Successful resolutions are more about attitude than aptitude

February 27, 2012
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Every January, people make lofty goals that often end up being no more than good intentions. Some vow to lose weight (only to see it return after a month of effort). Others promise to read more (giving up when they become tired after watching several hours of television).

Better time management at work and more quality time at home are both ideals that frequently slip away as people succumb to the demands of daily living. Whether at work or at home, success (or failure) is often more a direct result of attitude than of aptitude.

Those who are confident that they can succeed typically do something worthwhile in their lives. Alternatively, those who feel they cannot succeed usually do not.

We can change much when we set realistic goals — but we must remain focused on our targets if we wish to accomplish our dreams.

To help realize their resolutions, people should view life as a series of journeys rather than a definitive destination. While it is good to make goals (though some would argue that if a goal is never made, a person can never be viewed as a failure), people often spend too much time focusing on where they want to be rather than paying attention to how they plan to get there. Such thinking can affect us negatively as we make progress toward the accomplishment of a goal; it can minimize the steps we take by focusing only on the destination.

Some evidence of such thinking would include:

“Sam” resolved to shave five strokes off his golf game. He took the challenge seriously at first, going to driving ranges, reading all he could about perfecting his swing, and upgrading his equipment, but when his scores increased by a stroke before falling by two he started to golf less frequently and never reached his goal. Though his game improved, he gave up his resolution because he couldn’t see himself fully accomplishing it. He focused on the destination — shaving five strokes off his game — rather than on the journey of improvement while moving toward his goal. Had he been satisfied to immerse himself in the process of change, Sam may have ultimately succeeded. Instead, he became discouraged before realizing his resolution.

”Jane” accepted a new job believing she could walk away from her past into an unlimited future. Several months into the job, however, she has not found any more happiness or fulfillment than she experienced at her last position. The job change has been reduced to the additional money it provides. In her mind, the new job has not “come through” with the excitement and challenge she expected, so she feels it was a poor choice. She is now thinking seriously about switching again. Lost in her perceived failure is the fact that she has learned new techniques, become effective at interacting with different people, and been able to demonstrate her abilities to a new employer, new customers and new vendors. Rather than focusing on the destination, a shift in thinking about the journey would bring her much more fulfillment. 

Students cannot progress from one level to the next until they have demonstrated proficiency in the skills and knowledge required. Until a child knows the alphabet, he or she cannot spell. While focusing on the “ends,” teachers must be aware of the “means.” Not every individual progresses at the same pace on the road to success, so we must focus on the different paths that could be traveled, recognizing and rewarding individual progress (rather than only results) while striving to move toward mastery.   

Most individuals make “cliff” resolutions that set up a sense of failure if the concrete targets are not achieved in a timely manner. Others have learned to find satisfaction in the progress made toward resolution. A baseball player does not hit a homerun every time at bat, but three or four singles in a row can achieve the same results. A minister cannot save every soul, but progress can come one person at a time. The best parent in the world cannot rest his or her value on every choice a child makes; the overall progress toward adulthood that the child exhibits should be used as the litmus of success.  

We must learn to embrace progress, accepting movement toward the accomplishment of resolutions (upon whatever road we may find available) rather than insisting on immediate and absolute completion. We must remain focused on the road we choose, accepting the small successes along the way as precursors to the accomplishment of our ultimate goal. Most importantly, we must recognize that as humans we may not succeed every time — but only when we quit trying will we ever truly fail.

David Smith, CAE, is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids.

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