Monthly Archives: December 2009

10 Tips for Making New Year’s Resolutions You Might Actually Keep

If the smell of a new calendar inspires you to make drastic changes in your life, you’re probably gearing up to make some new year’s resolutions.  And since no one plans to fail, you’re probably also seeking out those elusive goals that fall in the narrow crack between “beneficial” and “achievable”.

Then reality sets in, and you find yourself a year older, barely the wiser, and clutching a tattered list of unaccomplished dreams that seemed so realistic just a few months ago.  (I should know; of the 21 goals I set for myself last January, I achieved a whopping nine, and half of those had to be amended midway through.)

But fear not.  As a grizzled veteran of failed new year’s resolutions, I’ve finally understood how to strategize for a year of galvanizing personal rebirth.  This year, whether you want to eat healthier, quit smoking, get laid or simply build a fountain by hand from recycled LEGO blocks, I’ve got you covered with the following ten tips.

1.  Understand How Your Own Mind Works

It’s the end of the year, and you just survived two months of office parties, family reunions, copious overeating and endless travel.  You’re feeling contemplative, introspective, nostalgic.  And if you’re lucky, you’ve had at least a week’s vacation between Christmas and New Year’s to evaluate your life and ask yourself where it’s heading.

Which is why you’re now preparing to commit yourself to a year’s worth of Herculean tasks that would make Greek poets weep with inspiration.  Do yourself a favor: dial it down.  Because two weeks from now, when you’re knee-deep in unreasonable deadlines to make up for that holiday break, you’ll think that only hitting the snooze button twice is a sonnet-worthy accomplishment.

2.  Understand How Your Own Motivations Work

Everyone has an idealized self-image that they aspire to.  Everybody envisions themselves as being healthy, organized, romantic and self-confident, and they believe their own personal nirvana of self-actualization is merely a matter of two or three “small changes that make a big difference,” or some other piece of self-help claptrap.

Don’t set your goals on behalf of others.  Don’t overestimate your own resilience.  And don’t do what you think you should be doing if it isn’t what you also want to be doing.  Nobody quits smoking unless they want to quit smoking, no matter how pressured they feel.

3.  Budget for Sanity

So much of what we want to change about our lives requires money, or at least the resources that money can buy.  But unless one of your goals is “Become a millionaire by June,” you’re going to make about as much money, give or take, as you did last year.  And unless you have a spare thousand dollars loitering in your bank account right now, you probably don’t earn the kind of cash that lends itself to whimsical expenditures intended to supercharge your self-esteem.

Look back over your major expenses of the past year.  Couple that with the amount of expendable cash in your possession right now.  That’s how much money you can realistically allocate for next year’s resolutions.  If you want to update your wardrobe, take a class or go on vacation, you can probably swing it.  If you want to do all of those AND donate four figures to charity, you’re asking for seasonal depression to set in come next December.  Be realistic and you’ll feel better about what you did accomplish, rather than what you failed to afford.

4.  Start Small, Finish Big

Want to read 12 books this year?  Or see 20 classic films?  Or write a novel?  Those are the kinds of goals that require accomplishment in increments — and that takes time.  So make use of these long winter nights to get a jump on some of your easier resolutions.  The progress you make now will help ease the guilt when real life (and the natural high of summer) derails your clear-eyed January resolve.

And if you should find yourself behind schedule on any goals as autumn sets in, relax.  November and December are rife with snowy weekends that provide ample opportunities for movie marathons, culinary experiments and an excuse to lock yourself away in the den and finish that goddamn screenplay.

5.  Grow a Pair

If every goal you set is easily accomplished, you’re not pushing yourself.  New year’s resolutions are an opportunity to make significant changes to your life, and the desires that drive these urges are unlikely to be satiated solely by resolutions like “Catch Up On Mad Men.”

