I Do New Year Themes, Not Resolutions

Themes help me solve the future while resolving some of the past

Evan Wildstein
10 min readDec 31, 2023
Image: Sagar Patil/Unsplash

I spend a lot of time pondering on the future. I wonder about it, worry for it, give myself anxiety over it. And like many people this time of year, I muse about how the near future will play out. Some folks do this vis-à-vis New Year resolutions — a practice I find paradoxical. Resolutions always seem so backward-looking, centering on micro-concerns.

Be timely.
Lose weight.
Exercise more.
Stop apologizing.

To me, resolutions have always felt success-averse — perhaps because they are idealistic constructs and we are faulty creatures? Alas, 15 years ago, with the help of two friends, I shifted my thinking from resolutions to themes. Themes, we believed, might offer latitude to explore big concepts and grow into them in however we could.

Little did we know in 2009, living in themes would become fundamental to who we are as people. Looking back I place the themes in three distinct pockets — tribus or Latin for “three.” (Why Latin? Because why not? It’s 2024 and rules no longer matter.)

Loosely defined, here is how I frame the thematic pockets —

  • Thema Unum: A very introspective period of time. Admittedly not my finest years, but as they went on, their value became apparent and important.
  • Thema Duo: I began to (slowly) pull my head out of my bottom and find gravity in my life. I hadn’t (yet) fully turned the ship from thema unum, but I was getting there.
  • Thema Tribus: This is, essentially, the me-est “me” yet; living life at a terminal velocity — that is, until the next iteration.

If you’re keen to know how they have played out, join me on a journey through the last decade-and-a-half — each theme with its own a-ha revelation.

Thema Unum

2009: F*CK IT
Because why not? I came out of the gate strong at the tail-end of 2008. Two years earlier, a toxic, near-decade relationship abruptly ended, and I jumped immediately into another that lasted 24 months. At that point — having been in 10 years of dedicated, ignore-the-rest-of-my-life romantic commitments — I decided 2009 was going to include 365 days of unabashed, do-what-I-want behavior. It was semi-glorious, for a short while, though as the months moved forward, it became a year where I discovered a lot of cracks in the pavement which had been stressed over the past decade. In 2009, the door was also closed on some very close friendships — all by the other party, all rightly because of my bad behavior. In doing so, I also realized my life was going to need a a reset, the result of which was a move from New York City to Houston.

The a-ha: Our actions can rarely be placed in a box; most everything we do has an equal, if not opposite, reaction.

Following a firecracker year, I made the conscious decision to let all the chips fall how they may. I was in my late-twenties, freshly in a new city, and trying to refashion my life after a long, complicated personal ride. Indeed, things were what they were. I dated, made a bunch of new friends, and deepened back-home friendships. It was calm after a storm and allowed some much-needed recuperation. I credit 2010 with truly being the first year I began to feel like a full-fledged adult.

The a-ha: Simmering is a healthy practice, in cooking and in life.

Following the good, intrinsic clarity of 2010, I decided to lean more outwardly. In this Year of the Tiger, I was not going to mince or mind my words. I had begun to feel comfortable in my new home, yet at the same time, I felt my inner-New Yorker start to creep out; Houston was a good place for this. It was southern, but not southern. Being a bit crass wouldn’t make anyone clutch their pearls. As a once-again, full-fledged adult, I started to settle into this caricature of myself and tell people what was on my mind — however, having learned from the previous years, this honesty came with compassion and purpose.

The a-ha: A Yiddish proverb notes, “A half-truth is a whole lie,” and that’s something I live by still to this day; my wife and family will tell you I’m a crap liar, and that’s something of which I’m darn proud.

Readjustments over the previous years led me to realize I had not done the best job taking the best care of myself. I was, perhaps, being a bit too social (did someone say happy hour?) and taking too many liberties with sleep and self-care. In 2012, I reshaped for myself what it meant to be selfish. I started running and exercising, and eating better — not great, but better. Nearing my 30th birthday as a single person began to make me feel some questionable feelings. I figured, if I’m ever going to meet the right person and be ready and right for them, I certainly had to be ready and right with myself. And it was a leap year, so I had one whole extra day to do it!

The a-ha: It’s never too late to start being better with, and for, ourselves.

