a lawn mower, I hardly need to make a resolution to go to the hospital.
The opening quote from Shane Parrish at Farnam Street about outcomes is one of my favorite ideas I came across in 2017. There is so much sensitivity and rationalization of our actions, that calling something a bad choice is taboo.
It is a subtle nudge that gets us thinking about our choices and what happens because of them while removing the black and white idea of right and wrong. Being mindful of this quote will be helpful as you go through your letter.
What would be interesting is if you made this an annual tradition and in 10 years you looked back through them. You would have a decade of personal development in front of you and a pretty good map of how you got to where you are in your life.
- 10 Seconds Of Insane Courage by Garrett Gravesen