When the right thing to do is nothing at all

I have a plan to revolutionise penalty-saving across football, whether teams are in the lowest amateur leagues or right up there in the premier division. In a nutshell, here’s my wisdom for goalkeepers: when your job is to save a penalty, don’t dive left; don’t dive right; in fact, don’t dive at all.

Before I explain I should admit my credentials as a football coach are completely non-existent. Best I can offer is experience from my youth when I played football constantly – in the school playground, on common land every summer evening, and representing my school sometimes. My position was always goalkeeper. Negatively, that was because I couldn’t run fast. Positively, I had quick reactions, great ability to catch a ball, strong sense of positioning, and I was willing to dive for the ball at the feet of an onrushing opponent. The last of these left its mark on me; quite a lot of marks actually.

But my revolutionary goalkeeping insights are from recent observation, not old experience. When I watch football, and the referee awards a penalty, here’s what happens: the goalkeeper stands midway between the posts, the penalty-taker runs forward, the keeper dives left or right, and accidentally or intentionally the ball is hit dead centre. Because the goalkeeper moved position, the ball goes straight into the net. If only the keeper had stood still…

I assure you there’s more to this blog than football advice, so stay with me just a little longer.

To explain my penalty-saving theory, you need to understand these things. Penalty-takers dread one thing above all – missing the goal completely by firing the ball over the top or outside the uprights. So they’re motivated to play safe. Goalkeepers dread something too, failing to stop a shot they could have saved. So they’re motivated to attempt the dramatic catch in the corner. Put those motivations together, and here’s what you get: kickers don’t want to strike the ball to the edges in case they miss completely, while goalkeepers dive as far to the side as they can in hope of pulling off a stunning block. Those factors lead to one result: all a penalty-taker has to do is shoot more or less straight and they’ll score because the keeper isn’t there any more.

However, if goalkeepers just stood still but alert with arms reached out, they’d have a good chance with their body or hands to block a lot of penalty kicks. What if strikers guess the keeper won’t move much? Then they’ll have to aim for a corner and sometimes they’ll completely miss the goal.

Well, that’s the theory. Will there be mass-adoption of my method? Not a chance. Faced with an ace penalty-taker, goalkeepers wouldn’t dare not attempt a spectacular save by diving sideways.

But what goalkeepers won’t do is exactly what leaders should do sometimes. I have to write sometimes because there’s no single formula for all situations. Sometimes the right thing for leaders to do is nothing.

However, it’s important to note two things about that choice.

First, it must be intentional. Not moving isn’t a passive option; it’s an active decision.

Along life’s way I studied for an MBA (a management degree). Advice I picked up that has stuck with me was this: ‘Often the worst decision is no decision’. I agree with that.

So when a leader refuses to budge, that can’t be a ‘no decision’ position. It’s positive. It’s intentional. It’s wisdom that, at that moment faced with those circumstances, deviating is wrong. To change would be a bad option.

Here’s an example. From time to time as a church minister the challenge I faced was ‘the new thing’. People get itchy for something different, exciting, miraculous, or anything that seems to fast track them to super spiritual status. They could be stirred by new worship styles, new teaching, new methods to grow the church, new approaches to the mission of the church, new ways to live close to God.

At 8.00 in the morning, I was phoned by one of our church leaders. He was excited. He’d been to a meeting the previous evening when, as he put it, ‘The Spirit fell on everyone there, and lives were changed.’ His message to me was blunt: ‘We’ve got to get on board with the new thing God is doing. This is the second Pentecost, and if we’re not part of this wave of the Spirit we’ll be bypassed.’ Calls like that aren’t music to any pastor’s ears at any time of day.

But I’d already checked out the new movement he was talking about. It wasn’t unlike other ‘new things’ in the past (so, not really all that new at all), and it certainly wasn’t a second Pentecost. Sure, it offered spiritual experiences, and I believed they were helpful for some. But overall this movement’s message was that you come with your failure and inadequacy, fall under the Spirit’s power, and leave an hour or two later turbo-charged with holiness and spiritual victory.  It was as if core disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, learning, sacrifice, could be bypassed, not needed any more. All that mattered was being touched by the Spirit.

