Be Better

I’ve used this analogy before, but some days, I feel like the hapless steel ball in a pinball machine – shot from the chute only to bounce around from bumper to flap for a while until I plop down the drain. I eschew the idea of predetermination or any other preconceived plan because I believe we control our own destiny, yet when all of the moving parts of our lives come together, it can feel rather chaotic like the Shibuya subway station in Tokyo.

But like Shibuya, the beauty of life lies in its chaos, the interconnectedness that draws us apart and together at the same time. If you focus too much on the messiness of the crowd and not on the feat of engineering that moves the trains in and out of the station in an orchestrated manner, you’ll freeze up and never get where you’re going. Likewise, if you focus on being hurtled from bumper to flap and back again, you’ll get nowhere. Staying focused on the things that matter despite the inherent noise is the only way to move forward.

In my almost five decades on this planet, I’ve tried multiple approaches to rein myself in and stay focused on those most important things. I’ve succeeded some, and I’ve failed a lot. I’m convinced that if your failures don’t outnumber your successes, you aren’t trying hard enough. You’re too risk adverse. Failures are painful, like burning your hand on a hot pan, but I’ll be damned if you don’t learn so much from them. Some lessons are obvious (e.g., this pan gets hot!), while others are far more subtle. Early in my life, I’d get so twisted around the axle of my failures that I’d literally shut down. Now, I’m much more sanguine about them. They still hurt, but I focus on what I’ve learned and move on.

In all of this chaos, it’s hard to boil things down to a simple mantra, but we need simple. It’s like a pinprick of light in a inky black room that preoccupies our attention. Mine is trite, pedestrian – “Be better”. Be a better husband, father, brother, son, coworker, runner, writer, human being, etc. This is not a competition with you or anyone else. It’s a competition with myself if you want to frame it in those terms. I aim to be better than I was yesterday and the day before that.

Of course, there will be setbacks. Of course, I will fail sometimes, but I will come back stronger, and I will, in fact, be better. Eventually. It keeps me moving forward.

The Year Ahead

It’s important to have things to look forward to. Otherwise, the mundane routine of life will drag you down. It’s also important to have goals lest you be reduced to some really random walk through the year. Our time on this spinning blue marble is short, and I don’t want to waste a minute of it. I like to use the end of the year to refresh, revisit, and reinvigorate myself. The downtime helps reset my mind and body and gets me focused on my key priorities for the year ahead.

Early on in my adult life, I treated the year-end introspection like a kid in a candy store, setting a whole list of goals that became more improbable as the list grew in length. Luckily, I grew wiser in spite of myself and realized that focus is the key to actually achieving those goals, and for the past couple of decades I’ve limited myself to just a few key goals that I focus on each year. Some are similar each year (incremental improvement!). Others hail from left field (I want to do an Ironman!).

Some folks poo-pah the annual resolution setting, primarily because most resolutions fall by the wayside come February, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I have a framework I use to manage and limit my goals. I also have a plan for achieving them, and most importantly, I measure my progress throughout the year. At the end of the year, I determine if I achieved them or not, and if not, I understand why. As a result, many of my resolutions actually stick. Case in point: At the beginning of 1992, I set a goal to become a runner (as in running on a regular basis), and I’m still running 28 years later.

There’s nothing earth-shattering about my goals for 2020. Really, my goals are rarely that elevated. I try to focus on things I can control within a relativity short time frame because success is more about incremental improvements than it is about once-in-a-lifetime achievements or pie-in-the-sky dreams. My primary goal this year is to improve my writing. To do that I plan to write a lot (practice makes perfect), and I plan to take a couple of college courses on creative writing. See what I did there? Not only do I have a goal, but I have a plan to achieve it. I’ve already picked out the courses I will take in the spring and fall this year, and I’ll be signing up for the spring courses soon to keep myself on track.

Another big goal for me this year is to finish the 50 states marathon challenge I started nine years ago. The challenge started with the goal I set at the end of 2010 and will have been ten years in the making when I wrap it up in New Hampshire in November of this year. This assumes all goes as planned. There’s always the risk that health and myriad other factors conspire to throw me off my game, but for now, I’m on track to cross that finish line in Manchester, New Hampshire some time before Noon on November 8th. Wish me luck.

As for the rest of my goals, luck has little to do with it. Focus and hard work will get me there. A good challenge gets me energized and gives me a good reason to look forward to the year ahead. Now, spin little blue marble. Spin!