The countdown begins on Delft’s main square on a surprisingly warm, windless night. As I stand among the crowd, I forget the commotion around me for a moment and let my mind drift away. We are still separated by a few seconds from the new year, but in my thoughts, I have already drawn a fully-fledged picture of it. All the grand achievements and travels pass before my eyes, almost as if I have lived through them already. I can see my parents shedding tears as I graduate with a beautiful project, gladly shaking hands with my proud professor. Just moments later, I am packing my bags to move to my dream destination to conquer the professional world.
When the old year falls into oblivion, and the new one appears on the horizon, the age-old tradition of scheduling new conquests for oneself begins. Over our usual lunch date in the cafeteria, I summarise for my friend the plan I have plotted on the night of New Year’s Eve. My story continues undistracted until I hiccup with a slight hesitation before adding yet another achievement to an otherwise flawless plan. I contemplate for a second – is it really possible to learn fluent Chinese in a year? And is it worth adding to my overflowing agenda for the third year in a row? After all, this yearly feature in my plan never seems to be fulfilled. Actually, many of my world-conquering plans dissolve somewhere along the way. Why is that, I wonder? Before I have a chance to fully recover from that thought, my friend interrupts me mid-sentence, pointing out the deep line forming in the middle of my forehead. The formation, I am told, reminds him of a crater, a deep canyon eroded in between my eyebrows. It has potentially no bottom, and as my friend claims, there is a mysterious creature lurking at him from the shadows if he dares to look into it for just a little bit too long. My intense (over)thinking and, in effect, excessive frowning seemed to form this new mark on my temple.
The slight smirk on his face, however, indicates that he indeed understands this phenomenon and is somewhat familiar with it himself. In fact, I see many of these frontal formations as I take my usual strolls through the halls of our faculty. They appear on ever-wondering faces and, like in my case, come to their deepest around the time the year changes. Some of these are relatively small, barely noticeable cracks in otherwise confident and stable rocks. On the other hand, some appear as extensive gorges, chiselled over time by the unforgivable force of self-doubt and an erosive set of unrealistic expectations for what seems to be yet another defining year in one's life.
To be honest, even though this is the first time I am writing about it, my mind has roamed around these cracks and canyons many ‘beginnings of the year’ before. It seems that amid all the pressure we receive from the outside world to be the best version of ourselves and live a ‘successful’ life, we become our harshest critics. Despite ambition pushing us forward through life, it also becomes a paralyzer if overdosed and swallowed without a gulp of self-sympathy. The sheer amount of pressure and expectations we set for ourselves at the beginning of each year causes confusion on where to begin this journey. Maybe the word journey, as cliché as it sounds, offers a different perspective we might want to take once setting new goals. It indicates the time one needs to reach their destination. As I contemplate the topic, I accidentally bump into a quote online. It reads:
Most big, deeply satisfying accomplishments in life take at least five years to achieve. This can include building a business, cultivating a loving relationship, writing a book, getting in the best shape of your life, raising a family, and more.
These are the words of James Clark, author of Atomic habits, which most of us obsessed about (and for a good reason) over the last summer. Maybe the problem doesn’t lie in the level of difficulty or the number of bullet points on the list but rather in the deadlines we set for ourselves. Most new year’s resolutions start like this:
this year, I will…
We give ourselves a year to overcome habits we might have been building upon for years. We want to climb mountains without appropriate training beforehand and get discouraged once the results don’t show fast enough. Is that the reason why I still don’t speak any Chinese? During the last three years, when I wrote that goal on each year’s first day, the pressure of time and seeing the finish line in the fast-approaching December slowed me down. Rather than celebrating the progress, however little, I would stop myself from moving forward, discouraged by the moments when I have failed to complete a lesson. A dangerous mixture of perfectionism and impossible timelines, which left me hoping to follow that perfect routine the year after.
Perhaps taking Clarke’s point of view, looking at our goals with a time distance and appreciating the slow process of getting better as well as mastering skills could help smooth out the cracks on our foreheads? I feel we could also become kinder to ourselves, trying to remember with each minor defeat the bigger battles we are fighting and the fact that we are all doing just fine in the long run!
Here’s the second part of the quote, which I find encouraging:
Five years is a long time. It is much slower than most of us would like. If you accept the reality of slow progress, you have every reason to take action today.
It is not about the height of the mountain to be conquered but about the mindset we approach it with, breaking it down and taking one little step at a time.