Today is 2 January 2021 as I write. My intention with this post is to push back against the rising tide of shaming the year 2020. I want to share with you about the hopefulness that comes from transitioning to goals based instead on progress through a journey. While recognizing that I am fortunate to be in a safe place, I want to honor the fact that resentment and anger are personal traps.
Several posts in Jeg er jo Soldrevet talk about how I’m learning to build and evaluate goals without numbers or finish lines. I made a conscious effort, beginning in early 2019, to challenge my historical approach to hitting numerical targets. Two years later, I am feeling decreased stress in daily and professional activities, stronger senses of accomplishment in my pursuits, and slowly gaining confidence in how to make numerical measures as indicators of progress.
Superscripts following text highlight my sources of inspiration, which I list at the end of the post.
Numerical judgements are easy to find
I enjoy numbers and measures, don’t get me wrong. As a person trained in science and research, I think critically about measurements every day. In today’s world I see that criticality pointed too often at ourselves. Last year’s calendar comes off the wall and new one goes up. Fitness and exercise platforms ask me for “goals” (“pernicious flagellation tools,” I would say). Friends and colleagues make New Year’s resolutions as though we can see the future. My friends, family, and society at large are busy castigating the entirety of 2020 while expecting a mystical 2021.
Coming into 2021 was simple. It took less than a second.1 In fact, in only an infinitesimal fraction of a second it stopped being “2020” and started being “2021.” Moving through the year 2020 was a journey indeed, and one that was foreign and terrifying for many of us. This year, if I choose to sit here in my chair and wait for the world to improve around me, will be the same as the last. Breaking that cycle starts with recognizing that the cycle itself doesn’t even exist.
‘Hope is not a lottery ticket you sit on the couch and hold; it’s an axe to just break down doors in an emergency.’ And if you make a conversation fit for action, then what you’re getting to in the end is hope.Diego Arguedas Ortiz on Our Warm Regards Podcast, quoting Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark2
Where was I on 2 January 2020? I see from the calendar that it was a Thursday, so I was probably taking the day off as part of whole week off. The exactness of the day is irrelevant, and that is my problem with calendars anyway. What I do remember was that I was coming into the last stretch of my permanent job, which I had chosen to walk away and step into emptiness. We had no idea of the maelstrom (malstrøm in Norwegian) that was coming to change all of our lives. Let’s pretend I had made a collection of numbers goals in January 2020 and we were evaluating my so-called progress now in January 2021. If we see I achieved none of them, would you think less of me? I doubt it.
What didn’t happen in 2020
- I applied for a pile of jobs, then stopped after getting nowhere
- I set a target on Strava of running 1 hour per day, but didn’t make it
- Marie and I abandoned our year of exploring the deep corners of Norway
- I wrote zero research papers, gave zero presentations, and now feel easily stalled
Struggling with numbers
Regular readers of Jeg er jo Soldrevet know that I spend a lot of my time outdoors and on the move. Strava, which has become my default activity logger, builds deep traps for goal building. Even as I was restructuring life away from numbers, I found it hard to avoid the weekly and monthly number targets. I tried setting some “goals” as Strava calls them, yet asking myself to view them as measures. It didn’t work. I found myself measuring me against my friends and not reflecting on myself.
This summer we were living in an adventurer’s paradise on the coast of Norway. Exploration was there for the taking. When I realized I was building my day based on a Strava measure rather than on the weather, the countryside, and my desire to explore, I had to break some habits. It took me several months, actually, to stop joining Strava challenges which measured monthly totals of running so many kilometres or ascending so many meters. Since switching several months ago, I have had all the greater joy of going out to explore for its own sake.
When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.Marilyn Strathern, a reformulation of Goodhart’s Law, as heard from Shawn Bearden1
Corona, on the other hand, has been able to infiltrate my avoidance of numbers goals. How many cases are in Norway? Will my family in the USA cope with the explosive situation? What will my sister and her family in Africa do when they have no measures at all? Now we have the increased worry given us by known amounts of vaccine doses, unused doses set to expire because we’ve been living on empty hope,2 and entire regions and continents continually left behind by my own greedy culture. It’s only January.
Get going, going anywhere
When I used to build tasks or plan research projects based on numbers (budgets, deliverables, person-hours, timetables, publication targets), I would create an entire, fictitious future for myself and my team. As I rebuild now, I choose instead a general direction I want head. Then I start moving.
I imagine the Builders in the video game Lemmings.3 To build a staircase, a Builder pulls a steppingstone from its backpack, places it one pace ahead, takes a step onto that stone, and repeats. In the end, a staircase built in science fiction appears. In my life, I imagine taking those stones from my pack and sometimes placing the stone at my feet, other times throwing it a bit further and trying to take a larger hop. Sometimes I slip and get a wet foot. Other times, I backtrack and lay new ground. I find no fault in turning around,4 only in being frustrated at myself.
Vend i tide, det er ingen skam å snu.
(Turn back before it’s too late, there’s no shame in turning around.)Rule number 8 from Fjellvettreglene, The Mountain Code4
Now is not the time for me to be building numerical goals. If I did, I wouldn’t know where to begin – a perfect recipe for me to do nothing. I’m going to keep taking these stones out of my pack, putting them in front of me, and keep moving. No, I don’t have a destination in mind. I’m paying attention to the places I see, the ways I can move, and what makes me and others happy. If I need numbers, I’ll work on small tasks to celebrate small victories. Meanwhile, I’ll build victory celebrations around stories and events.
A testament to a year
Before we try to predict our future, let’s take time today to congratulate ourselves on the chunk of time just passed. You pick that chunk – use a year if you must – and find something to celebrate. Anything. Now go tell someone about it.
If we refuse celebrate the year gone by, I fear two things: one, that we will have built a deeper hole for ourselves by the end of 2021; two, that we will have failed because we learned nothing from the journey.
What did happen in 2020
- I started my own business and website
- I got help from mentors5,6 who showed me that I was running away from something without yet knowing what I was moving towards
- I granted myself patience to find what I am moving towards
- I completed an multilingual interview (me in Norwegian, them in Swedish) for a leadership position
- We continue to live where we want to be
- I’m still learning to drop number-based goals
References and inspiration for today’s post
- Shawn Bearden, professor and endurance athletics coach
- Warm Regards podcast, and guest Diego Argueda Ortiz
- Lemmings, a video game from 1991
- Fjellvettreglene, The Mountain Code
- Fawzi Abou-Chahine, owner and operator Chahine Communications