Historically, New Year’s resolutions began as a bargain with forces beyond our control, which seems an apt metaphor for dieting in our calorie-rich society. The Babylonians left behind a record of a new year tradition the involved making promises to the gods to ensure prosperity in the coming year. So will the gods favor you in 2020? If the fruits you’ve sown reap no reward, if your business fails to thrive, is it because you’ve displeased the divine and brought ruin upon yourself? Maybe what goes around comes around, but we also live in a world of inequality and natural disasters. In a sense, New Year’s resolutions are rooted in a narrative of self-blame and accountability for what actually amounts to good—or bad—fortune.
Each turning of the wheel is an opportunity for further growth, but it can feel like an obligation to reinvent yourself instead. New Year’s resolutions reflect this pressure and consequently often take the form of sweeping statements promising dramatic transformation. I’m thinking of the classic weight loss and fitness goals and their accompanying “before” and “after” photos, as if a changed body indicates a transformation of the soul. While getting in shape may make you feel better and live longer, it won’t make you a better listener to your friends, or a more organized boss. This is why the pressure and promise of New Year’s resolutions are so dangerous: we want our resolve alone to be enough to change our lives for the better, change us for the better, and eliminate some of the burden of being a modern human. But once you address your underlying motivation for change, you also have to construct a plan to implement that change, one step at a time.
The Romans continued the tradition of New Year’s promises but moved the date to align with their own civil calendar in 46 B.C.E. Roman NYE included worship of Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and endings, from whose name the month January derives. A beginning suggests hopefulness, while an ending gives permission to leave something behind that has come to a natural conclusion, or no longer serves you. We can arrive at the new year unencumbered, but with stars in our eyes. So let’s not think of resolutions—a hard resolve—so much as ambitions—a hope and a dream. If you “resolve” to achieve an ambition, then you’ll have to set incremental goals to make it happen.
Start with a specific achievement like “get a solo show.” Then brainstorm the steps needed to achieve your goal. It may be difficult to estimate how much time each step will take you, which is why breaking it down into more detail can help put it into context and give you a sense of real time. Then make a timeline of the milestones to achieve over the next month, then the next three months, then six.
For example, if my goal is to get my own solo show, I’m going to think about my current status as an artist.
Do I feel like my body of work is ready? Am I emotionally ready? Is my website even ready? I know gallerists will check it out. Is my CV up to date to submit with a proposal? Maybe I need to produce more pieces to round things out. Maybe I’d like a former teacher or an artist friend to give me some input on my proposal and pitch, which I realize as I’m brainstorming I’m definitely going to have to write. And I know my favorite former professor can take a month to get back to me.
Meanwhile, I’m also thinking about what connections I have.
Where do they work, who are their friends, where have they shown? Come to think of it, which galleries am I even interested in targeting? Who has connections there? Maybe the director of the residency I attended last summer… How do I approach them and ask for help? How do I forge new connections that could help me?
I keep scribbling notes on a to-do list, or making circles on a mind map, then I start putting them into chronological order. I notice each step, like building up my website, has sub-steps. Already, I’m beginning to see that I have months of work ahead before I’m even going to be ready to start cold-calling galleries or getting friends to reach out on my behalf. Perhaps this will take longer than a year, as not all of this is within my control. But I know from my timeline that I have at least six months of tasks planned out and that I can start working towards them today. That is my New Year’s ambition.
The process of brainstorming each step towards achieving my goal, then placing it on a real timeline can be revelatory. And painful. A lot of us give up because our goals seem way too far out of reach or it’s taking too long to get where we’re going. We live in a culture that loves stories of overnight success, especially when it happens to someone who’s under 30. As Lizzo has openly discussed, there is no such thing as overnight success. Patience is a virtue for a reason: it’s really f’ing hard to achieve something. That’s why building a creative career is usually a lifelong pursuit. You’re playing the long game here. So give yourself credit for how far you’ve come and space to get where you’re going. Remember, “Beyoncé wasn’t built in a day.”