[Note: I started writing this post way back at the beginning of the year, but didn't have the time or inspiration to finish it. I figured that today (Lunar New Years) would be a great time to revisit it.]
After a few years of trying (and failing) to keep New Years resolutions, I've decided that maybe they're not the best idea. This year, rather than setting a bunch of specific goals (e.g. take a 5 photos every day) that I will have forgotten in a couple of months, I've decided to outline some general principles I want to set the tone of my life in 2007. A good analogy would be the difference between Curb Your Enthusiasm (a TV show that is largely improvisational and only loosely scripted) and a traditional scripted show. Rather than telling myself exactly what to do, I'd like to establish some simple guidelines that will help me choose how I spend my time, prioritize my life, and respond to situations in the future.
Give people the benefit of the doubt
In one of my favorite films, Adaptation, the New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (played by Meryll Streep) meets an orchid thief in Florida who she takes, at first glance, for a total hick. She paints an unflattering picture of him to her bourgeois dinner guests back in New York, making light of his mostly toothless grin. Only after spending time with him does she discover that he's actually a complex, intelligent, passionate person whose teeth were lost not to neglect, but rather to a car accident that killed his wife and parents.
In the past year, I've been more like the unenlightened Orleans character than I'd like to admit. I like to think of myself as an open minded person, and I do still believe I'm usually a good judge of character, but for a long time I've been wanting to believe only the worst about a lot of people around me. In most cases these people aren't truly bad–they're just humans, driven by the same insecurities and hierarchy of needs as everyone else. But I tend to be a sensitive person, and that sometimes leads me to make harsh judgements about people based on their behavior, without a nuanced appreciation for their broader personality. This has become a bit toxic for me.
This doesn't mean, of course, that I have to actually like everyone. Just that I'm going to make an effort to be less active in my dislikes, give people more of a chance, and develop a less one-dimensional view of people who bother me. It's going to be tough, but I need to try.
Be creative without the expectation of an audience
I've always been a person who thrives on an audience. As a kid, I lived for the times my parents would post my art on the refrigerator or I'd be given an award at school. I started getting seriously interested in photography only after Flickr gave me a platform to exhibit my photos. Unlike, say, Emily Dickinson, who wrote thousands of poems that were never meant to be seen by anyone else, I need the appreciation of an audience to spur me on in creative endeavors.
The problem with this is, it can encourage a crippling perfectionism. Since I think of every creative thing I do as intended for an audience, everything I do has to be exceptional. This is less of a problem with things I've gotten good at at, like photography, writing, or software development. In those cases having an audience is a big incentive to keep working and refining my technique. But it can be a real stumbling block in areas–such as music composition, drawing, or fiction writing–where I'm trying to develop my skills. I rapidly lose interest in my music, for example, when I can't produce anything I'd like to share, which means I never spend enough time on it to actually get good at producing music. It's a vicious cycle.
I think the only way around this is to have more of a "sketchbook" mentality, and learn to think of less than perfect things I do as experiments or learning experiences, not just wastes of time.
Make more time for myself
At first glance, it may seem like making time for myself should be no problem. After all, I'm single, have no children, and most of my family lives half the country away. But, while it's true I have few dependents, what I have in lieu is an unusually large social network that I feel an obligation to spend huge amounts of time and energy maintaining. This presents an interesting problem for me because, while I have a genuine appreciation for people and I enjoy knowing a lot of them, I'm really an introvert at heart, and having to always be "on" really drains me. I need a lot of time away from people to recharge my batteries, reflect, and be creative.
This is a tough problem to solve because I usually either don't know my limits or I worry that I'm going to offend people by not coming to their party or joining them at the bar across the street. I want to maintain my accessibility and my friendships with the many awesome people I know, but I need to figure out a way to do so without running myself ragged. Part of my solution is going to be to attempt to maintain Erik Benson-style "office hours"–that is, a regular residency at The Alembic Wednesdays nights, where people always know they can always find me if they want to hang out. The other part is going to be to simply get better about knowing when to say "no."
Remember who I am
Looking back much of my late 20s, I think my biggest problem, and the source of a lot of really counterproductive depression, was my pattern of defining myself too much by what other people think of me. I don't think this is an uncommon problem for young people–when you don't have a fully formed, confident idea of who you are, you look to other people for validation. I used to complain a lot that I felt like I could sometimes be an engaging, charismatic person, but only when other people allowed me to.
I like to think that 2006 was the dying gasp of this weakness. As I head toward my 30th birthday this year, I feel an increasingly robust sense of self, and a growing faith in (what my friend Ali would call) my own "awesomeness"–whether other people recognize it or not. I'm under no illusions that I'll never struggle with rejection or disappointment again, but my goal from now on is to short circuit the feelings that used to bog me down simply by always remembering who I am.
I think Bernard Sumner put it perfectly in the New Order song "All the Way":
It takes years to find the nerve
To be apart from what you've done
To find the truth inside yourself
And not depend on anyone