Good resolutions fail (but we should make them anyway)

Illustration by Michele Bruttomesso

It happens to everyone: new school term, new job, or maybe the end of a tormented love story (that exhausted you, your partner and those unfortunate friends of yours that were indirect victims of all your fights and therefore would take an elegant and discreet sledgehammer to the gums over your infatuations any day).

You, victim of euphoria or desperation, utter the proverbial last famous words.

‘This time it will be different’.

No it won’t, you idiot!

Coherence and attitude towards failure

Failure is surely an unpleasant business: staying home, replaying all the causes of defeat inside your head is about as useful as the genius comeback you think of while you ascend the steps to your doorstep. In that moment it has no uses.

Of course, if you should ever find yourself in a similar conversation that comeback will be there, charged and ready to reap victims (of course a similar conversation will never happen again, at least as long as you remember the comeback).

Despite everything in the course of the years man has learned that fire burns, that sabretooth tigers are not cuddly, that there is no parking to be found on a saturday night in Milan city centre. So why shouldn’t you be able to build solid foundations for future success?

I often undertake journeys by car (but a tram or a train are valid for the sake of this example) and nothing is more free-thought inducing than an empty freeway (or an empty carriage). Maybe a hot shower is the only other situation that has the power to bend your concentration towards prolonged reasoning.

These moments of free reasoning goes really well (or really badly, depending on the point of view) with one of the previously mentioned situations: I failed the test, they left me, I lost my job. Accomplice is the iPod that, casually, starts belting epic motivational music and a sort of cosmic energy starts flowing, so that in two minutes I already know how to get an A, seduce someone and become the CEO of the next big international company with complimentary re-tweet from the president of the USA, acknowledging me as an exemplary model of success.

Then I park the car, walk into my home and go to sleep at 3 a.m. because I watched a documentary on Pug’s eating habits.

So what’s the point of this tragic real life story? Simply that, to make good resolutions, to have a good plan and loads of effort isn’t enough, because reality has a very different plan from the one in your head, knows were to hit you and is a big fan of Negan from The Walking Dead.

Concentration, after a while, drifts, passion cools and you are back where you started. Someone a bit more savvy than me could say ‘Ha, but i will find a way to keep my objective in mind, always. I will show reality!’.

I hope you, my dear ambitious friend, are prepared to tattoo the words “I AVERAGED C” on your forehead. most people are not that coherent (unfortunately) and therefore need to find different solutions. I therefore present to you the first mistake of the nooby “own life revolutionary”: the list.

I don’t write lists because: 
1. I hate them 
2. They are stupid 
3. I don’t need them

We like lists.

In the era of ‘post-truth’ and time that speeds up at 30X, a succinct list with clear pointers has a strong appeal.

It gets right to the point and gives us a path to victory bedecked in festivity.

Unfortunately when one starts writing down their list (let’s say a new year’s resolution one for example) they usually take a look in the mirror and realise that maybe their problem is not just the slight belly or boring job.

There are many, in varied and magnificent combinations: the unfortunate throws everything at the list and instead of a neat three-point plan to raise their grade average they find themselves with the hipster version of Sun-Tzu’s The Art Of War (which by the way is a great book, it helped me a ton when I created my list of failed resolutions for 2015).

The problem is that, as the empty carriageway story has brilliantly taught us, the tenacity necessary to carry on such a life project is very, very, very hard to maintain. To see one point of the list go under, or all of them go under, can happen in an instant.

After all, as Marcel Proust said, “It is always during a passing state of mind that we make lasting resolutions”. That guy knew what’s up, he didn’t even have Pinterest and he already knew all this torment was worth nothing. Good man, Marcel.

To be ambitious is essential, therefore, but being realistic is equally as important: it’s useless to decide you want to compete in the fencing olympics if you ‘ve got no hands…. No wait, wrong example.

Sure, maybe Vio’s case is to be related to her great sense of comeback: many of us have way weaker motivations and weak motivations bring easy failures, if the objective is too high up.

So what now?

Failing for the sake of it

Failing is useful. Failure shows you what it feels like when you don’t know how to tackle a situation, as well as showing you what you need to do to not find yourself in the same place. In exchange for this information though, failure takes away your excuses to justify failing again.

“fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”, said someone that fooled themselves at least three times, for sure.

To have the materials and methods necessary for success also brings a hefty dose of responsibility: If you fail because the objective is too high, that could be ok. If you fail out of laziness or because you repeated the same mistakes, well, no list can help you.

Often, the solution is within your grasp. Like taking small steps.

Ricky Gervais once commented on a woman that, while maintaining a diet of about 10 pies and chips a day and a weight of over 350 lbs, decided to get a gastric bypass, with the following words:

“Nine pies and chips a day? That’s a start isn’t it?”.

Unfortunately it’s like that: small steps towards an objective that not today, not tomorrow but someday will be within our grasp. Or maybe a gastric bypass, sure, but the risks are many.

Motivation is important, and keeping your feet on the ground helps with keeping it close: not to mention that trying to solve, even cautiously, a problem, is better than throwing yourself in it with the certainty of failing, or worse doing nothing.

For this reason, even the useless resolution list has it’s purpose: It is useful for individuating problems, situations that need some critiquing and can help as a starting point for possible solutions.

A bullet point checked off on the list, after all, has very strong motivational power (and motivation fueled by rationale, as I said, is key).

So, to conclude this useless essay: This January write down your list for 2017. Maybe only for January 2017. Don’t fill it with idealist bullshit, don’t dream of cleaning up penguins from oil spills using a toothbrush (I mean sure, but then don’t also write down “spend more time with granny” or you’re back where you started).

Start specific and branch out into the universal: work on yourself, try, fail and re-calibrate.

And if it should not work, never mind, put it on the list for 2018.

[The original version of this essay was written in Italian by Luigi Oppedisano. The translation has been curated by Brian Grieco]