God does touch people, but in the Christian life there are no exemptions from the hard graft of denying self and taking up the cross every day to follow Jesus. (Luke 9:23) Faith is a free gift, but living it out always involves cost. And there are no discounts.

I assured my caller our church would take what was good from ‘the new movement’, but we weren’t abandoning all the old things – foundational things – that were at the heart of our faith and mission. And the movement the caller was talking about? It was gone within a couple of years.

I made a firm decision that we weren’t swerving away from where we stood. It was the right decision.

Second, you need to own your choice. When there’s a penalty, my guess is that goalkeepers get whispers from teammates, some saying ‘Dive left’ and others ‘Dive right’. I got those whispers in my management positions. (Except, usually they weren’t whispers but loud and strong opinions.)

One colleague came to my office and laid out radical change for the organisation, and when I didn’t agree accused me of ‘not being willing to take risks’. I pointed out the many risks I’d taken before he joined us, but that, of course, didn’t satisfy him. He wanted me to take his risks. They were risks so large they could have damaged our reputation and bankrupted the organisation. Well, he wasn’t the CEO; I was. And I refused. He wasn’t happy and probably shared his feelings with others. But an organisation can’t jump this way or that way to keep someone happy. I owned my decision to stay firm. I knew then it was right, and with time everyone knew it was right.

Owning your choice matters also in a different sense. Sometimes your choice will be wrong. That’s inevitable. Even successful businesses have failed strategies because no individual and no team can anticipate every outcome. When there are disappointments there’s also criticism. If the penalty-taker shoots the ball into the corner of the net, the goalkeeper who hasn’t dived to save it (no matter how unlikely a save was) will be blamed. And, when things go wrong, leaders will be blamed, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. Bad leaders divert blame to others, which is cowardly. I believe in admitting mistakes and accepting responsibility. As long as I know within myself that I reached the best decisions I could, I can live with negative consequences when plans don’t work out. To survive, leaders must own their choices. Leadership isn’t for wimps.

That last sentence is important. For a goalkeeper to face a penalty kick and stand still in the middle of his goal takes great courage. And it takes great courage too for a leader in any area of life to hold steady when voices around urge ‘Go left’ or ‘Go right’. Surprisingly often, the right thing is to stand firm exactly where you are already.

Unconditional love

I am being followed. Not by the intelligence services. Not a stalker. But, almost anywhere I go, he’s there. Watching, listening, taking account of everything I do. I know who’s doing it. I even know his name. It’s Mac. He’s been after me for years.

Mac is my dog. We have two dogs, but Mac is my follower. If I walk across the room, he comes too. When I sit down, he lies nearby. If I go to my home office, Mac joins me. (He’s here right now.) When I go to the bathroom, Mac would be there too, except I refuse him entry. But he’ll wait just outside for me.

I’ve no idea why he’s so devoted. He just is. My companion, day after day after day.

I read something today that seems to give Mac a higher love and loyalty rating than God. Here it is:

As long as you praise the lord and love him with all your heart and repent your sins, he will always love you with his unconditional love.

Within 27 words, the writer has managed to contradict himself. I don’t suppose he realises it, but what he’s said is: ‘Here are the conditions to get something which has no conditions.’

The conditions he specifies are what you must do to be loved by God. ‘As long as…’ introduces three requirements: you must praise the Lord; you must love him with all your heart; you must repent of your sins. Fulfil these, and you get ‘unconditional love’ from God. That’s contradictory! You can’t lay down conditions to be loved and also call that love unconditional.

The writer’s sentence is what most would call a quid pro quo statement. ‘If you do this, I’ll do that.’ In other words, you give something, you get something. If you don’t give, you don’t get.

A troubling truth is that quid pro quo language is common. We are told it, and we tell it. When I was young, the run-up to Christmas would be peppered with warnings from my parents: ‘You’ve not been at your best this year… Santa won’t bring you presents unless you’re a good boy.’ Conditions. I confess I passed on equivalent warnings to my children, and not just at Christmas. Statements like: ‘If you don’t tidy up your bedroom, you won’t get to watch your favourite TV programme’. Conditions.

