Every year, for the last several years, I’ve been keeping a tradition in lieu of standard resolutions: Three Words. It’s a tradition that’s been passed to me from one of my closest friends, Alexa, and it’s the thing I look most forward to every time the new year comes around. I think everyone naturally likes to set goals, resolutions, and intentions for when the new year arrives. They tend to be pretty familiar: start a Whole30 and lose ten pounds, get a job promotion and become a manager, find love and go steady with someone. These are the usual goals.
While these are perfectly fine aspirations, I think resolutions like these suffer from a few flaws. First, they can plague you with guilt. Every day you’re not losing that weight or inching closer to a new job title, it can feel like you’re failing. Suddenly, your resolutions become your oppressors. Second, sometimes hitting your resolutions just aren’t possible. Perhaps you get injured in an accident and can’t run that half marathon anymore, or something at home prevents you from traveling to three continents this year. There are always things that are out of your control that can sidetrack any of the goals you have and it can make you feel like you failed at your year, sometimes before you even got a real start at it. Lastly, goals change. Maybe getting that promotion doesn’t matter as much anymore because you’ve found that spending more time with family and friends is more important halfway through the year. Maybe you realize knocking numbers off the scale isn’t the goal, but being healthier and developing a mindful lifestyle is more important instead. Changes happen.
These three flaws and a host of other issues really sum up to one, admittedly counterintuitive position about these kinds of resolutions: they’re too measurable and specific. Do I mean to say that concrete, tangible goals aren’t useful? No, they’re certainly helpful. What I mean to say is that specific, measurable goals are probably better as outcomes of some larger themes you set for the year. That brings me to the tradition I want to write about today: Three Words.
Every year, my friends and I come up with three words that serve as themes for the coming year. They are general intentions vague enough to derive specific, concrete goals from, but not so specific that they simply become traditional resolutions again. They often come tethered with a pretty sophisticated motivation that comes out of a lot of self-reflection leading up to the new year.
For example, one of the words I had set for myself last year (2018) was “Brave.” The reflection went something like this: I think I’ve always been deeply avoidant of my fears. Instead of tackling them head-on, I had become very good at minimizing those fears by planning, researching, and ultimately overcoming those fears. For example, I was once daunted by traveling the world for three months as a nomad for the first time. So I studied every route to every city I could think of, anticipated everything that I thought might go wrong, calculated every detail until I had essentially dissolved the fear entirely. These skills have taken me very far in life, but they’ve also become one of my greatest weaknesses. I realized that there are some things in life that are just scary no matter how much preparation I do, and I have to work through my fear instead of trying to minimize or get around it: I had to learn to be brave.
This was just one of my three words from the previous year. What I liked about having these words is that they became anchors in my life. As I moved through year, I had my words to tip the scales in favor of becoming the kind of person I had set out to become. Should I take the plunge and go to Burning Man this year? Maybe I should, I did, and I’m glad I did. The me before “Brave” probably wouldn’t have. Should I try to learn to ride a bike now? I never learned as a kid and was so embarrassed in the past to try picking it up, but last year, I found myself in McCarren Park with a bike helmet on earning my pedals. Should I reach out to that stranger and complement them on their hair? Probably. Should I go for the hug instead of the handshake? Yes. Should I ask the guy at the bar for their number? Go for it. Every time I had a decision to make or a path to take, my words were there to guide me towards my best self.
In Good Company
All this being said, this tradition didn’t start with me, and it’s not one I do alone. I learned this from my friend Alexa, and it’s a tradition that is incomplete without her and with others who have kept the practice alive with me throughout the years. Coming up with my Three Words is a lengthy, introspective process, and one that usually requires some fine-tuning with another person. Alexa has been that person for me. Every year, we’ve had dinner together shortly after the new year to discuss our words. We usually come in with two to four ideas, never quite settled in exactly what the final result will be, and over the course of our meal, we’ll prod, challenge, and help each other make our intentions clear until we walk out the door with our Three Words. This is a tradition I want to pass: from Alexa, to me, and finally, to you and to those close to you.
So, if you want to try this out, here’s what I suggest you do:
Find a friend. I’m happy to help! If you can manage a third, that’s even better.
Plan a meal or a drink with everyone involved. Tell them how Three Words works or send them this essay. Give yourselves at least a good week before you have the gathering.
Start thinking about your Three Words. I always found that I tend to have a few recurring thoughts that occupy me: something about my work, my health, my relationships. Dig really deep. Don’t just settle for something very generic like “Happiness” or “Money.” It can certainly be those words in the end, but make sure you do some heavy investigation as to why the words you have are what they are. This is supposed to take a while. I start thinking about my words weeks if not months before the new year comes, so just make sure you think hard on it, even if it’s just a few days. See my explanation of my previous word “Brave” if you want a sense of how deep we’re talking.
Come to your gathering ready with the first draft of your words and ready to discuss them with your friends. I usually have about one or two really solid words, and the third one is always elusive and needs some workshopping. Sometimes people come in without any solid words, just vague ideas. That’s totally fine.
If this isn’t your first time, discuss the previous year’s words. Go around the table, say how you did, and reflect. It’s a good way to get everyone’s juices going.
Next, go around and discuss this year’s words. I like to do one word for each person at a time. So each person does this first word, then the second, then the third. Each person should explain the motivation, inspiration, or process to coming to each word. Give feedback. Challenge each person to go deeper. Provide alternative words that may fit their intention better. Change your words if you need to.
Write down your words. I’ve started writing down my words each year and it provides an excellent snapshot of how I’ve progressed year after year. My words have become some of my most prized possessions, and there’s always one that stands out that really highlights the year for me.
You’re probably wondering what my words for this year (2019) are going to be. To be honest, I haven’t decided yet. I’ve yet to have my dinner with Alexa. But something I think I’ll do is write an essay for each word I come to this year, similar to how I did with “Brave.”
What I hope is that this tradition helps you go into the new year having had a deeper sense of reflection, of ease, and of inspiration. I’ve found that my Three Words have played a critical role in how I think about my growth, and it’s also just a cherished, deeply meaningful tradition that I can always forward to with the people that matter most to me.
I hope you try it. Happy New Year.