Should you pick a word of the year?

I have always loved New Year’s Resolutions, goals and dreams. I am the kind of person for whom Big Symbolic Holidays are highly effective, and the New Year is no exception. There’s just something magical for me about new beginnings.

But just because I love to make New Year’s resolutions doesn’t mean I’m any better than the average person at keeping them. Like anyone, I’ve made resolutions to work out or eat better or write more only to see those aspirations fall apart before February.

These days, I’m a bit better at keeping my New Year’s goals. What made the difference? The simple practice of choosing a word to focus on in the coming year.

I used to think that focusing on a word for the new year was a bit silly. I would hear people choosing words like “achieve” and “soar” and “bloom,” and it seemed more like wishful thinking or a fuzzy good intention than something that could be useful.

Then, I tried it. It was 2018, and I was feeling overwhelmed with the tasks of a new, full-time university teaching job and my desire to successfully release an album. My imagination wanted big, big things, but in my constrained circumstances, I knew I would have to settle for something smaller. I can be prone to “all-or-nothingism,” so I wanted to give up rather than settle. But I knew from the long process of completing a doctoral dissertation that small steps really can add up to big results. I knew that if I broke down my goals into the tiniest possible steps, and if was faithful to take each small step, I would have results I could be proud of, even if I couldn’t have everything in my imagination. So that year, I chose the word “faithful,” and took the first step.

When I look back at my journal from 2018, I can see the evidence of my faithful progress in tiny tasks checked off one-by-one. I did release my album that year on top of strong academic and teaching work, and I experienced some successes that I would not have had in the past, when I would have given up instead. Somehow, that little word, “faithful,” inspired and encouraged me whenever I found myself in a place of indecision or doubt. One word helped me keep my New Year’s resolutions.

So in 2019, I tried it again. This time I went for something more specific and actionable: “ask.” Inspired by the story of a colleague who had asked for and received a job he was not qualified for, I realized that I would have refrained from asking in that same situation. I wanted to learn to become the kind of person who would try things or ask for them even if I didn’t feel ready for them. I also liked that ask was an acronym for “Ask, Seek, and Knock,” a reference to Matthew 7:7-12.

I put asking into action, and my life changed. That year, I auditioned for shows, submitted music to competitions, requested a change to my office space at work, and sent difficult emails. Whenever I was unsure about what to do, the word “ask” told me what to do. And to my surprise, I received many of the things that I would have never even considered asking for in the past. I also strengthened my rejection muscles as I learned that I would be okay even when I didn’t get what I asked for (which also happened a lot).

In 2020, even before the pandemic hit America, I chose the word “persist.” Though the word has some inspiring feminist and political connotations, I mostly chose “persist” because of all the projects I ended up with after a year of asking for them. I knew I would have to work hard to see them through.

Then Covid-19 came to town. At the start of 2020, I had no idea how much persistence I would need just to get through an average work-from-home day. Much of what I had gained in 2019 disappeared in 2020 as theatre and live shows shut down, but I still had commitments that pushed me into my home recording studio (my closet) or onto zoom. Writing projects I had asked for still had deadlines.

But aside from any work I had to do, just getting out of bed required persistence. As the case counts climbed, as the 2020 election process played out, as America faced a racial reckoning, and as atrocity after atrocity hit my social media feed, I persisted. I got out of bed. I tried to hope. I did the work in front of me.

Last year, my word was “shine.” After a year like 2020, I was determined to bring some light into the world through words, music, and love. “Shine” may sound like one of those imprecise, silly words that could mean anything. For me, it meant that if I had any opportunity to be creative, to speak or sing or make something or to to show love to someone, I would do it. In the past, I had often tamped down my creative impulses because they seemed over-the-top or “extra.” For 2021, I decided that any time I found myself wanting to hide my little light under a bushel, I would say, “no! I’m gonna let it shine.”

And guess what? All that “extra” paid off. The world is always a better place when we bring our full, beautiful selves into it. 2021 saw me returning to live music, recording a new album, and writing about issues that mattered to me. (See some of my personal favorites from this site here, here, and here.) I spoke and sang at a panel on racial injustice in the church, I donned three different hats as Disney characters for a community charity fundraiser, I taught my students about Black Lives Matter and gender equality even when I encountered pressure not to, and I took on new work responsibilities in mentoring and course development. Through it all, I learned the truth of Amanda Gorman’s words at Biden’s inauguration, that “there is always light if we are brave enough to be it.”

For 2022, the word I’ve chosen is “brave” — both an adjective and a verb. I’m a little scared to see how that one turns out. But if I weren’t a little scared, I wouldn’t need to be brave!

So if you need a little direction for 2022, try a word of the year. Maybe start small: “show up” is a good word; so is “love.”

Happy New Year, TTC readers. I wish you all a year of faithful asking, persistent shining, and bravery.