But checking off those tiny goals does build your confidence while freeing up your plate so you can allocate more of your energy and willpower toward tackling those one or two massive changes you really can pull off this year.  Exercising five times a week?  Finding a better job?  Volunteering at an animal shelter?  All much easier when you have a storehouse of smaller checkmarks propping you up.

6.  Change with the Seasons

What you want to change about yourself today, when the sun is only shining for five minutes a day, is not what you’ll realize you need to improve at the first flush of spring or the stark chill of autumn.  Allow yourself the freedom to adapt your goals as your self-awareness evolves throughout the year.

As you come to grips with the fact that you can’t possibly accomplish everything you set out to do in January, you’ll decide which of your goals are the ones worth sticking with and which ones you no longer feel compelled to attain — or which ones you might need to circle back around to next year.

7.  Avoid the Small Print

When it comes to reaching numerous goals simultaneously, flexibility is key.  “Watch 20 French Films” is far more attainable than “Netflix a Godard Film Every Thursday Night.”  Don’t lock yourself into specifics when loosely-interpretable definitions will do.

8.  Nothing Tastes Better Than Free

As mentioned above, you’re not made of money.  But your financial status doesn’t need to prevent you from setting goals; it just means you need to be more creative when finding ways to complete them.  If one of your goals is to “Watch 50 Movies,” don’t feel obligated to see them all in theaters.  What would cost you over $500 at the multiplex only costs $50 at the redbox — or nothing if you go to the library.

Likewise, turn an eye toward what you already own.  Want to read more?  Start with all those books on your shelf that you “never quite got to” in college.  Want to learn how to change your own oil, ride a motorcycle or play the guitar?  Ask around.  One of your friends (or Twitter followers) probably knows how, and would be happy to teach you in exchange for a similar exchange of knowledge from you.  Which brings us to…

9.  You Are Not an Island (of Resolutions)

Yes, you want to be a better person.  So does everyone else.  Which means we can all stand to help each other out with our new year’s resolutions — so share yours with the people you think will be supportive (or, if you really want a challenge, with the people you think won’t).

Whether it’s as simple as reminding your dad that he resolved to eat healthier, or as serious as helping your coworker stop drinking, playing your part in other people’s rise toward their own goals will help you keep your own in perspective — and it increases the chances that at least one of you will succeed.

(Bonus points if you actually make resolutions with someone else.  Improving communication with your spouse, taking a morning swim with your roommate or a competitive challenge at work keeps us all connected — and accountable.)

10.  “Hoping for a Miracle” Is Not a Resolution

You are where you are, and you know where you want to be.  But while your eyes are currently fixed on the prize, you’re also ignoring all the steps between here and there.  And since identifying those milestones can be depressing when all you want to do is get “there” now, you may be inclined to set overly optimistic goals for yourself today, only to be waylaid by misery and depression when you find that your reach dramatically exceeds your grasp.

Instead of seeing those stepping stones between “here” and “there” as the unimportant intangibles you want to believe they are right now, see them for what they really are: goals unto themselves.  Sure, you may want to lose 100 pounds, but first you have to lose 50, and first 20.  Baby steps aren’t just for babies; they’re for adults who don’t want to lose their way.

Yes, you can do anything you set out to do (within reason).  And yes, by this time next year, you want to be a better person than you are today.  But don’t expect to run a marathon before you can jog around the block without passing out.

Best wishes, happy holidays, and I’ll see yinz all again next year.

Stephenie Meyer, Twilight and the Very Bleak Future of Culture

Last week, The Baltimore Sun‘s book blogger Dave Rosenthal proclaimed the ’00s “the Stephenie Meyer decade” — a move destined to manufacture heated debates and, naturally, more traffic to the paper’s site.  His post predictably stirred the passions of 15-year-old gi… er, 32-year-old women, who finally found a national cause they could rally behind.  (Sorry, health care.)