We’re bombarded with messages which say that to be popular you must have great social skills, be clever, and perhaps above all look good. An appalling example is the song Keep young and beautiful. According to the lyrics you must get rid of body fat, and take care of your charms to be in someone’s arms. The refrain is: ‘Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved’. So, if you’re old and wrinkly, no-one will love you. As someone increasingly old and wrinkly, I’m disturbed. Actually, we should all be offended.

But the song, and much advertising, fits with the self-esteem deficits most of us have, consciously or subconsciously. Somewhere inside lurks the dark thought: ‘No-one’s going to love me unless I deserve it’. That’s damaging logic for human relations.

It’s even worse logic when applied to our relationship with God, because our efforts to earn acceptance will never be enough.

So it’s just as well they don’t have to be. God doesn’t love anyone, not even the best of the saints, because of their goodness. He has loved us long before we knew it, thought about it, or reacted to it. I’ve always been moved by the sentence in Romans chapter 5: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (v.8) Nothing about Jesus’ sacrifice depended on a religious background, a meritorious life, praying a lot, reading the Bible from cover to cover, or anything else we might have believed would impress God or merit his love. Which is just as well for me, because I could never have earned it.

At least the writer of the contradictory sentence included the two important words: ‘unconditional love’. That is the right description of God’s love. There’s no quid pro quo. We don’t give something so God will give something. We don’t go half way to God so he’ll come half way to us. God is one hundred per cent the giver. He comes all the way to us.

Absolutely it’s essential that we receive that love, surrender our lives, and follow him wherever that takes us on life’s journey. But his love is utterly and simply just given. Wonderfully unconditional.

‘Okay Mac, it’s time for lunch,’ I say. And off we go…

Dream on

Years ago I heard Rev Tom Houston (at that time, President of World Vision International) open a conference talk to ministers with a story I’ve never forgotten. Here’s the gist of it.

A wealthy Texan rancher gathered a hundred or more of his friends to his lavish home. The food was good; the company was good; being in the rancher’s presence was good. None of them knew their host had an ulterior motive in bringing them together. The rancher gathered his guests at the poolside, and made a speech which finished this way. ‘I want to find the bravest young man among you. So, I’m offering a prize. You can have $1 billion, or the whole ranch, or my daughter’s hand in marriage – if you swim one length of my pool. But I should warn you, the pool is filled with flesh-eating fish.’ Everyone stared at the water. Sure enough, piranha-like fish were thrashing around in there. For a moment no-one moved. Suddenly there was a splash, and one of the young men was in the water, and he was swimming for all he was worth. The water churned, the fish attacked, and blood poured from wounds on the young man’s body. But still he swam, pulling his arms and kicking his legs to power his way through the water. He was half way there, bleeding, hurting, but still swimming. Three quarters, and everyone was sure he would die. Somehow he kept going, got to the pool’s edge, and hauled himself out. He was badly hurt but he’d done it. The rancher ran over and said: ‘You’re a remarkable young man! Tell me which prize you want: the $1 billion, the ranch, or my daughter’s hand in marriage.’ The swimmer stared up at him, and replied, ‘All I want is to know who pushed me in.’

I laughed, as did Houston’s audience. But, for many of the ministers present, their laughter was hollow. They’d started out with optimism, confidence and a sincere belief they’d make a difference in many lives. But the reality didn’t match. Numbers in church had declined. Some in the congregation were sharp critics. The pastors felt seriously under-appreciated. They were sacrificing to serve, but met with piranha-like attacks on their ministry. Now they were hurting, deeply and probably permanently. Who pushed them in to work like this?

Far more than ministers ask that question. People start out cheerfully and hopefully into a career or a relationship. It begins well but doesn’t last.

I’ve seen it happen with young people chasing sporting dreams. A youngster excels at playing golf, so their goal is to be a professional and win the Masters or the Open Championship. None I’ve known have done that. Some have gone into deep debt playing on ‘mini tours’ but never winning. Some accept their career will instead be teaching golf lessons and selling clubs in a golf course shop. Some give up completely on golf. The pro at my course left recently, and is now tiling bathrooms and kitchens. End of the dream.

Not everyone who graduates with a medical degree ends up practising medicine. Some divert into related work; some change careers completely. I’ve known young lawyers, who began full of idealism that they’d help people fight for truth and justice, finally settle for a life writing business contracts. The salary was good, but they could hardly bear thinking about another thirty years of the same work. End of the dream.

