Instead of being resigned to failure, or giving up the resolution tradition altogether, we should make use of our broken resolutions. The older I get, the more I discover that failing in a task has as much to teach me as success - sometimes more. People who examine why they failed and keep on trying again are often the most extraordinarily successful people. As a society, we commonly praise those we admire for their successes, but once you start to look into the whole story of their lives, you find there were far more failures than successes. The successes just get the attention. But they didn't come without pressing on through the failures.
Here are just three ways to benefit from broken resolutions.
Don't Be Prideful About Achieving Perfection
Too many people set "all or nothing" goals. They aim for a target for the year, and then get discouraged when they lose traction and fall short of their goal. This often leads to giving up entirely. But if you've improved over last year, keeping to the goal more than you did before, that's often a victory even if it falls short of your expectations. Saving 5% of your income isn't as exciting as saving 10%, but it's a whole lot better than 0%. Losing 8 pounds or exercising only every other week is still improving your health even if you were aiming for twice that. If you take encouragement from your progress, and then challenge yourself to do even better next year, you gain much more than if you just give up because you can't hit perfection.
People who think in terms of making the most of what they've managed to do are more likely to keep trying, because they are valuing every little effort. People who insist on being perfect tend to quit permanently as soon as they've fallen behind on their schedule or routine, ending up with nothing. Often the problem is pride: so many people depend for self-confidence on looking successful and "together" that they won't accept anything less. Last month I shared the lesson an admiral drew from Navy SEAL training: a regular challenge designed to force trainees to deal with failure caused those who couldn't accept being less than perfect to quit the program. Only people willing to keep trying in spite of "failure" became Navy SEALs. Those who wanted to be perfect didn't. How's that for success?
We need to get over ourselves and our insecurity and just do the job, even if it isn't pretty. Falling short of our own expectations but still getting results is far better than pretending to be perfect.
Be Willing to Build on Failures and Wait on Success
If what you are trying to do is important, it will probably be difficult. Don't confuse failing to reach your goal at the moment with having wasted your efforts. In fact, the more valuable your goal, the more you will probably stumble and fail in getting there. There are very few things in life that don't require some experimentation, trying different methods before finding the one that works. Thomas Edison put it perfectly: “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” Don't give up on an important goal just because you feel like it's taking too long or you aren't seeing forward progress. Figure out what went wrong last time and how you can improve on it. That's forward progress.
At the same time, don't underestimate the profit to your soul even when you don't reach your goal. Working hard at something is never wasted, because it always accomplishes inner work in your mind, heart, and soul. This is probably one reason the Scriptures encourage hard work: "In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty." (Proverbs 14:23); "It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth." (Lam. 3:27). The number of inventions and discoveries that have been accidentally uncovered while someone was trying and failing to do something else is quite impressive. Even so, the work in the inner man is more valuable. “Who you become while you are waiting is as important as what you are waiting for.” (Nicky Gumbel of the Alpha Course). Your soul is going to last forever; most of your resolutions will pass away with this earth. Make the most of the discipline, whether you hit the goal or not.
"Three failures denote uncommon strength. A weakling has not enough grit to fail thrice." - Minna Thomas Antrim
Be Willing to Let God Show You a Different and Better Goal
There are also times where the reason you aren't making progress is simply that you have the wrong goal. One of the precious ways that God shows His love and faithfulness to us is that He shepherds and directs us toward what we need, even when we expect or want something different. Our development is not random; God has a master design that He intends to follow through. "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." (Phil. 1:6). After all the sins and misguided zealotry of his former life, Paul could say of his new, radically different life in Christ: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:10). God had a plan Paul could not have imagined, but it was so glorious that he considered his previous achievements to be rubbish. (Phil. 3:4-8).
Your God and Savior loves you enough to keep you from making too much progress in the wrong direction. The only way to be alert to this is to be humble enough to let the Scriptures shape your priorities and your understanding of your identity, and take to heart the feedback and observations of other people you can trust. It is true that often when we realize the necessity of a change of course, it may be a while before we find any joy in doing it. If you have had your heart set on being a musician, it is rough going to find out that God created you to be a lawyer. But it is far worse to try to find your satisfaction in being a musician if the Lord created you to find your joy and fulfillment in being a lawyer. The promise of God's blessing for those who submit to His way is a constant theme in Scripture: “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise. Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” (Proverbs 19:20-21).
In other words, accept the discipline of having your way directed by the Lord’s will rather than by your own desires and expectations, and you will be blessed. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you[.]” (1 Peter 5:6). It is a good and precious thing to be shaped by the mighty hand of God.