And while this stunt could be viewed as a calculated traffic lure for the Sun, I doubt it’ll cause many of the commenters on this post to read the Sun more often.  Given the sheer volume of feedback on Rosenthal’s post, most Twilighters evidently pounce on any mention of Meyer’s name with the nerve-rattling speed of heat-seeking abstinence missiles, which obviously leaves them little time to read anything else.  (Except — judging by the neverending “JK Rowling is better than / worse than Stephenie Meyer” arguments — for Harry Potter.)

But even if the Sun suddenly did see an uptick in readership, it would be bad news for its readers at large, because the level (and subjects) of writing necessary to “hook” this audience for the long haul would drive the Sun to sub-tabloid levels of journalism.

To wit, some actual comments from the post:

JK may sell more but stephene sells to a wider audience of all ages. Stephenie also stayed light dispite being about vampiers. JKs books got darker and darker and not approprite for thier intended audience.

stephenie meyer is a excellient writer she has great books i didnt like reading until i saw her books at first i thought they were boring until i really got in the middle of the books i love you stephenie keep up the good books

im fully on team stephanie. her writing is unbelievable…each book gets more and moe interesting…and they are so relatable. i can sit and actually be in the main characters place whe i read her books. Jk Rowling simply makes up fake words…no wonder people think her books are complex…because they have to spend so much time trying to figure out what the heck she is talking about.

Stephenie Meyer soo deserves this title
all of you’sz shut your Mouth
She is a VERY tealnted author, and ONE of the most biggest sensational, phenomenal hits of ALL time.

Congratulations to Stephenie, she urned the best author of the decade!

I am 32 and LOVE the Twilight Series. Stephanie’s writing is so intuitive of the feelings surrounding true love in both the female and male perspective. Not only that, she is able to show the drama of dealing with that kind of passion at such a young age and showing the beauty of waitiing until the moment is right. My girlfriends, all in their 30’s love it too. My dentist reads it with his wife for four play. She is amazing! Stephen King is stupid.

The books are very well written for THIS era and personally, Twilight got me into reading again. I’ve read all of the books MANY times. Stephanie has a unique style of writing, JUST LIKE EVERY WRITER IN THE WORLD! everyone writes different, every PERSON is different. This day in age, people are so quick to judge and ridicule everyone and I think it’s just plain stupid. My generation is the future of this country right now, maybe people should start listening to us more!!!

And on… and on… and on…

Am I being elitist in my dismissal of the Twilight phenomenon as a wrong turn on the pop culture superhighway?  Yes.

Am I dense enough to believe that a litany of breathless praise from semi-literate web commenters is representative of the entire Twilight fanbase?  Almost.  But since blog commenters the world over tend to be semi-literate, it’s hard to hold this against the Twilighters specifically.

Instead, let me pose some larger questions, like…

  • If Meyer’s books have inspired people to read, why have they not also inspired them to write coherently?
  • If an author succeeds by spoon-feeding her audience exactly what they want, delivered in short, unchallenging, candy-coated morsels, is her success truly so unexpected as to be worth commending?
  • Will Meyer’s youngest readers grow up unable to appreciate more complex literature — or more complicated discourse?
  • Have we reached the point where children AND adults now automatically consider “the best-selling” to be “the best,” period?
  • What’s the appropriate response when Meyer’s teen and young adult fans, whom Meyer has “empowered” through self-identification, and who are living in a world marketed as youthful entitlement, invoke the “we’re the future of the world and people should listen to us” clause?

And, of course: should the newspaper industry, which is desperately fighting to stay afloat, be celebrating the success of an author whose debatable skills (and the questionable effect those skills are having on her audience) demonstrate why newspapers are struggling to find an audience in the first place?

Which raises an even thornier issue: what if Rosenthal was right?  What if this really is “the Stephenie Meyer decade” of literature, with all that implies?

In that case… where do we go from here?

