One of my favorite "Peanuts" cartoons by Charles Schulz has Charlie Brown saying, "I learned something in school today. I signed up for folk guitar, computer programming, stained glass, art, shoemaking and a natural foods workshop.
"Instead," he said, "I got spelling, history, arithmetic and two study periods."
The last panel has Charlie's companion asking, "So, what did you learn?"
And Charlie replies: "I learned that what you sign up for in life, and what you get, are two different things."
Most years around this time, I write a column about New Year's resolutions and why they can make such a difference in our lives. But breaking them often makes us feel like failures.
Some days are tougher than others, it's true. But if you suffer from a general feeling that your life isn't quite what you had hoped it would be, you may benefit from spending some time thinking about what you need to do differently, no matter what time of year.
Think about what your perfect day would be like. Don't hold back ideas, even if they seem far-fetched. Then take it a step further: What would your perfect life be like?
When you've finished, ask yourself if there is a big gap between how you would like your life to be and how it is. After you have established what seems to be missing from your life, see what you can do, realistically, to take your life just one step closer to your ideals. Don't just quit your job to travel around the world –-- unless you have the means -- but consider what you need to do to make that possible, if that's your dream.
Would more education make a difference? Is a career change in the future? Do you need to devote more time to family and friends? Are you doing anything to help others? These are all big changes, and will require serious planning and willingness to make life alterations. But if you know what you truly want and can reasonably accomplish, you will find a way to make it work.
Write your plan or goals down and put them where you can see them often. Remind yourself that you are worth the effort. And if you slide a little, remember that you can start again. These are your plans, not someone else's.
In the meantime, work with what you have. Expand your experience and enjoy things that are within reach now -- not someday when you finally have enough money, which might take a while to accomplish.
Now, instead of making some resolutions that you have little chance of keeping, you can start to make some life changes that will be rewarding every single day.
"There are three constants in life: change, choice and principles," said my friend, the late management guru Stephen Covey. The third element he mentions is critical to making the best choices about the changes you want to make.
Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, lived by his "Ten Rules for the Good Life," a set of guidelines that helped him stay on course. In my mind, Jefferson was one of the smartest men who ever lived. His rules may seem very general, but that is the beauty of their message: a simple framework for making broader decisions in everyday life. Here are his rules:
1. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
3. Never spend your money before you have it.
4. Never buy what you do not want because it is cheap; it will never be dear to you.
5. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
6. Never repent of having eaten too little.
7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
8. Don't let the evils that have never happened cost you pain.
9. Always take things by their smooth handle.
10. When angry, count to 10 before you speak; if very angry, count to 100.
Whether you use these rules written more than two centuries ago as a starting point or define your own, making changes will be easier some days than others. You already know, as Charlie Brown says, that what you sign up for in life and what you get are not always the same. But you have the power to change that. Use it!
Mackay's Moral: Confucius says: Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.