May our years be more colorful.

Pick a Theme

Between Resolutions and a Life Purpose, there are Themes.

There are people who set New Year Resolutions — write a book, lose 10 pounds, run a marathon or call family once per week. Many set clear goals, get motivated, achieve them. Even if not all are accomplished, they learn to accept that the more goals set, the more goals there are to be succeeded and failed. They gradually become known as “successful”.

Then there are people who seem to have found their Life Purpose, who devote their lives making positive impacts for the world. Everything about them exudes a sense of mission — their names are synonymous with the causes they stand for. They the “heroes” whose lives are celebrated posthumously.

And there are people like me who are in-betweens. We have a few resolutions which we try to achieve but believe that there is more to life than just goals. We feel passionate sometimes for noble causes but ask ourselves “Is this what all my life is really about?” We are somewhat a blend of the nonprofit — “It’s all about the mission” and the for profit — “What gets measured gets improved”. We are perpetually beta versions, and we need a different way to manage ourselves.

Why not try something different for the new year: a theme? It is less concrete yet still clear enough as an organizing principle. It inspires action, yet itself is less action-oriented. When in doubt or being indecisive, we can go back to the theme — How do I want this year to look like?

I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of this practice for a few reasons:

  • A theme encourages reflection. Because it is shorter and much more open-ended than a list of resolutions, we can reflect on the deeper question of why and how we are the way we are in addition to the concrete of what we should be. An end of year resolution review does not adequately address the deeper and more messy dimensions of a human being. For that, we need reflection, and having a theme can facilitate such process. Some of the best conversations I had with friends are about musings and discoveries with our themes. As the year goes on, the theme unravels itself in unexpected ways. A theme helps us stay in balance between action and reflection, between making things happen in the world and inquiring within oneself, which a productivity-centered culture tends to overlook. In addition to To-Do list, why don’t we also have a To-Muse list and even a To-Feel list? Wouldn’t our lives be much richer that way?
  • A theme is flexible. It gives us room to wiggle, explore and welcome life in its glorious serendipity. As human, we craves for a sense of certainty and control, which a resolution does well. It reflects the belief that our life is a closed system, that we can compartmentalize it into “health”, “relationships”, “work” etc… I’ve come to believe that these domains of our life are much more interwoven. A bad day at work makes us unkind to our spouses at home. A generous act of a stranger helps us make a tough decision. A sudden passing away of a loved one reminds us on what truly matters. Life is so wonderfully interconnected; do we want to simplify its entirety into check-boxes? Remember, “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” — said sociologist William Bruce Cameron.
  • A theme engages creativity. One beauty of theme is that it doesn’t have to “make complete sense”. Think of the theme of your house, laptop or smartphone. Why do you pick certain theme? Because it looks good to you — that’s it. Personally, having a theme helps resolve the tension between the practicality and the idealism, the functionality and the aesthetics within me. While I always try to make more sense of life, I’ve come to accept that many things are yet to be understood and may never be. Such creative tensions are not to be eliminated but rather managed: How might we balance the desire to find answers with the need to live the questions so that the creative force of life can unfold through us?
  • Themes create a sense of continuity over time: It’s easier to look back over the years with one theme per year than five resolutions. A new theme comes from the reflection on the theme the year before — in that sense, life is never lost but only evolved. Each of us has to learn that balance between continuity and change, a never ending process of self-establishing and self-renewal. I used to see theme as add-on: it’s nice to have but not the most important. Now I see it is a different kind of thing and therefore incomparable. Unlike goals, a theme cannot be “achieved”, yet it adds another dimension and makes life as a whole a lot richer. It also helps avoids the myth of that one single, all-consuming Life Calling which plenty of self-help books rave about. Look for purposes, not a purpose. Instead of “Follow Your Passion”, maybe it is “Sensing A Direction”?

Lastly, how do you pick a theme?

It often takes some times to reflect on the last year, and as you think about the year ahead, a few choices will pop up. Maybe a word or phrase that you want to interpret, a direction, an image or a question. Deliberate, but don’t overthink. (Personally when I’m stressed out because of the inner voice “I’m not sure if it is the right theme”, I know I’ve entered that analysis-paralysis realm). Pick one, and spend time to muse about what it means for you. Write it down. Share with friends. Ask them what their themes are, and check in with each other regularly. It is a joy to see the themes of our lives unfold.

Thank you for reading. If you like it, please help me press the 💚button so that others can see. If you really like it, please share your theme with me in the responses.

May our years be more colorful ;)