After years of making resolutions as well as monthly goals, I finally found a way of kicking off the new year that really works for me: choosing a verb. I must say, I like verbs a lot. What makes a sentence? A verb. What makes things happen? Verbs. What makes a good resume? Kick-ass verbs! What do I do when I’m bored during a long run? Think about sex…or conjugate French verbs! From iterative verbs (they are creatures of habit) to irregular verbs (they’re quirky, like Zooey Deschanel!), verbs give us all the power to take action.
Before you do anything in life, you must select a verb. You can begin, or quit, or change. You can choose, share, trust, try, think, relax, open, hope, serve, speak, save, flee, organize, believe, commit, or give.
In 2012, my verb was “push.” I mainly chose “push” because I had gotten off-track and lazy when it came to my writing; I had stopped trying and started coasting—steadily at first, but then eventually downhill. And being told repeatedly that I had gone downhill by angry or disappointed readers messed with me in a way I didn’t even know was possible. So first, I had to write my way out of my creative funk. Beyond that, I wanted to push myself to make new friends in my new(ish) city, to keep my space clean and nice, and to continue to take care of my health and body.
I unknowingly picked a very good year for this verb. I don’t know that I would say the year was hard, exactly—a hard year involves far worse problems than anything I experienced last year—but it was a year that was different than any other I’d had before. It felt like a year of growing up and of going uphill. When I wasn’t pushing myself to do the things that I really cared about, I was pushing myself through other new and painful experiences like having surgery to get a cranky Fallopian tube out, dealing with an unhappy coworker, buying a house, and trying not to lose my mind during the months leading up to the election.
The year was about putting myself out there and keeping together. It was about not half-assing or whining when things got hard. It was about not complaining about how hard writing is and instead “writing like a motherf*ucker,” in the immortal words of Dear Sugar. This was the quote that was constantly on my mind this year:
How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherf*cker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you–,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.
So 2012 was about simply digging. But choosing “push” as my verb also taught me a really important—and somewhat surprising—lesson: it taught me how to quit.
Yes, in a post about beginnings and goals, I’m going to talk about giving up. Because this year I also realized that it’s really hard to convince yourself and those around you that you have the right to quit, or that you really have exhausted all your options. It seems like everyone’s knee-jerk reaction is to just tell you that one thing you had never considered that would have totally fixed the problem.
After Eric and I bought our house in July, we quickly became overwhelmed by how much we didn’t know about taking care of a house. Around the same time, I started a new creative writing project that was not very well received. I had pushed myself to go outside of my comfort zone and area of expertise, and now was being told that that was a mistake. Meanwhile, I was spending every weekend at Lowe’s, where the slogan is “Never stop improving.” I heard this message loud and clear, while “push” was also on the forefront of my mind…and yet, one night, after getting more negative feedback than I could handle, I just made the decision to quit my new writing project. I didn’t ask anyone if I should do this (which was how I knew it was the right thing to do) and I didn’t regret it for a second.
Because the thing is, deciding to push myself harder in all areas meant I actually couldn’t push myself to the max in all areas—that simply wasn’t possible. And when you’re the kind of person for whom motivation can easily give way to obsession, creating a checks and balances system for your goals is a wonderful thing. By giving everything my all, I actually gave nothing my all. And so I became better at knowing when to stop giving a project or a person or a chore anything at all.
But when a person declares that she’s throwing in the towel on a creative project, apparently, everyone chooses that moment to remind her that quitting is bad, quitting squashes innovation, and, “Where would we be if [daVinci, Steve Jobs, Lady Gaga] just quit?” And, you know, that’s a fair point. But you know what else is bad and squashes innovation? Working on the same damn thing well past its expiration date and refusing to let it go instead of moving the heck on.
On the path to achieving our goals, we are rarely given permission to not improve ourselves. But this year, as I pushed myself harder, I also began to ask myself why I was pushing myself so hard, and I asked whether those cheering me on are doing it for my sake…or for theirs. 2012 was great because it eventually became the year I pushed myself to do the things I felt were worth doing, not the year I punished myself by sticking out worthless endeavors in the name of saying “I did it!” or giving other people hope that they could achieve their goals too. It was the year that I, a woman who unabashedly loves self-help books, realized that not every challenge is one worth accepting.
My verb for 2013 is “craft.” I chose it not only because it implies creating things, but also because “craft,” the noun, is about endeavors—often creative ones—that require skills that can be taught, practiced, and refined. But it’s not about DIY-ing everything in my life; for me, “craft” is about choosing a few very specific things and getting better at them for very specific reasons. And the things that aren’t on my list to improve? Aren’t going to bother me. I will do my best to do no less than my goals, but I will also do my best to do no more.
So I highly recommend choosing a verb and letting it guide your year and the goals you set each quarter or month or even week. But no matter what verb you choose, consider making “quit” your secondary verb. Give yourself permission to work on the things that matter and to cut your losses when it just ain’t happening. And then do everything else like a motherf*cker.
Photo from Rachel’s personal collection