I’ve married lots of people, by which I mean I’ve conducted their wedding services. Those were good experiences. The couples, young and not-so-young, were brimming with excitement for their future together. I wish they were all together still, but they’re not. One of my first attempts at saving a couple’s marriage was a miserable failure. I urged the departing wife to make another effort for the marriage. ‘I don’t want to try,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to save the marriage. It’s not what I thought it would be.’ End of conversation. End of marriage. End of the dream.

I should quickly say that sad outcomes for careers or relationships are not everyone’s experience! Plenty are doing well.

But, for some, the dream withers and dies.

Are there ways to ensure dreams always have happy endings? No, there aren’t. The complexities of life and our psyches rule out trite formulas for success.

But two maxims about dreams seem true.

Chase your dream; no-one else’s    In my teens I talked several times with my parents about what kind of work I wanted to do. By 13 or 14, I’d abandoned my ambition to drive a bus, and accepted I wasn’t going to play rugby for Scotland. I was doing fairly well at school, but no intellectual star and none in my family had ever gone to university, so no-one (including me) imagined that would be in my future. ‘Perhaps you should go into banking,’ my Dad said. ‘It’s a safe career, and if you pass your banking exams you’ll be promoted and earn a good wage.’ What if I’d done that? Two things would have followed: a) I’d have hated every minute; b) I’d have been out of a job long before promotion – simply because banking changed, and thousands were made redundant through rationalisations. I couldn’t have known the second of these, but I was dead certain of the first. Banking was my Dad’s dream of a safe and good career, but never mine, and thankfully Dad never pressed it.

But someone owning their own business and longing that it stays in the family may well pressurise their child to work in the shop or office with a view to taking over one day. That pressure can be hard to resist. Or youngsters are encouraged into the professions their parents always wished they’d followed. ‘Become a doctor, and save lives…’  It’s hard to argue against saving lives. Or cases are made by parents for other careers they esteem, like being a lawyer or an architect, or to follow a family tradition of working in the local factory or (as it used to be) going down the mine. ‘It was good enough for your Dad and Granddad, so it’ll be good enough for you.’

I wouldn’t judge the virtues of any of these career paths. But I would urge young adults to follow their dreams, not someone else’s dream for them. Chasing a dream you don’t ‘own’ ends in boredom, disappointment, and perhaps an early mid life crisis. It can never fulfil the deepest hopes of your heart.

Your dream must be earthed in reality   Even when the dream really is your dream, the road you’ll travel won’t be easy. My first career role was in journalism. I studied Pitman’s shorthand (not easy), touch typing (a life-long asset), law, current affairs, journalistic practice, and eased my way into reporting large and small stories for the paper. I attended a train crash, plane crash, and car crashes. They were gruesome, yet also exciting in some dreadful way. But sitting for hours in a minor court hoping at least one case would be interesting stirred not a single fibre of my being. I learned always to wear a warm, waterproof coat every day, because I might find myself standing in the cold outside a building for two hours waiting for a Council meeting to finish, hoping someone would tell me what had been decided. And, after two hours of freezing, they might not. Days like that were not exciting. That was the reality.

The reality of work for many is redundancy, or being overlooked for promotion, or being assigned brain-numbingly boring work. And marriages aren’t about a wonderful wedding day, they’re about years and years of hard work building a relationship that will fulfil the deepest part of a person’s being. It can be absolutely wonderful, but never without pain along the way.

We dream… But dreams don’t usually include hard graft and deep disappointments.

As a youngster I stood beside our town’s rugby pitch watching players running, tackling, kicking, catching lineout ball, and rucking players aside to get the ball from a loose scrum. It looked fun, and I dreamed of when I’d play rugby. A few years later I was playing, but being buried under a mauling heap of overweight bodies wasn’t fun. And being raked back by an opponent’s studs hurt. It hurt a lot. But that was rugby.

So, is it better not to dream? I might have made you think so. But we must dream, must hope, must strive, if we are ever to attain. Dreaming is the starting point for the greatest achievements. Life holds marvellous opportunities and experiences, and we mustn’t retreat away from our dreams. Just let your dreams really be your dreams, aware that the journey to that dream will have pain as well as joy.

