This early in the new year, print and digital media can’t say enough about resolutions. On ABC News, it’s the science behind achieving them, while Time.com warns us of the pitfalls that destroy them.
Some outlets, interested in the more complex reasons that cause more than 90 percent of New Year’s resolutions to fail, examine types of goals more likely to succeed than others (see Quartz.com’s December interview of Harvard Education Professor Lisa Lahey, who explains technical versus adaptive goals. It’s worth a read).
But with 20-something adolescent and adult holiday seasons under my belt, I find talk of resolutions year after year tiresome, if not meaningless. If so few of us attain our ill-fated goals, why the renewed expectation and hope each year? And while I can empathize more with Dr. Lahey’s exploration of deep-seated assumptions that doom our goals to failure—and getting to their root if we’re to effect true change—this year I’m more interested in the failures themselves because it’s difficulty and error, not trying harder to be good, that can turn us into better versions of ourselves. As a young woman who believed I did most things pretty well until I became a small fish in the bigger ponds of college and graduate school, I shunned failure most of my early adult life.
Now, in my 30s, I believe failure is where it’s at.
Part of this belated understanding stems from becoming a parent. Nothing puts you in the position of getting it wrong—and having to backtrack, apologize and try again—like being a mom (or dad). And while it’s an unknown for another decade or two how our children will turn out, I’m a different person now than I was eight years ago, when we had our first son. Mistakes have made me confront weaknesses I hadn’t known existed, let alone needed to be dealt with.
What’s more, my mess-ups have given me empathy for other people’s failures.
All too often, I’ve held grudges against friends or acquaintances for some perceived or actual offense. There are problems with doing that, though; not only does it play out awkwardly later on, but I usually find I’ve committed the same transgression I’ve been unwilling to forgive in others. Do that often enough and conviction sets in. It becomes much easier to let go of other people’s missteps.
Getting it wrong also helps me focus on reasonable goals that I can attain. Exercise more? Be kinder to others? Been there, tried all that and failed. But thanks to plenty of practice learning what doesn’t work, I’m developing small strategies that do. Just chasing kids adds up to 4,000 or so steps a day, and that’s something. Getting up 30 minutes before my children do to read and pray helps me to be kinder during the high-stress motions of preparing for school. These are little things, not even resolutions, really. But unless I’d tried—and made a mess of—changing everything I don’t like about myself or my life in one fell swoop, I may not have stumbled across them at all.
So maybe there is a worthwhile return in making resolutions, even if it’s just in the failing of them. In our everyday lives, though, failure is less about resolutions and more about taking risks. When we chance more, we lose more, which can be one of the best things that can happen to us. Risks I wouldn’t have dared to take as a teen—for fear I would demonstrate incompetency or weakness—have helped me, in my 30s, to love people more deeply, to forgive more freely and to try things that don’t come naturally or easily to me. Even when I’ve done it all less than perfectly.
There’s still plenty I’m not willing to do. There’s even more that I get wrong. But failure isn’t nearly as frightening as it used to be. In fact, I’m looking forward to it shaping the person I’m becoming.