It is one of the illusions of these times that we can control our world and the people in it—an understandable desire, certainly, because it’s comforting to think we can make everything go our way. For many people, being in control gives them a feeling of security. And truthfully, it is possible to live that way for awhile. But eventually we encounter something beyond our control—an extreme weather event, a dramatic economic downturn, or a serious illness.
At the time, I was thinking of individual money management and being prepared for the unexpected. I certainly had no idea that we would, in my lifetime, experience two of these events at once and collectively—all of us, together, across the world.
I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. It doesn’t mean I don’t accomplish things. But I go about it differently.
The problem with resolutions…
Resolutions are cousins of goals, and both are fraught with similar difficulties. One problem is that goals and resolutions are pass/fail propositions. They come with baggage. You make it or you don’t. If you don’t, you are judged—by yourself and others—as a failure, a bad person, less than.
Another difficulty is the inflexibility of resolutions and goals. Stephen Covey, in First Things First, compared goal-setting to placing a ladder against a wall and resolutely climbing to the top, only to get there and discover you had placed it against the wrong wall and wasted a lot of time and effort getting somewhere you didn’t want to go.
Often the goal was achieved at a cost—the sacrifices that were made to push through and get to where you said you were going. Perhaps there’s an element of character-building when we say we’ll do something and follow through no matter what. But I think we do better when we set up our lives in ways that allow us to respond to changing conditions.
Sticking to old plans isn’t useful in rapidly changing conditions…
I’ve noticed that business researchers are now writing about how important it is for companies to be able to pivot as circumstances change. The same applies to our personal lives. Heaven knows, we are living in times of rapid changes of great magnitude. In the last year there have been numerous occurrences—political, environmental, social—that would have been unthinkable a short time ago.
It’s tempting to act mindlessly…
Goals are easy in that you have rules and parameters along the way, so you can put yourself on autopilot. Psychologist Adam Alter has something to say about that. He’s an Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and the New York Times bestselling author of two books. In a recent interview he said, “When there’s a goal, humans move mindlessly toward it. This is a principle that’s used to advantage in designing slot machines and video games.”
Alter’s view is that goals are a broken process that can’t help but be unfulfilling, as he explains in this brief video.
His alternative is to set a system that emphasizes the process instead of the far-in-the-future result that seems like an anticlimax when you reach it. This approach gives more immediate reward for effort but, like goals, still has the potential to be inflexible and unresponsive to changing conditions.
We are in times where we can no longer afford the luxury of mindless, knee-jerk, habitual behaviours. My alternative to goals is based on intention and following the energy.
Following the energy is a mindful way of engaging with the activities of life, Setting an intention puts things in motion. You follow the energy by tuning in and being alert for subtle messages as you move through your days. The trick is to not overlook those messages or discount them when they present themselves.
Here’s a mundane example that I know many of us have experienced in some variation: You’re in the store picking up groceries and something catches your attention. It’s an ingredient you rarely use and your mind says, ‘What do you want that for?” Since you haven’t plans to make anything using it, you move on. A couple days later, in the midst of a snow storm, you are cooking dinner for an unexpected houseguest. The recipe calls for—you guessed it—the ingredient you left in the store. If only you had paid attention.
I had my first direct experience of the unfolding path when I went to England for the first time many years ago. I knew I wanted to travel from Schumacher College in Devon to Stonehenge, and had a time frame but no specific itinerary arranged in advance. By paying attention to prompts and information that appeared along the way, I had some surprisingly profound experiences.
This was a revelation to me because until then I had been someone who liked to have every detail nailed down. In the years since then, I’ve come to appreciate that living by intention and following the energy makes for a much more interesting life.
The first step is to cultivate your ability to pay attention to the promptings, your intuition, or however it is they present themselves. Make it your intention to open up to them, and you might be surprised what happens!
There have been parts of the last 15 years that were neither easy nor fun. People sometimes ask what kept me going. That is something I have wondered myself. I’ve distilled it down to innate optimism, a strong connection with my inner knowing, and an intense sense of purpose. I was born with all of them, and have consciously cultivated them over the years.
This new year I was surprised to find myself more aware of it than usual. When I heard that 2017 is the beginning of a multi-year cycle, my heightened interest made sense. Each new year is a time for new beginnings, but the first year of a new cycle sets the tone for the next decade or so. Worth paying attention to, I’m thinking!
Another view of the significance of this time of year has to do with nature’s seasonal cycles. We have just passed the winter solstice, the time when we have the least amount of daylight and the days are cold in my part of the world. In terms of nature and growth, the harvest is completed and there’s a tendency toward rest and hibernation.
Serendipity is often misunderstood as being a condition in which “things just happen”—good luck that occurs without any effort on our part. This mindset comes from wanting to experience the rewards of life without participating in the process.
Viewed from another mindset, serendipity is a combination of intention, action, and surprise. This viewpoint allows for the surprise of finding something good without looking for it AND requires us to put ourselves into the equation through intention and action.