And, what was the real issue for the swimmer in Tom Houston’s story? It wasn’t ‘Who pushed me in?’ The real issue was ‘Now that I’m in, how do I get to the far end of the pool?’ And he did.

And we can. Dream – work hard – persevere – enjoy – be fulfilled. Absolutely possible.

Going out on a limb

I was ten years old. Adventurous, brave, ready for any challenge. I crossed the field opposite our house, clambered over a barbed wire fence, leapt the small stream, then climbed the second barbed wire fence. I joined boys my age and older taking turns on, what seemed to me, the longest rope swing in the world. The bravest person in the world must have climbed high up a large oak, and tied the rope to one of the topmost branches. Now it hung almost to the ground, with a thick knot in the rope for holding on. This was the mother and father of all rope swings.

I watched what the boys did. It would be tame to start swinging from ground level, so a boy would climb up the tree, edge his way out on a thick branch, and another boy would pass the rope up to him. He’d hold that rope as tightly as he could, launch off the branch and swing down and forward, skimming the ground, rise up the other side, and keep going back and forth as long as the ‘pendulum’ lasted.

‘Looks scary’ I murmured to one of my friends. He agreed, but added ‘It’s not too bad providing you know exactly what to do.’

‘What do I need to do?’ I asked.

‘Well you’ve got to hold really tight.’

Okay. I had no problems understanding that.

‘When you launch yourself out you must do it with a slight curve. If you swing away in a straight line, when you return you’ll crash into the branch you started from and break your back.’

I took a deep breath.

‘But you can’t launch out at too much of an angle because…’ he pointed to the fence I’d climbed earlier ‘…you’ll curve round into the barbed wire. You wouldn’t want to do that.’

He was right. I didn’t. Another deep breath.

‘And, as soon as you step off the branch you must get your knees up quick or you’ll break your legs against the ground.’

I stopped breathing at all.

‘So have you got all that?’ my friend asked.

‘I think so,’ I gulped.

‘Repeat it back to me then.’

So I did. ‘Climb up to the branch. Get a super tight hold on the rope. Launch off at a slight curve so you don’t crush your spine swinging back into the branch. But not too much of a curve or you’ll go right into the barbed wire fence.’

‘What else?‘ he asked.

‘Oh, and get my knees up fast or I’ll break my legs on the ground.’

‘Perfect,’ he pronounced. ‘You’ll do fine.’

And with that reassurance, I was pushed towards the tree.

I had serious doubts about how fine I’d be. But with twenty lads from my school standing round, I’d no choice. ‘Do or die!’ I thought, not at all certain which of those two was about to happen.

I clambered up the tree, and edged my way out on the branch, clutching tightly to twigs and leaves to steady myself. The rope was pulled up to me. It felt very strong. I felt very weak. But I would do this.

I knew the routine. Hold the rope firmly. Go out at a slight angle. Not too much to risk the barbed wire. Knees up to protect my legs. Got it!

I gripped super-tight, closed my eyes… And let go. Not from the branch. I let go of the rope. I just hadn’t been able to make myself launch out and swing. To the mocking of the crowd I climbed down from the tree.

I climbed up to the branch twice more in the next hour. Rehearsed in my head exactly what I had to do. And then pathetically climbed down again. Head held low, I eventually went home.

Next morning – refreshed and determined – I went back. No-one else was there. That made the swing impossible because someone had to pass the rope up to you on the branch.

A few minutes later my friend David arrived. He hadn’t been there yesterday, and wanted to know how to use the swing.

‘I can tell you exactly how to do it,’ I said brightly. I gave him the whole speech. Hold tight. Go out at a slight angle, but not too much or you’ll be in the barbed wire fence. And get your knees up fast or you’ll break your legs.

‘Got it?’ I asked.

‘Got it!’ he said. ‘Let’s do this.’

Up the tree he went and out onto the branch. I passed the rope to him. He took one deep breath, and off he went. Perfect. Knees up – angle just right – no broken legs, no broken back – just a long and glorious swing. He enjoyed it so much he did it twice more.

