I normally don’t do New Year’s resolutions—I’ve never been a fan of any kind of artificial or arbitrary scaffolding for willpower, despite how useful and productive it might be. I prefer to go forward boldly with naked resolve, even though it rarely turns out well. It’s stubborn, I know, but it has a certain futile nobility that I like (tilting at windmills and all that).
But this year I do have a resolution: to stop being a disappointment.
A disappointment to whom? you might ask, and in what way? Good questions both—let’s explore them.
Disappointment can be judged only to relation to expectations, and is appropriate only when those expectations are reasonable. So if someone is disappointed because I don’t medal in the Olympics or win a Nobel Prize, I shouldn’t feel bad. But if I disappoint someone who has reasonable expectations of me—especially expectations I encouraged or even promised to meet—then clearly I have cause for regret. I let them down, having failed to honor my promises and commitments (or perhaps even make an adequate effort towards doing so). I have had excuses in particular cases, of course, but I feel bad in general for disappointing people, as we all do—andI feel I’ve done it quite a bit of late.
But my resolution for the upcoming year is not primarily about disappointing other people less—it’s about disappointing myself less.
Many of us feel that we’ve disappointed ourselves, and it’s a horrible feeling, a distinct kind of shame from which no one else can relieve us. But it’s not always deserved, such as in the case of unreasonable expectations. After all, it’s not just other people who expect too much from us and are disappointed as a result. We do that to ourselves as well, some of us all too often, and as a result we set ourselves up for inevitable disappointment.
Why do we do this? Why do we expect so much of ourselves, often much more than we expect of others? Ironically, I think it reflects a certain optimism, the belief that we can always do more or do better. We can’t know our limits until we push them, so we aim to do more and more to push those limits as far as possible. But when we aim too high and we fail, we rarely acknowledge that our goal was unreasonable. Instead, we think we didn’t try hard enough, that it was by some lapse of resolve that we fell short of our goal. If we don’t think this, we are forced to admit the goal was unreasonable in the first place, and that would mean acknowledging our limitations and marking off an area of achievement that is foreclosed to us.
This is not like admitting that I won’t be an NBA All-Star or Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; those are qualitatively unreasonable goals for most anybody. Our own unreasonable goals seem all too reasonable, and the challenge is usually one of amount or degree: we aim to do too much of something that, generally, we know that we can do. (For me, it’s writing.) We think, “I can do this, so I should be able to do a little more of it, or an extra task on the side.” There is a limit, however, and we all know this, but we don’t want to acknowledge it, especially when there’s no way to know precisely where the limit is. We want to think that if we only try a harder, we can do a little more or a little better—and we can, but only to a point.
This is particularly difficult for me because I have no specific goals other than to do as much as I can. I take on interesting new projects, trusting that I’ll be able to make time for them and that I’ll have the energy and drive to complete them, and I look forward to the feeling of accomplishment when I’m done. (And yes, I know this reflects an unhealthy focus on achievement; I’ll get to that in a minute.) In a sense this is a trivial goal—however much I do is as much as I could have done—but only if I have worked as hard as I could. And I can never know that, because I always feel I could have done more. And if I ever did feel that I did as much as I possibly could, that would signify the upper limit on my personal capacity for achievement—and that’s a limit I don’t want to acknowledge.
But the truth is, I don’t do as much as I can. I waste an incredible amount of time. I often have trouble maintaining attention on what I’m doing. I can think of several explanations for this, one of which is the inadequacy of having a goal of simply doing a lot of things. The accomplishment may feel good at the end of the year, but the process itself needs to be fulfilling, and as I’ve written before, it simply isn’t. (And, frankly, neither is the accomplishment, lacking any meaning or purpose other than having done something.)
In addition to wasting time, I have also been too willing to let things go, deciding not to write that essay or give that talk after the initial enthusiasm passed. To be fair, this may have been the healthy result of acknowledging my limitations—and sometimes it was, such as when exhaustion or poor health got the better of me. But other times I lost the drive to do what once intrigued me, and I simply gave up.
But this year I’m going to stop giving up. I’m going to stop disappointing myself. I’m going to push myself to live up to my own expectations, while at the same time trying to make sure those expectations aren’t unreasonable. (I don’t think Chief Justice Roberts is planning to step down this year anyway.) Even if I haven’t gotten to the point where I find value in the process or results of work, I can find it in the self-respect I’ll earn by holding myself to plans that I made for myself.
I owe myself that—all of us owe ourselves that.
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