Spoken For: The Insanity of the Filibuster

Let’s say you’re at a wedding, and everything has gone smoothly until the pastor says, rhetorically (as always), “if anyone has any objections, speak now or forever hold your peace.”  And then one guy, sitting in the last pew on the bride’s side, stands up and regales the audience with a lengthy anecdote about how he briefly dated the bride in high school, and proceeds to make a grandiose case for his own unrequited love, talking on and on, at length, interminably, essentially holding the bride, groom, pastor and guests hostage inside the chapel with nothing more than an endless barrage of words — to the extent that the wedding simply cannot reach a conclusion.

Sounds insane, doesn’t it?

So why do we allow that same ludicrous procedure to drive our modern government?

Filibuster Vigilantly

In Congress, the filibuster exists as “a gentleman’s agreement.”  It allows that the Senate may debate an issue indefinitely, preventing that issue from ever actually reaching a vote.  Which, obviously, is a gross mishandling of the governmental process — we elect our representatives to govern, not to debate endlessly and never accomplish anything.  Agree or disagree, voting up or down, that’s how government proceeds.

And yet, as we’ve seen most recently with health care, all it takes is one Senator — in this case, Joe Lieberman, who (ironically) happened to introduce a plan to abolish the filibuster during his first Senate term — to hold a bill hostage, not just from passing but from the possibility of even being voted on.

How afraid of your peers’ judgment must you be to deny them their ability to vote?  Why must all legislation be negotiated in back rooms so as to “build a consensus” necessary to survive a filibuster, rather than being debated in the open — repeatedly, if necessary — until the people responsible for crafting legislation can deliver a bill the majority will publicly support?  In this sense, our modern legislators no longer legislate.  Instead, they simply gameplan around a filibuster, shoring up votes in the back rooms before a bill ever hits the floor.  That’s not a democracy, where everyone has a voice; it’s insanity, where a minority can indefinitely impede not only progress, but even a public vote about the state of that progress.

You wouldn’t let Joe Lieberman stand up in the back of the chapel and derail your wedding, so why do we permit our government to operate this way?

You Can’t Outsource Accountability

Now that Tiger Woods’s penis is costing millions of Americans their jobs, something has to be done about all this reckless celebrity behavior.  If it were just a sex scandal, we might have been able to laugh it off.  But as MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann has noted, Tiger Woods himself is an industry, and when he “takes a break” from golf, he takes the paychecks of everyone from baggage handlers to marketing executives with him.  No Tiger = no public interest in the PGA, and that = even more financial ruin than you can shake a 9-wood at.

So, should companies stop placing their seemingly-fragile brand image in the hands of entirely fallible humans whose occasional moral lapses are liable to rain Midas-like shame upon everything they touch in the eyes of our hyper-judgmental, media-saturated consumers?

Heavens no.  Instead, companies should conduct morality audits of their employees.  At least that’s what Mark Cenedella has suggested, and that he’s done so without any shred of visible irony means that somebody out there is probably taking it seriously.

In a nutshell, Cenedella says:

For the cost of a few hundred thousand per year — which would ultimately come out of the star’s pocket either directly or indirectly through lower endorsement fees — a security firm could act as a third-party morals auditor. An endorser’s business partner should know, long before the public, whether or not the star is engaging in behavior risky enough to potentially threaten the business.

Hmm… Insuring the future of your business against the moral transgressions of your employees?  Seems defensible.  (Perhaps Cenedella got the idea from Henry Ford, who used to send spies to evaluate his employees’ behavior in their homes.)

But what’s missing from this proposal?

How about an acknowledgment from the public that a company’s work or products are separate from the beliefs or actions of its people?

Or an awareness on the part of companies that hinging your own brand’s success on the star of someone outside the company is always a trust game?

Or the paradigm-shifting concept that everyone — from the company to the spokesperson to the public — is responsible and accountable for his or her own choices and actions as they happen, rather than rushing to blame or judging people pre-emptively or arbitrarily?