‘Now you,’ David said. He’d sensed my nervousness, and encouraged me. ‘You know exactly what to do. You’ll be fine. Up you go.’

So up I went. Along the branch I went. And as I took the rope from David, I knew he was right. I could do this. I would do this.

I counted slowly: One, Two. Three. Drew in an enormous breath, flexed my legs, tightened my grip. And then… Then I did nothing at all. I just stood there. I counted again, breathed in again, prepared every muscle again. Still didn’t move. One more time and I’d do it. But I didn’t. I climbed down from the tree.

Two or three more times that day I went up the tree. Each time I thought through what I had to do. I knew it. I’d seen others do it. I’d even taught others to do it. But I just couldn’t get off that branch.

I must have been very fond of that branch! I hated that branch! With all my being, I loathed it. I didn’t want to stay standing there. But I did.

Why? Because that branch was safe. Nothing bad could happen to me as long as I stood still. But if I stepped off holding just that rope…? What if it all went wrong? I didn’t step off. I revisited that branch on several more days, but never once used that swing. Not ever.

Only crazy people want to feel unsafe. But when the desire for security becomes the controlling power over our life, we’re in a bad place. We cling to what we have rather than risk something uncertain. A new challenge or opportunity is screened out by default.

In my mid fifties, I was invited to become President of a seminary (a graduate college, mostly preparing people for Christian ministry) in the suburbs of Chicago. It would be a great privilege, but leaving the UK for the USA would also mean a great sacrifice. I loved the work I’d been doing for twelve years directing and overseeing life-changing mission projects around the world. People appreciated my leadership. I was secure. Everyone assumed I’d be there until I retired. We had children and grandchildren nearby. Our lives were good, and safe, and comfortable. But Alison and I decided we couldn’t stay. What felt right with God was moving on, moving away, letting go of what we had for the new thing he meant us to do.

When we shared our news, thankfully no-one said ‘Glad you’re going!’ Some were truly and visibly sad that we’d no longer be near. Some were excited for us because they could see why the new post was a great fit.

And some were shocked. The change made no sense to them. How could we leave our nice house, a secure and important job, and especially how could we go so far away from our family? Several said: ‘I could never do that’.

I thanked them for their concern. But, afterwards, I wasn’t sure they’d said exactly what they meant. Their words were ‘I could never do that’ but probably their meaning was ‘I wouldn’t do that’. Of course they could move to live and work in America. But they wouldn’t.

It troubled me when Christians said that. They knew I believed the move was what God wanted, but they implied I could refuse. They would have refused if faced with the same challenge. I couldn’t. I have always understood that when I gave my life to God, it really was given. Not given with an escape clause allowing me to opt out if I didn’t like what God asked. To say ‘No Lord’ involves a contradiction. If God is Lord, saying ‘no’ is an impossible response.

But this isn’t an issue only for Christians, I’m troubled that anyone would cling so tightly to their status quo that they couldn’t consider any change. I’m not advocating rashness. But to prioritise safety, security, comfort rather than take any risk results only in missed opportunities and an unfulfilled life.

Getting off our safe branch can be immensely hard. But a life well-lived is hard. And one of the worst regrets in older years is the memory of being on the edge of stepping out into an exciting new venture but instead climbing down and never doing what you knew you could and should do. Sometimes letting go and stepping out is scary but it can be exactly the right thing.


My Scottish heritage gifted me with two major winter celebrations – Christmas and New Year.

As a youngster I preferred Christmas. I’d like to believe I was ahead of my time, because even three centuries after the Scottish Parliament banned ‘Yule vacations’, Scotland was slow to do much about Christmas. My father worked on Christmas Day. No church in town held a Christmas Eve ‘Watchnight’ service nor one on Christmas Day. But I was a Christmas enthusiast, not because of any piety but a love of parties, decorations, eating  food, and, of course, getting lots and lots of  presents.

For many, though, the big festival was Hogmanay. New Year’s Eve meant parties, ceilidhs, lots to drink, a countdown to midnight, more clinking of glasses, and then off to ‘first foot’ the neighbours. First footing could last all right. Unsurprisingly the 1st and 2nd of January were public holidays. Scots needed two days to recover.

Our household celebrated new year, though my parents were moderate with alcohol. But my Mum was not at all moderate with two other traditions.

