It’s a few days into the new year, but life is already starting to taste stale. Stale as the lone gallon of milk still sitting in your fridge, and stale as the air in your living room from the aftermath of your New Year’s Eve party.
Even your New Year’s resolutions are sounding stale. They seemed nothing but brilliant when you first pounded them out on your laptop. Now you wish you could eat the words because you’re feeling embarrassed, naïve and outed. Everyone knows about them, and everyone will know when you fail.
What you need is a fresh start. But how?
First, ease off on yourself. Forget about jumping on the bandwagon and feeling pressured to start something new or something big. You need to first spend the time letting go of things that no longer serve you. Until you do so, you cannot give yourself a new beginning.
Secondly, just because a date on a calendar changed doesn’t mean you should change instantly. You have years of parental, cultural and other institutional programming to sort through. Don’t discount their influence on your own values.
It also doesn’t happen the moment when you decide to write down a bunch of resolutions. Resolutions are wishcraft disguised as goals, no matter how SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound) they may sound.
In case you are thinking it will be different this time, slide open that desk drawer and see how many ghosts of New Year’s resolutions past haunt you.
You failed because you are repeating a pattern.
Patterns are accumulations of unhealthy habits that force you into autopilot. Bad habits act as mental prisons. They are difficult to break free, and you may find yourself serving a long “prison” sentence.
But you can make a “prison break.” And who else is best to teach us about a prison break than Andy Dufresne?
If you’ve never seen The Shawshank Redemption, you probably won’t recognize the main character from the movie. Andy was an innocent man who, after having been accused of murdering his wife and her lover, was sentenced to life in prison. Andy’s exceptional ability to give himself a mental fresh start after experiencing repeated setbacks and injustices makes for a good case study. See if you can apply these lessons to your life.
1. “You Get Busy Living or You Get Busy Dying.”
The first step in giving yourself a fresh start is to decide if you want to “get busy living or get busy dying.” Think of it as your “Go/No Go” decision tool. You don’t need the perfect situation or permission from anyone else. It starts when you make up your mind to do it.
2. Take One Bold Risk.
After he overheard a prison guard complain about a topic he knew well, Andy offered a solution, a bold move that nearly got him flung off the roof. But that move was a turning point. It shifted his relationship with other inmates and the guards, and it shifted something in him.
“We sat and drank with the sun over our shoulders and felt like free men.” [Red]
A bold risk will snap you out of your rut like a swim in an icy lake. Take the plunge.
3. Change Perceptions.
Often times a fresh start is difficult because of your history with the people whom you regularly interact with. You might feel boxed in and expected to behave a certain way.
Andy used his knowledge as a banker to change his relationship with the guards. He shifted their perception of him from that of a prisoner to someone who was their equal.
“Dekins just looked at him a second… and he actually shook Andy’s hand. Shook his hand! I near soiled myself.” [Brooks]
Create a shift by changing your response to a given situation from what others normally expect of you. Adopt a new manner of speaking that bridges understanding and mutual respect.
4. Persist Beyond the Point of Failure.
Work with your constraints. Don’t fight them. In Andy’s case, powerful forces repeatedly worked against him: the warden, the guards, solitary confinement, multiple beatings, and 500 yards of raw sewage to wade through before he broke free. Despite the insurmountable odds, he persisted. All he carried in his arsenal was a tiny rock hammer and hope.
“There are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. There’s something inside they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.” [Andy]
5. When You Can’t Change the Scenery, Search Hard for Beauty.
Know that it’s going to get tough before it gets easy. Anticipate this. When you hit that point, you will need to dig deep for a reason to continue. And if you come up empty, you will need to search for a little piece of beauty in that joyless place. For Andy, that meant lifting himself and everyone in the prison yard through the power of music.
“It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.” [Red]
6. Absolve Yourself of Mistakes.
At some point, you will be tempted to question or beat yourself up. When this happens, know that the person you are today will always know more than the self of yesterday. Until you can forgive yourself for your mistakes, you will be your own worse enemy — your own jailer.
“I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid…I want to try to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone.” [Red]
After all the work you do, what if you still fail? That is always a real possibility. Know that failure is nothing more than a step in the learning process. You simply start again. As Oprah Winfrey wisely noted, “Right now, no matter where you are, you are a single choice away from a new beginning.”