When a company hires a spokesperson, it’s rewarding that person for pretending to be a perfect embodiment of the company’s ideals.  Hence, the contract is already predicated on a lie.  So why, when the ugly truths are inevitably revealed, does that person who was already disproportionately compensated for his allegedly-positive image now pay an equally asymmetrical price for having committed mortal transgressions that wouldn’t have gotten the shipping guy fired?

This oversized reward-and-penalty system perpetuates the irrational, godlike mentality that causes someone like Tiger Woods to believe he has to apologize to the entire English-speaking world for something he should only be apologizing to his wife for.  But he wasn’t paid to only matter to his wife; he was paid to matter to all of us, and as such, he believes he does.

And here’s the real irony: Tiger Woods and his endless line of mistresses have presented us with what our President might call “a teaching moment,” in which we all have an opportunity to evaluate our own actions, our own images, and our own methods of taking responsibility for those actions.  And if the biggest lesson we take away from all of this is that companies need to better protect their financial assets from the blunderings of celebrity genitalia, then I’d say our teaching moment has passed.

I’m Only Tolerating You So You’ll Talk About Me

ASofterWorld510

As we look back on the ’00s and try to decide what defined us for the past decade, I think one truth becomes evident:

We defined us.

The rise of social media may have “democratized” media production like never before, but it’s also cheapened the concept of stardom (and talent) in a way that we would have considered appalling even a decade ago.  From reality TV to Twitter, the people we consider to be famous or influential now enter our awareness from such an easily-accessible vantage point that each of us suddenly believes we, too, can become world-famous and influential to millions.

All of which is complicating our interpersonal communications a bit.

Because now that every human being has access to same the tools necessary to become famous, actually becoming famous seems somehow inevitable — and deserved — to all of us.  After all, if they can do, it so can I — and I’m at least as deserving of fame and fortune as anyone on Wife Swap, or some guy who correctly guessed how much money is in Howie Mandel’s suitcase.  My ascent is only a matter of time.

But there’s still a problem: I can’t become famous without you.  Every spectacle requires an audience.  And if you’re also trying to become famous, we have a conflict of interests.

Help Me Help You Help Me

These days, most of us spend more time than we’d ever have thought possible worrying about things like how many people are listening to us, and how influential those people are, and what they’re telling their people about us.  It’s enough to make anyone long for the days when the problems of the rich and famous were really only the problems of the rich and famous, and the rest of us could just live our lives of quiet, anonymous desperation, punctuated by the mocking of celebrities you knew the guy next to you had actually heard of.

But once you open that Pandora’s box of 15-minute fame, there’s no going back.  Suddenly, everyone’s the star of his own movie, and that movie is called “life,” and everyone is watching everyone else’s.  (Or so we hope.)  But if I’m watching (or listening to) you, it means you’re not watching (or listening) to me.  In short, it means you win — and no one likes to be the loser, which means no one likes to be the listener.  (Which is ironic, since social media is allegedly all about listening.  But I digress.)

So, what do we do in a world where everyone is convinced that her own turn at global domination is just a well-timed Twitter joke or a properly-SEOed blog post away?

Simple: we cannibalize each other for fun and profit.

Everyone I Know Is a Rock Star

If you succeed, I succeed because I know you.  That’s because knowing a famous person is akin to being famous yourself.  Thus, if I help you become famous, I’m helping myself [become famous].

And when I mount the peak of fame whore mountain, I won’t even need to thank “all the little people” because there are no little people anymore.  Everybody’s a rock star. Everyone’s a cult of his or her own niche-serving personality.  We each believe we’re a solar system unto ourselves, but in reality, we’re an endless hierarchy of Russian nesting dolls of dwindling ROI.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  (Which is fortunate, because there’s no way to reverse it, either.)  So stop worrying about how famous you are, or who’s listening, or why.  We’re *all* famous, and everybody’s listening, all the time.

They just happen to be listening for the sound of their own name.

Cartoon created by A Softer World, which you should be reading daily.