Opinion: Finding Meaning

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Meaning in New Years Resolutions

We humans share an inborn instinct to self-improvement—were drawn to the uphill climb. This innate drive to elevate our lives distinguishes us from all other species and may be the best evidence of a divine origin. Self-improvement is complex, it has a price and a process that are not obvious but can be learned. Yes, were in the time of New Years resolutions. Here are three stories to help.

For decades, my fancy San Francisco sister hosted a dinner party featuring resolutions. During dessert, Mom would pull out her notebook and confront us with last years resolution. We would report our success (to cheers) or failure (to jeers) and she would mark our grade. Though we often fell short, we were usually willing to make resolutions for the coming year, which she carefully recorded. We wont be held to account this year, Mom has moved on. But our experience taught us lessons. First, a resolution should be quantifiable. If it cant be measured, its just a wish. Second, it should fit ones capacity. Big changes are best done in steps. Third, it helps to have witnesses to cheer us. Finally, plan an accounting (that includes dessert).

Benjamin Franklin, whose education ended when he was ten, had a passion for self-improvement. His lifetime accomplishments are legendary, ending with mentoring the creation of the worlds greatest work—our Constitution. Franklin invested his life in his own great work, the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He defined 13 essential virtues and worked on one each week, rotating through the list four times a year. One lesson: Improvement needs a defined process.

Few have heard of the late Edward W. Deming, but it would be hard to name a person who did more to improve the world. Deming was an engineer who specialized in the statistics of improvement. In 1950, he was in Japan to offer American expertise in rebuilding their economy. The Japanese, deeply humbled by their World War II defeat, were eager students. Deming—ignored in the U.S.—taught a quality-based improvement process directed towards gaining what he termed profound knowledge.” If they followed this philosophy, he promised, they would become so successful that within five years U.S. companies would be begging for tariff protection. The humble Japanese were incredulous but went to work and within the five years U.S. television-tube manufacturers were begging for protection; other industries and countries followed. Deming later helped Ford, humbled by the Japanese, to contend with the onslaught of high-quality Japanese autos. One lesson: improvement requires humility.

The most common New Years resolutions are physical—eat better, exercise more, and lose weight. Its all good and maybe the best place to start. But if you think Franklins idea of moral perfection” a worthy goal, take a deeper look into your soul. Theres meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a 50s surfing trip. Hes a student of Laguna history and the author of Loving Laguna: A Locals Guide to Laguna Beach”. Email: [email protected]

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