One was cleaning the house because you shouldn’t carry the old year’s dirt into the next year. Unfortunately, Mum extended the tradition to me, so I got a good scrubbing. Maybe that’s why I preferred Christmas.

Mum also required me to write out a list of new year resolutions. All the things I’d do better. I was left in no doubt a long list was required, because there was much to reform in my young life. What I couldn’t think of, Mum could. Well before midnight, my major sins and their remedies were defined.

But those sins never were remedied. My promises rarely lasted through January 1st. Some years I tried really hard and squeezed out a few extra hours of righteousness, but never became a changed character. When I was about twelve, I stopped making the list and felt better for it.

Most admit they’re little better with their resolutions, whether made at new year or any time. We promise changes in our lives. But the promises rarely last.


Among many reasons, here are four.

Wishful thinking    People have often asked me how to make changes in their lives. A common one was ‘how to give up smoking’. As someone who has never smoked, I couldn’t draw on personal experience but I’d read about addiction, and I knew people who’d beaten the habit. So I would give my best advice.

My advice almost never worked. It wasn’t bad advice. I was often quoting what experts said. But it didn’t address a weakness: the change they said they wanted was no more than wishful thinking. Of course they wished they could stop smoking because they’d be healthier and better off financially. But wishful thinking couldn’t break the bondage in which their habit held them. They needed a much deeper resolve, an iron will, and they were simply not that determined to change.

Over ambitious    I could set myself the goal of jumping a river which is ten metres wide. No matter how strong my iron-will or disciplined my training, I’m not going to do that. I can’t jump that far. All I’d achieve by trying is an unpleasant cold bath. Resolutions need to be realistic and reasonable for who I am and what I can do. Perhaps a goal could be achieved sometime but not at this time. Maybe I could walk fifteen miles, but not right away. Not without taking time build up my stamina and strength in my legs. Then, maybe I’d get there. But if I tried on day one of a new resolution, I’d give up in less than five miles.

Ingrained patterns don’t change easily    I watch one of my fellow golfers hit his shot. He slices his ball into the deep rough. From the tee on the next hole, again he hits a spectacular banana-shaped shot. By now a variety of expletives are being uttered, and before long he says: ‘I hit it straight on the driving range. Why can’t I play like that on the course!?’ Likely, there are at least these reasons: a) he was relaxed on the driving range where there was no score to count; b) on the range he didn’t worry about hitting into the rough or out of bounds; c) on the range he could risk doing what his instructor told him to do with his stance, his grip, his alignment, and how he swung the club. And it worked.

So, why can’t he play like that on the course? Because, faced with playing real golf, he can’t risk a new stance, a new grip, and a new swing. It’s awkward and unsafe. Now the result matters. Now he’s being watched. Almost without being able to help it, he reverts to his ingrained bad habits. ‘I can never change,’ he grumbles.

Faced with real life – not the pages of a book or words of a counsellor – we find change very difficult. We don’t need someone to tell us we’re doing wrong. We know that. But, faced with problems and stresses, we revert to our self-protecting old patterns. The new thing is risky, and we opt out. We can’t make what we think, speak and do change just because the calendar has.

No real desire to change    As an adult I concluded that my resolutions usually failed because I didn’t really want to do things differently. My Mum made me write down things like: ‘I’ll get out of bed earlier’; ‘I’ll keep my room tidier’; ‘I’ll start my school homework sooner’. I never wanted to do those! On a cold winter morning, I was staying under the blankets as long as I could. I wasn’t going to tidy my room when I’d better things to do, like going out to play football. And I hated homework. I’d much rather put it off as long as I could.

The resolutions were fine. I just didn’t want to do them. So the list was never more than nice ideas on a piece of paper. My life didn’t change.

Of course that’s not how everyone feels. But some I’ve counselled talked of being better but didn’t convince me they really wanted to be better. For me and for them, the issue was in the will. It was about having a real desire to live differently.

I haven’t made new year resolutions for many years. But I have made other resolutions. I always have ambitions to change. Sometimes they work out; sometimes they don’t.

I’d never discourage anyone from making resolutions. They’re good; not bad. It may be a tough fight, but I hope you win!