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In praise of failed resolutions A reminder of our imperfections can spur us on to greater things

No pain, no gain? Au contraire. Credit: Gabe Souza/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty

No pain, no gain? Au contraire. Credit: Gabe Souza/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty

January 3, 2020   4 mins

Have you broken your New Year’s Resolutions yet? Don’t feel bad. You’re just the first to succumb to the inevitable; ahead of the trend; an innovator. We will all have failed by the middle of February, as the number of empty wine bottles lined up by the recycling bin in that drab month will testify.

Veganuary-style health kicks and detoxes will succumb within days to the allure of that last half-jar of Stilton and the little gift bottle of Port that needs tidying up. The pledge to run every day will slowly convert itself into a general promise to be more active, and eventually the buzzing and the nudges from that fitness tracker you unwrapped on Christmas day get turned off, you lose the charger, and put it away.

Surely every house in the land has borne witness to countless diaries filled in religiously for a few weeks, half-heartedly for a few more (with a couple of days written at once to cover up a missed entry or four). Then one skipped day becomes five, and 50, and the diary quietly slips under the bedside table to be discovered in some burst of pre-Christmas cleaning, when — after the dust inspires a few sneezes — the blank pages inspire a few quiet seconds of bittersweet contemplation about our failure to live up to our aspirations to do better, be better.

Honestly, I don’t know why we choose this time of year to make resolutions. We want to beat our instincts: use our rational brain to conquer whatever habits our emotions have drawn us into. We know that’s going to be hard: we’ll need to stretch every sinew to reinvent ourselves as that ur-version we have in our mind. And we decide to start the job in the cold, dark and wet, when our yearning for comfort and hunkering down is at its strongest. It’s as if we want to fail.

Yes, the allure of a new year is like the fresh beauty of a new notebook. And perhaps the indulgences of Christmas count as “rock bottom” to inspire habits of clean living. But come on: this is a rubbish time of year to be changing yourself.

At least most of us never take it as far as Benjamin Franklin, founding father not just of the United States of America, but of the school of self-improvement. In 1726, at the age of 20, he wrote a list of 13 virtues, from temperance to tranquillity, industry to justice. He tried to practice each virtue in turn to perfection, switching on to the next virtue once a week and putting a red mark in his diary every time he failed. The book, unsurprisingly, filled up with red marks, and while Franklin eventually stopped writing in it, he carried it with him until his death. It was a constant reminder of his imperfections.

Most of us don’t carry around a literal book with which to brutalise our consciences. But whether it’s our failed resolutions, our failed diets, the books we didn’t read, the letters we didn’t write, the mothers we didn’t call, the businesses we didn’t start or the single-use plastics we didn’t shun: I think all but the most narcissistic of us carry some measure of guilt about the better person we could have been; the better use to which we could have put our time. A palpable sense of our own inadequacy seems to be part of the human condition. Why else would advertisers who urge us to enjoy the moment have come up with the slogan: Be More Dog? It seems the only way to truly let ourselves off the hook of self-improvement is to channel a different species.

That is, of course, what the research into mindfulness tells us about the best way to be happy. We have to be more dog. We have to let ourselves indulge in the experience of every moment, instead of letting our anxious minds plague us with thoughts of what comes next. There is something delightfully twisted about making a New Year’s Resolution to be more mindful. In a sense, mindfulness is the opposite of resolution-ing: it teaches us to accept rather than to aspire, to tolerate rather than transform.

But I for one would be sad to see the end of resolutions. Dogs, after all, did not conquer the world, invent the wheel, the semi-conductor and antibiotics — and not just because they don’t have opposable thumbs. We did, because we never settle. Because we’re never quite content, and that’s what keeps us going – keeps us away from chasing sticks and rolling in mud all day just for the glory of it. And I value that bit of doubt, that little dose of self-loathing, the modicum of shame, that drives me to do better, be better, try harder. Our desire to transform ourselves is not just our greatest curse, it is our greatest blessing too.

We need to find a way to balance acceptance and aspiration. Of course, in the Christian faith that’s relatively easy because Jesus comes along, sees our inadequacy, loves us anyway, and does all the forgiveness on our behalf. No wonder it has such appeal for its billion followers.

But those of us who don’t happen to believe that Christ is the salvation of mankind need to work at forgiving ourselves. That’s a resolution that makes as little sense as a resolution to practice mindfulness. But it might be the best one available to us all.

There isn’t much point in making New Year’s Resolutions. But there isn’t much point in many of the things we do. So make some. Fail them in style. And find a way to love yourself just the way you are.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.


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