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Resolved: Stop Blaming the Pancake

In a classic bit from an early Seinfeld, Jerry and Elaine are at the airport, trying to pick up the rental car that Jerry had reserved. As usual, things go poorly and get awkward fast:

Seinfeld - "Reservations"

JERRY: I don't understand...I made a reservation. Do you have my reservation?
AGENT: Yes, we do. Unfortunately, we ran out of cars.
JERRY: But, the reservation keeps the car here. That's why you have the reservation.
AGENT: I know why we have reservations.
JERRY: I don't think you do. If you did, I'd have a car. See, you know how to take the reservation--you just don't know how to hold the reservation. And, that's really the most important part of the reservation...the holding. Anybody can just TAKE them. [grabs chaotically at air]

And, how weirdly similar is that to our conflicted relationship with New Year's resolutions?

In Seinfeldspeak?

See, you know how to make the resolution, you just don't know how to keep the resolution. And, that's really the most important part of the resolution...the keeping. Anybody can just MAKE them!

Oversimplified? Probably.

But, ask yourself. Why this? And, why now? Or, why again?

Welcome to Resolvers Anonymous: I'm 'Merlin M.'

A few years ago, I shared a handful of stories on the failures that have led to my own cynicism about the usefulness of life-inverting resolutions. Because, yeah, I've historically been a big resolver.

Here's what I said when I first suggested favoring "Fresh Starts and Modest Changes" over reinventions:

Download MP3 of "Fresh Starts & Modest Changes"

Five years on, I think I probably feel even more strongly about this.

Partly because I've watched and read and heard the cyclical lamentations of folks who decided to use superficial totems (like new calendars) as an ad hoc coach and prime mover. And, partly because, in my capacity as a makebelieve productivity expert, I continue to see how self-defeating it is to pretend that past can ever be less than prologue--that we can each ignore yesterday's weather if we really wish hard enough for a sun-drenched day at the beach.

It simply doesn't work.

Companies that think they'll be Google for buying bagels. Writers who think they'll get published if they order a new pen. Obese people who think they'll become marathon runners if they pick up some new running shoes. And, regular old people with good hearts who continue to confuse new lives with new clothes.

Has this worked before? Can you look back on a proud legacy of successful New Year's resolutions that would suggest you're making serious progress by repeatedly making a list about fundamental life changes while slamming prosecco and wearing a pointy paper hat?

My bet is that most people who are seeing the kind of change and growth and improvement that sticks tend to avoid these sorts of dramatic, geometric attempts to leap blindly toward the mountain of perfection.

I'll go further and say that the repeated compulsion to resolve and resolve and resolve is actually a terrific marker that you're not really ready to change anything in a grownup and sustainable way. You probably just want another magic wand.

Otherwise you'd already be doing the things you've resolved to do. You'd already be living those changes. And, you'd already be seeing actual improvements rather than repeatedly making lists of all the ways you hope your annual hajj to the self-improvement genie will fix you.

Then, of course, we make things way worse by blaming everything on our pancakes.

Regarding "The First Pancake Problem"

Anyone who's ever made America's favorite round and flat breakfast food is familiar with the phenomenon of The First Pancake.

No matter how good a cook you are, and no matter how hard you try, the first pancake of the batch always sucks.

It comes out burnt or undercooked or weirdly shaped or just oddly inedible and aesthetically displeasing. Just ask your kids.

At least compared to your normal pancake--and definitely compared to the far superior second and subsequent pancakes that make the cut and get promoted to the pile destined for the breakfast table--the first one's always a disaster.

I'll leave it to the physicists and foodies in the gallery to develop a unified field theory on exactly why our pancake problem crops up with such unerring dependability. But I will share an orthogonal theory: you will be a way happier and more successful cook if you just accept that your first pancake is and always will be a universally flukey mess.

But, that shouldn't mean you never make another pancake.

So Loud. Then, So Quiet.

I offer all of this because today is January 7th, gang. And, for the past week, all over the web, legions of well-intentioned and seemingly strong-willed humans have been declaring their resolved intention to make this a year of more and better metaphorical pancakes.

And, like clockwork--usually around today or maybe tomorrow--a huge cohort of those cooks will begin to abandon their resolve and go back to thinking all their pancakes have to suck. Just because that first one failed.

And, as is the case every year, online and off, there won't be nearly as many breathless updates to properly bookend how poorly our annual ritual of aspirational change has fared. Which is instructive.

Not because new year's resolutions are a universally bad idea. And, not because Change is Bad. And, not because we should be embarrassed about occasionally falling short of our own (frequently unreasonable) aspirations.

I suspect we tout the resolution, but whisper the failure because we blame the cook. Or, worse, fingers point toward the pancake. Instead of just admitting that the resolution itself was simply unrealistic or fundamentally foreign.

And, that's a shame.

Remember, there's no "I" in "unreasonable"

Granted, I'm merely re-repeating a point I've struggled to make (to both others and myself) for years now. But, it will bear repeating every January in perpetuity.

Resist the urge to pin the fate of things you really care about to anything that's not truly yourself. The "yourself" who has a real life with complicated demands. The "yourself" who's going to face a hard slog trying to fold a new life out of a fresh calendar.

Calendars are just paper and staples. They can't make you care. And they can't help you spin around like Diana Prince, and instantly turn into Wonder Woman. Especially, if you're not already a hot and magical Amazon princess.

First, be reasonable. Don't set yourself up for failure by demanding things that you've never come close to achieving before. I realize this is antithetical to most self-improvement bullshit, but that's exactly the point. If you were already a viking, you wouldn't need to build a big boat. Start with where you are right now. Not with where you wish you'd been.

Also, accept that the first pancake will always suck. Hell, if you've never picked up a spatula before, be cool with the fact that your first hundred pancakes might suck. This is, as I've said, huge. Failure is the sound of beginning to suck a little less.

And, finally, also be clear about the sanity of the motivations underlying your expectations--step back to observe what's truly broken, derive a picture of incremental success that seems do-able, and really resolve to do whatever you can realistically do to actually get better. Rather than "something something I suddenly become all different."

At this point, you have logistical options for both execution and troubleshooting:

  • Make a modest plan that you can envision actually doing without upending your real life;
  • Build more sturdy scaffolding for sticking with whatever plan you've chosen;
  • Make a practice of learning to not mind the duds--including those messed-up first pancakes;
  • Or--seriously?--just accept that you never really cared that much about making breakfast in the first place. Care is not optional.

Otherwise, really, you'd never need to resolve to do anything. You'd already just be cooking a lot. Instead of being all mad and depressed about not cooking.

But, please. All I really ask of you. Don't blame the pancake. It's not really the pancake's fault.

Like me, the pancake just wants you to be happy. This and every other new year.

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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