Happy New Year and best of luck with those resolutions! But don't be hard on yourself if, in a few weeks (or hours), you've broken them. Change is hard, particularly in a world that seems to be changing on us daily. This week, we check in with retired leadership coach and poet Bill McCarthy, who gives us the freedom to rethink our traditional (and typically unsuccessful) goal-setting with something offering more staying power and meaning. Widowed after a 45-year marriage, McCarthy, 73, lives in the Cathedral Hill area of St. Paul with his new wife. Below, the father and grandfather shares how "living into a theme" can help us spend more time connected to our priorities and values.
Q: Let's start with your varied professional life.
A: I retired from my role as a coach/consultant for executives and senior teams five years ago. Two factors influenced that decision. First, I was diagnosed with a seizure disorder that was getting in the way, and second, I wanted to devote more time to writing, which helped me produce a poetry manuscript to be published in 2022. I've found people mostly believe that careers are supposed to follow a logical, straight line. However, when they look at their own career, it's typically a good deal messier. I taught high school for three years, worked in TV news, owned and managed a film and video production company for 16 years, and worked for a competitor for another three years. A career path is more often shaped by who we are than a well-manicured resumé.
Q: Do you make New Year's resolutions?
A: I used to, but not anymore. At least, not in the conventional sense.
Q: Maybe because you so quickly broke them?
A: I'll bet I broke mine at least as quickly as most people. I get bored easily! Sometimes, after a matter of weeks, I'd rationalize throwing in the towel by saying it just wasn't the right commitment for me at this time, or it really wouldn't make that much difference anyway.
Q: Why do we do it every year — a hope-springs-eternal sort of thing?
A: From what I understand, people have been making New Year's resolutions for over 4,000 years, starting in ancient Babylon. It was the way to celebrate the beginning of spring. At that time, resolutions were less about waistlines and getting organized and somewhat more morality focused.
Q: Your concept seems more a fit for the latter. When did you entertain giving up the "drop 10 pounds" or "quit sugar" goals?
A: To be honest, I got tired of falling short. Even if I did drop 10 pounds or give up sugar, it just didn't seem to be all that important as I closed out the year. I wanted to be able to look forward in January with energy and anticipation and in December be able to look back with a feeling that something genuinely transformational had taken place.
Q: What does it mean to focus on a theme instead of something more specific?
A: Stand-alone resolutions can be vulnerable. The survival rate is quite low. A Journal of Clinical Psychology survey indicates that on average, just 8% survive an entire year. What if, instead, we were able to identify a unifying thread — a New Year's theme? When resistance shows up, and it will, and threatens to collapse our resolution, it is much more likely to hold up if supported by specific practices and anchored to something deeper.
Q: Might you give us an example?
A: I titled my first New Year's theme, "My Year of Living Dangerously," stolen from the title of the 1982 Sigourney Weaver, Mel Gibson movie, "The Year of Living Dangerously." I chose to take on some behaviors that were getting in my way. I decided to be more direct with colleagues and clients. I practiced making what felt like outrageous requests even though I believed they might be rejected. I also made "Yes" — not "No" or "Yes, but" — my default response to invitations or requests from others. Another theme was, "Play Big." When faced with an opportunity, or about to take on something new, I'd ask, "How might I make this bigger?" When we select themes consistent with who we are and who we want to be, they become a living part of our identity.
Q: With our lives upturned by COVID, might a good theme be: "Be kind to myself"?
A: What a great theme! How about a monthly therapeutic massage? Also, science has clearly validated the restorative power of the natural world, and in Minnesota and Wisconsin, we are fortunate to have a lot of it. How about a weekly walk in one of our woodland parks or along a river? Or a short reading followed by just 10 minutes of quiet reflection? Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, "Wherever You Go There You Are" or "The Book of Awakening" by Mark Nepo offer some inspiring thoughts in just a couple pages. But remember, when you miss a walk, cancel a massage or whatever, don't beat yourself up. That would not be kind!
Q: One year from now, where do you hope we find ourselves, literally and figuratively?
A: Hope can be a tricky thing. My wife has been inspired by the way activist Ady Barkan speaks of it: "Hope is not a lottery ticket that we cling to; it's a hammer that we use in an emergency to break the glass, send the alarm, and spring into action." With that in mind, I'd say that my own hope is that we Minnesotans will find ourselves living out this new normal in creative ways, focused on a clearer sense of the common good. The pandemic has forced us to slow down, to learn to work remotely. This has decreased our carbon footprint, among so many other unanticipated outcomes from a modern-day plague. Figuratively, I hope we are like the multiple Boundary Waters forests recovering from summer 2021 fires, perhaps damaged, yet healing organically.