I read an article in The Times the other day that struck a nerve. It was Justice Malala’s last column of 2016, and carried a picture of a dog lying flat-out on a wooden deck, looking exhausted. The theme of the column was that 2016 had been a tough year, and that he (and we) were all tired of it and all it had brought us. He went on to outline in some detail the things, people, and events that had made him really, really tired.
I empathised, because I’m tired too. And the people I work with, our service providers, and our clients, are all tired and looking forward to a break, and to a fresh beginning. And that’s the critical part of it all: a fresh beginning.
What is it about the New Year that awakens hope; that allows us to believe we can wipe out all the disappointments of the previous year, and begin again? After all, it’s just tomorrow, one tick of the clock from yesterday and the year before.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth, caught in the tension of a moment in time, despairs at a life where yesterday and its decisions condemn him, and tomorrow offers no hope.
For most of us, though, tomorrow and its promises can’t come quickly enough. We want it all to be better in the morning. We end days of chasing our dreams, tired, and we head for bed, leaving our troubles to the new day and the next deposit of 86 400 seconds that comes with every new dawn. We battle through workweeks that stretch us, and subscribe to TGIF and the relief that the weekend brings. We are conditioned to see month-ends as staging posts in our mad dash – our pony-express-like journey – towards whatever we are chasing. We pause for a moment, take on board provisions, and then it all starts again.
And so to the lure of the New Year… We write 2017 instead of 2016, and it makes all the difference. We wind forward the calendar to January, and a new, unmarked year stretches ahead. We lose the continuity of our time in the belief that this transition offers us redemption and a new beginning.
I once asked a group of delegates on a leadership programme the difference between a Goal and a New Year’s resolution. “You’re drunk when you make the resolution”, came a lightning fast response. That may or may not be true, but of course I was hoping for more; perhaps some commitment to action…
Perhaps unsurprisingly, by far the two most common New Year’s resolutions every year are: ‘to lose weight’, and ‘to stop smoking’. The fact that they remain the most common suggests that they are more often well-intentioned wishes than serious goals.
May I encourage us, as the light of 2016 flickers its last, to look purposefully towards the bright dawn that we will call 2017. I have been as guilty as most – in my tiredness – of vaguely wishing the New Year to be different. But without tough decisions, committed resources, and criteria to measure progress, there is little chance of making it so. In this New Year, then, let us:
I wish you peace, and joy, and love as we brace ourselves to jump the great divide between what has been and what will come. I wish you a 2017 that will be everything you dare to dream about. And I hope that you play a conscious and significant role in making it so.
The focus you gain by knowing who you are, what you believe, and where you are going, will help in finding that ‘one thing’. Choosing on those terms will both energise you and free you from the anxiety caused by the frantic pursuit of everything.
Yes but, you say, how do I make it happen? Bill Hybels suggests that a runaway calendar will keep you from the focus we all seek because “it holds you hostage to tangible things” – meetings, appointments and projects – without giving proper priority to the intangibles: who you are becoming” and the key relationships in your life. If you don’t consciously intervene – start using your diary differently – this pattern will ensure that the things that are most important to you in terms of your personal values and vision for your life will always come second to the urgent priorities of others.
What are those things that will determine who you want to become? What do you need to enter into your calendar first? If they are in first, and everything else is slotted in around those things, then you have taken the first steps to becoming the kind of person you want to be.
My mother told me once that, when I was a little boy, she instructed me not to touch the wood-burning stove because it was hot and would burn me. It seems, though, that the concepts of “don’t touch”, and “hot”, and “burn” remained abstract and disconnected until I brought them together in a searing moment of learning and truth – I touched the red-hot stove.
That was my first conscious encounter with a principle Einstein expressed as: “The only source of knowledge is experience.”
It seems that I learned all the required lessons that day: I gained first-hand experience of “burn”. I never did repeat the experiment with the hot stove. And I was able to generalise this particular experience: I didn’t have to touch other hot things to know what the result would be.
More importantly perhaps, I learned to trust a source of information and direction that had my best interests at heart. I can’t remember the actual words, but I would be unsurprised to find that “don’t you remember I told you the stove was hot and would burn you” was mixed in with the salve and comfort. And I had a lot of time to reflect on those words, reinforced by frequent sharp reminders from outraged nerves (isn’t it astonishing how often we unthinkingly strike our fingers against things in the course of everyday activity).
The trusted source became part of my experience too, and this saved me from other potentially dangerous lessons. I didn’t have to learn about the shocking impact of electricity by putting my fingers into plug sockets; or cross roads without looking to know that cars might knock me down. You get the idea.
It seems that, unwittingly, I validated David Kolb’s model of experiential learning.
So is that what Einstein means? And if it is, why do we so often fail to learn from our experiences?
After all, life presents us with a host of potential learning situations every day. We are late for appointments; we get stuck in traffic; we miss deadlines; we communicate poorly with colleagues; we arrive home late for dinner; we miss soccer matches or ballet performances; we write clumsy reports; we deliver dull presentations; we have moments of misunderstanding with important people in our lives… and many of us do it over and over again.
Typically we brush these off as aberrations, but in each there is a ‘learning moment’, an opportunity to reflect, to decide, to change. It is what makes progress possible. It is the way that we avoid repeating our failures, and instead give ourselves the chance to move forward, to make new mistakes, to learn and change and grow again.
The key word, I think, is ‘reflect’. Put simply, we don’t; or not very often anyway.
Two CEOs of an organisation in the USA (true story) were discussing a rather expensive mistake by a junior executive, which had caused a $1,5 million loss. “I guess you fired him on the spot,” said the one. “Why would I do that?” asked the other, “I’ve just spent $1,5 million training him.
I want to suggest, though, that unless there was serious reflection, the ‘training money’ is a permanent loss rather than an investment.
Perhaps it has to do with our general busyness. There is no space, no time, no quiet for the work of reflection. And work it is. We are connected relentlessly to others by multiple devices and social media. Even our watches – thanks to Apple and Fitbit – are no longer just for telling the time. If a recent Bloomberg report is to be believed, we routinely work more than 40 hours per week; our responsibilities both at home and work are increasing; and flexitime often means being permanently ‘on call’. In a world of instant gratification and demand-driven responses, where and how do we find time to reflect?
Are we, like the hamster, doomed to run until we drop or the wheel breaks?
The good news is that even the hamster gets off the wheel every now and again. We simply must create time to reflect.
Recognising the importance – believing in the absolute necessity of reflection – is a starting point. Because it remains true that what we regard as of primary importance, we find time to do. Without reflection, we are doomed to repeat the first stage of the learning cycle: we will ‘do’ something again, and again, and again.
That way madness lies...