Reality Check Your Resolution

Whether or not you are a resolution-maker, the New Year invites you to take stock of the distance traveled over the last twelve months and set goals for the coming year. This year, many of us look back on 2010 and see a lot of hardships – whether loss of job, financial stress, health problems, or loss of loved ones. Most of these have hit pretty close to home for me over the last twelve months. And I, for one, am hoping for a better 2011. But while I am hopeful and positive, I am also aware of the many hurdles to overcome, both personally and globally.

Cultivating a perspective that is at once hopeful and also fully recognizes the challenges ahead is a delicate balance, but one that I believe is the key to success and to a rich and authentic, un-deluded life.

In his recent book, Half Empty, David Rakoff (known to fans of This American Life for his terrific and witty radio essays and stories) argues that a dose of old-fashioned pessimism is healthy, and would serve us better than the Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side mindless optimism of popular culture.

He’s got a point. Don’t get me wrong – I still fundamentally believe that positive sentiment and positive intention lead to greater happiness and success, provided that they are accompanied by the recognition of the obstacles that will arise and that willingness and ability to do the work and overcome them.

A great illustration of this balancing act is described as the “Stockdale Paradox” in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. Named after Admiral James Stockdale, who spent eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, the Stockdale Paradox refers to Stockdale’s unshakeable belief that he would prevail in the end while at the same time confronting the brutal realities of his situation. According to Stockdale, it was the optimist who fared the worst in prison, deluding themselves that release was just around the corner. “They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.” Stockdale, on the other hand, recognized the gravity of the situation and devised tactics to get through – a tapping code for the prisoners, methods for withstanding torture, ways of conveying intelligence in his letters to his wife. He kept the faith, but he didn’t ignore the facts.

So how does this apply to New Year’s Resolutions? Thusly: the most successful resolutions will be made in the belief that one can and will achieve them and in the recognition of how hard they will be. So reality check your resolution. Pave the road with your good intentions, and anticipate the potholes that you will encounter and how you will deal with them. Rakoff might suggest that you channel your inner Jewish mother – even though it is sunny now, rain may be just around the corner, so you might want to pack your umbrella.

Reality can be hard, brutal, even. But it is also rich and ever-changing. And we humans are blessed with the ability to hope for the best, plan for the worst, adapt, and overcome. In this spirit, I wish you a good 2011.