Many people begin a new year with goals, resolutions and targets that define what they’d like to change within the next 365 days (or 366 days in a leap year). While most people fail to achieve these goals and resolutions, just the process of making resolutions and the self-reflection required can be helpful towards improving a life.
The ability to make and achieve goals relies on the belief that one can control an outcome, in this case an improvement in one’s life, by changing behavior or attitudes. One reason resolutions fail is that some are no entirely convinced they have control.
There is a tendency in American culture, due its focus on the strength of the individual over the strength of a community, for people to take credit for success but look for external causes for failure. This tendency is apparent even in the choice of words; in the previous paragraph, I wrote “resolutions fail” rather than “people fail at achieving resolutions” without thinking about the possible causes. There are other examples:
- Good performance in a portfolio is due to the investor’s own stock choices while bad performance is caused by market forces or the failure of a system.
- A promotion at work is due to one’s own hard work and accomplishment while a lack of reward or being laid off is the result of having a bad boss or the economy.
- A business’s success may be caused by the owner’s or CEO’s strategies, while a business’s failure would be the result of a competitor’s tactics.
Over the last decade, I’ve come to increasingly realize that I have more control over my life. My actions and choices — and sometimes, lack of choices — have a bigger effect on the outcome of my life than external factors. I haven’t quite fully accepted this in all aspects of life, but I’m getting there. With the knowledge that I am in control, there are certain ways I can exercise this control to affect the way my life moves forward.
Making active decisions. There was a time I avoided decision-making, particularly regarding important changes in my life, as long as possible. There are some decisions that can difficult due to the way a choice will affect the rest of one’s life, and like many people, I often preferred to ignore the need to make a decision in the hopes that someone else — or society itself — would make that decision for me. This is a great way to cede control of my life. Yet, I would still be responsible for the outcome because not deciding is a choice. It’s just a cowardly choice.
Impermanence. I often remind myself that life is short, and that is an idea that keeps me afraid to make mistakes with my big life decisions. I don’t want to make a decision and later discover that two decades or more of my life were wasted on an ultimately unsatisfying path. One way I can motivate myself to make decisions is to remember that almost every choice is not permanent, and I can change my mind most of the time.
Being able to change your mind and find a new path is a great benefit of life. Without some flexibility, it would be impossible for young people to choose life-long goals. Inevitably, external factors do influence our lives, and the ability to react and change course if necessary is key for maintaining control.
Accepting what is beyond control. I can’t control other people’s actions, but I can control how I react to them. I have no control over terrorist attacks, acts of nature like hurricane Katrina, or the day-to-day swings of the stock market. The best I can do is reasonably limit myself to potential exposure. I can prepare for the worst without sacrificing my needs for today and the future.
Being positive, friendly, and happy. While I wouldn’t want to be that annoying friend who is perpetually in a great mood, it is empowering to be able to remain positive in bad circumstances. Having a generally kind disposition can encourage others to be kind as well, though it can also encourage others to try to take advantage of your good nature. Find balance between kindness and strength to keep bullies at bay (adults can be bullies, too — not just kids). Choosing happiness allows you to survive and thrive in tough times and emerge a better person.
The points above are all aspects of life I try to remind myself in an effort to move my life in the right direction. It can be a struggle to accept blame and avoid frustration with the world. It’s still a struggle for me to make important decisions with my life. But these are all aspects of my life I’ve improved over the last decade, and this shift in personal philosophy has helped me arrive at the point of my life where I am now — a state where I feel generally successful and happy.
Photo: Ciaran McGuiggan
Published or updated January 2, 2012.