My New Years

Anti-Resolution

Why I’m not setting any goals this year

Every New Years, people talk about resolutions. They talk about the weight they will lose, the money they will make, or the wisdom they will gain. To most people, success is defined by the achievement of these goals.

I’m not so sure. And this New Year’s Eve, I tried something different. I deliberately did not set any goals. Instead of thinking about the future, I’ve been thinking about the past. I’m calling it my New Year’s Anti-Resolution.

Western dogma teaches us to think of time as a straight line, with us in the middle. We face the future and our backs face the past. In other words, the arrow of time points forwards, towards the future. The Ancient Greeks, though, flipped this dogma on its head. Instead of facing the future, the Ancient Greeks imagined themselves facing the past, staring down all the memories already woven into the fabric of time. Their backs pointed towards the future, unseen and inexplicable.

The Ancient Greeks flipped the modern conception of time on its head: instead of facing the future, the Ancient Greeks faced the past.

What’s special about this Ancient Greek viewpoint? Well, it provides a different lens for viewing the world. As it turns out, predicting the future is difficult. Some people may be able to predict certain specific properties a couple of weeks in advance, but no one can predict how the world will end up years down the line. It’s comical how many people fail at prediction. But that’s through no fault of their own — the only fault is having the ego to believe that one can see the future.

Western dogma says that you should be constantly trying to shape the future and achieve your goals. This concept, though, relies on the axiom that humans know what they want. Most people would say that this is a reasonable assumption — you know what you like don’t you? The problem, though, comes from predicting what your future self would want, not what your current self wants. Research shows that this is a much harder problem, and one which humans are notoriously bad at [1]. When making goals, people tend to compare the present with the past, instead of comparing it with the possible.

Consider winning the lottery — people usually think they’ll be much happier than they actually will be because they don’t to fill in the details. You automatically think life will be better with more money, but there are many other factors that you never appreciate in the present, like friends and family. Many people yearn for the future, for a better and more glorious life. But when they get to that point in the future, they’re still yearning.

“It’s like having a bone stuck to your head that is just out of reach — you’re constantly walking towards it, but the target is moving.”

We look forward to future events because we think we can affect the future, that we can see it, hold it, and bend it to our will. We believe we can influence our path. But that view makes it hard to realize that what we see right now is just as important. You’re always living in what used to be the future, and if you are always looking forward, you’ll never enjoy or appreciate the now. It’s like having a bone stuck to your head that is just out of reach — you’re constantly walking towards it, but the target is moving.

Worse still, Western culture makes us forget that setting goals is not a creative thing to do. When you set goals, you’re usually confined by what you currently think yourself capable of doing. Let’s look at a couple of New Years Resolutions:

  • “Read more”
  • “Exercise more”
  • “Learn a language”
  • “Make lots of money”
  • “Get a promotion”

Notice that all of these are perfectly predictable resolutions. They’re the All-American choices for improving oneself—none of them are really paradigm shifts. In fact, they’re confining. They put you into a box, tell you what to do, and tell you how to define yourself. They remove your identity and replace it with our society’s garbled conception of a “happy” person.

Nothing is wrong with thinking about yourself in terms of goals, but there are far more things that will make you happy. Setting a goal to get a promotion will indeed make you work harder—but you’ll also lose touch with all the other things that make you happy and fulfilled. By focusing on goals, you end up missing out on things you could be doing but don’t really know about.

You don’t get a new you, you get a marginally improved you. And in the process, you miss out on a great adventure.

Life is very much like climbing a mountain. Sometimes people spend so much time fighting to get to the top, that they lose sight of the much more beautiful, pristine mountain just behind them. Goal-setters pick a mountain and try to climb to the top. They call it summitting. These goal-setters love reaching the peak, especially when they’re faster than others.

Once they reach the summit, though, these goal-setters look around and realize that they’ve blown past everyone and everything in their haste. They’ve missed the beautiful journey to the summit, and have no one to share their accomplishment with. No one’s around to enjoy the view with them. And at the top, all they can see is the even taller mountain off in the distance. Next thing you know, they’re off again, always in a hurry.

“The sides of the mountain sustain life, not the top.”

Others climb with a different idea — to live each minute as fruitfully as possible. These hikers stop and take in the scenery. They go off the path. They discover new things. They indulge their senses. They find solidarity with their friends. Most of these hikers find the little-known fact that the most beautiful views are not on top of the mountain, but rather on the sides, where life thrives. Once you get to the rarefied air of the summit, life starts to die out and the view becomes lonelier. The sides of the mountain sustain life, not the top.

So what about success? What about achieving things? What about generating value for the world? I’m not saying to stop striving to be your best, I’m saying that success should not come predefined. You should learn to grow and find your own definition of success. Goals do the opposite of that — they are limiting at heart and provide you with a ready-made template for who you should be. Usually, this template comes directly from society’s conception of importance. Moreover, this template is confined to your present-day view of the future.

Most interesting things haven’t happened yet, so how can you plan for them? No one wanted to be a mobile app developer ten years ago, because that job simply didn’t exist yet. Not having goals does not mean you lack ambition — it just means that you focus on the most interesting things. Instead of working backwards from a goal, I try to work forwards from interesting experiences. As it happens, following the interesting path usually leads to good things. One might argue that the most meaningful contributions to the world come not from predefined goals, but rather as happy accidents [2].

Many people spend their New Years resolutions attempting to achieve nominal goals, like getting rich or losing weight. The real goal — putting in good minutes — that’s what I’m after. I’m doing things that I’m passionate about, and I’ll at least be happy about where am I, even if I don’t know where I’m going.

References

  1. There is quite a body of work about “presentism,” or the tendency to place the present self in place of the future self. See for instance, Nisbett and Kanouse’s paper “Obesity, Food Deprivation and Supermarket Shopping Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 12: 289–94 (1969) or Read and Leeuwen’s paper: “Predicting Hunger: The Effects of Appetite and Delay on Choice,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 76: 189–205 (1998).
  2. See Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (2011), which includes an entire chapter on the role of serendipity in the history of science. See also Thomas Kuhn’s famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Serendipitous discoveries tend to be important because of their unconventionality—a trait paradigm shifts need by definition.