Innovation You

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Your New Year’s Absolution

When did ambition become a bad thing?

When did ambition become a bad thing? If you just read the comments under your favorite blogs and columns you would think we’ve become a nation of naysayers, slackers and reactionaries with a poor command of the language save expletives — “Life is unfair and you suck.” Apparently there is always someone to blame — the Banks, the Congress, the Media Elite or [your favorite villain goes here]. I guess the idea of being free and responsible to create your own good fortune is an idea better left to bygone days. So why bring it up now? Because normally, around this time of year it’s customary to concoct some aspirational goals that you hope will inspire you throughout the New Year — lose weight, write that novel or just stop yelling at the kids so much. It’s a resolution because you are declaring your intent to be resolute, stick with it and prevail through the course of obstacles that divide you from your ambition — half-witted coworkers, unforeseen expenses, chocolate éclairs and the like. Your resolutions bring a sense of destiny to your life.

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Still, next New Year, if you didn’t achieve all your targets the calendar forgives you as you take one more lap around the solar cycle. America is after all the land of second and even third chances — think recently disgraced politicians or your brother in law who is on his third marriage. Even those who obtain their goals come to realize that they didn’t really get “there” because there really is no “there.” There is only the next “there” — Version 55.0 or a debt paid or a love requited. To a cynic this may seem analogous to cursed Sisyphus pushing his rock up the steep hill only to have it roll back to the bottom each time. But the optimist knows that is our incompleteness that pulls along. Ben Franklin could have stopped after being an author, entrepreneur, scientist or even postmaster but thankfully he continued on to become a patriot and founding father. It was his desire to be more that kept him moving forward — “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” You are ever a work in progress. It’s the constant revisions that make your story compelling.

Usually at this time of year I notice unfamiliar faces at the gym or former students returning to school to complete that degree or maybe it’s just a newfound friendly demeanor on a colleague who has been stressed and sour for ages. Not this year. Where is the positive attitude? The energy? That misguided sense of can-do? I may have the answer. During my short but much needed downtime during the holidays I had a chance to catch up on some reading, watch a few talk shows and even listen to my favorite public radio programs. It seemed as if everywhere I turned there was an expert with the same message: “Don’t make New Year’s resolutions because they never work. Besides, you are perfect just the way you are.” Now I’m in favor a self-acceptance, a positive body image and the importance of seeing the good in others but not to the extent that they thwart your growth as a person and our progress as a people. You see, to become more you have to want more. That’s right, I said it. The ego, that much maligned scoundrel of the New Age clique, is essential if our society is to function as a meritocracy. Greatness, by any criteria, requires us to distinguish it from the ordinary, common and nominal. But these comparisons are unnecessary, the argument goes, because they make people unhappy. Yes, dissatisfaction is a powerful emotion that can either drive you into stifling avoidance behavior or compel you to improve your circumstances. It comes down to choice. Do you want to be pushed by the expectations of others or pulled by your own desire to become better and new?

So how can you muster up the courage, fortitude and energy to spend another year chasing goals you may not have achieved in years past?

  1. Absolve Yourself - Forgive your shortcomings, your failures and whatever you take to be your sins. This doesn’t mean you’re perfect as you are now or you get to take the easy way out — three Hail Mary’s and your back on the street resuming your wicked ways. Instead, it means you get to start anew. Think of it like a Get Out of Jail Free card. You only get one every New Year or thereabouts. While it’s unwise to forget the past for that is where your hard won experience educates your judgment, it is helpful to forgive it so that you may lighten the load of your future endeavors. Perfection is death — an argument ends a relationship, a failing grade brings a transfer to a lesser school or a few rejection letters thwart a promising start to a new career. Growth is life — imperfect and messy. There will always be critics to tell you you’re doing it wrong especially if you are doing it your own way. Stop pretending that you don’t hear the faultfinders and that it doesn’t matter. They will never forgive your faults. That you have to do for yourself.

  2. Evolution, Not Revolution - “Go big or go home” was the mantra during the go-go years now long gone. Thankfully most of these braggarts have indeed gone home. All competencies, real and resilient skills, are developed over time. Your age is of little matter when you are learning to do something new. Draw a picture of your pet and anyone can tell at what age you stopped learning to draw. Take up an instrument or speak a foreign language and you get the point instantly. You will be amateurish at best at anything of consequence that you undertake for the first time. Unless you are Mozart or Harper Lee and have an insane amount of talent or beginner’s luck you will need to give yourself sufficient time to develop your amazing ability, transform your old life or create your masterwork. Set your pace for a longer race, make frequent stops along the way to catch your breath and learn to enjoy the scenery.

  3. Get the Big Mo - Momentum is the key to getting enough lift to reach your most lofty goals. Small wins propel you upward and sustain your flight. Once the little things start to go right you feel like you can steadily increase your elevation. Your positive mindset is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy based on the confirming feedback you receive from these little victories. Psychologists call this a flow state where things seem to work effortlessly. Watch the movie Moneyball about the inept Oakland Athletics baseball team and their amazing record breaking season. With few resources or options, the A’s tried all kinds of creative maneuvers such as hiring unorthodox players cast off from other teams and playing them in unconventional positions to no avail. They failed and made adjustments and failed again until they found a winning combination. Once they got momentum they were unbeatable. Adapt, adapt, adapt until you find your groove.

  4. Save Yourself - The cavalry isn't coming; neither is Prince Charming, a miracle weight lose pill or Bill Gates with a billion dollars for your can’t-miss start-up business. Free yourself from the magical thinking. It’s stopping you from taking purposeful action. Yes, have magnificent goals and believe the universe is conspiring to help you — then get back to work. Rough Rider cavalry leader Teddy Roosevelt had it right, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." Seek your true love wherever you are, develop your hidden talents while working that dead end job or make time for coffee with that old friend who always seems to connect you with the right person at the right time. With some luck and a blessing or two the cavalry may come one day but you will never be free to pursue your own happiness and success until you become personally responsible for them.

Let’s leave perfection to Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way, and just work on getting better, or better yet, getting new. After all it is that time of year when the days are shortest that we may leave our failings in the dark and chose to be illuminated by the light of our ambition. May your imperfections be your source of inspiration. Happy New Year!

Jeff DeGraff, Ph.D., is a professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

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