Thema Duo

2013: DON’T BE A D*CK
I have always considered myself a bit of a comic, but it took a few years in Houston to realize my Seinfeld-ian humor didn’t quite translate south of the Mason Dixon. I had several close friends say, “You should be nicer… people don’t understand your sarcasm down here and you sound mean.” So 2013 became the year of wrapping all the self-learnings of thema unum into one pay-it-forward year of good behavior. This was the year I also met my wife, and while I can’t say for sure that my new-nice behavior did the trick, I’m going to use the conditional logic property (p → q) and assume it did.

The a-ha: It’s never a bad time to be a good person.

2014: BE BOLD
I can’t exactly remember the impetus behind this theme, though a ton of big things came from it. I nudged my way into a new job which really catapulted my career forward in a way I wasn’t expecting. Was I ready for it? Absolutely not. Did I kill it? Sometimes… but at least well enough that people took notice, and I haven’t applied for a job since. And as bold gestures go, in 2014 I got engaged. ’Twas a bold year indeed, and that was a good thing because little did I know the next half-decade would be filled with big, heavy things.

The a-ha: I stand at a towering five-foot-three, and it was only around this time I learned my personality was bigger than my person.

Knowing I’d be married by the end of 2015, I wanted to lean in with smiles. I’m a jovial personality, but as in 2013, I needed to constantly remind myself to wear that on my face. “Peace,” suggested Mother Teresa, “begins with a smile,” and that’s a good a reason as any to smile more. This year we also learned the devastating news of my mother-in-law’s cancer diagnosis. When your most important person’s most important person becomes ill, you learn to wear a smile like it’s a uniform.

The a-ha: Until this year, I never realized how a simple facial feature could help ease big, heavy burdens.

Not long after getting married, I made the decision to take a big leap with my career and head in a different direction. The new job which awaited me was going to be supremely helpful on the new path, but in all measurable ways, it was a step back from what I had been doing. In this way, the perfect theme for 2016 was all-about-modesty. At this point, I had spent over a dozen working years in an industry which put me very much in the spotlight (figuratively and literally) and it was a bit of a stretch to get comfortable with the view from the behind the curtain.

The a-ha: Humility is not simply a virtue, it is a practice.

It’s no surprise the goal of this year was simple, yet reactive. As the themes historically are chosen in the preceding fall, we all know what happened in November 2016 to prompt a theme like be a nice human — a certain political candidate ascended to the role of commander-in-chief, someone who wouldn’t know the idea of niceness if it was smeared on his Twitter wall. Our family also suffered a huge loss at the end of 2016, and all I could do as I looked ahead was think about how many other people, at any given time, were experiencing tragedy. Much like the idea of more frequent smiles in 2015, I wanted 2017 to be simple, effective, and kind.

The a-ha: Some of the themes stick with me longer than others, and being nice built a bit of muscle memory I still enjoy to this day.

Though I loathe the term “mentor” I do have someone who acts as a guiding force. As 2017 neared its end, this person not-so-subtly advised me that, perhaps, I was spreading myself thin in several areas of my life. I joined a bunch of nonprofit boards, created a blog, and started suffering from a bit of YOLOFOMO. The goal for 2018 was to feign some personal myopia and realign my priorities on the things that were really important, like my family and my work. In her book Rapt, Winifred Gallagher mused, “Attention is as essential to productivity as it is to relationships,” and I rather enjoyed the deeper focus and attention.

The a-ha: Sometimes looking through the keyhole of our lives can be an expansive experience.

Out of sheer laziness the 2019 theme wasn’t chosen until the New Year began. However, almost as soon as the clock struck midnight, I learned of a promotion at work and decided the next 365 would be taking a cue from 2018 and building on presence with action. In an augmented professional role I had a lot to prove, and felt a great deal of energy and responsibility to get things done. With the help of those in my orbit, I found my stride and reached some personal and professionally huge achievements. I also began writing a ton and pondering how I could continue growing, which led to thinking about graduate programs after nearly 20 years off from school.

The a-ha: I learned I was capable of more than I thought and realized there was an exceptionally long, important road ahead.

Thema Tribus

2020: ?????
Looking at a text message from December 12, 2019, the friends with whom I do these annual themes said, “We need a big goal for 2020 — it needs to be super positive.” We landed on: All about the goodness. However, given how 2020 unfolded right from the start, the theme never actually materialized. During a year when life all but paused, all of us, everywhere, simply did our best to survive; goodness would have to wait. That said, I kept my job, my family kept our health, and I even finally began my grad school journey. Plenty for which to be grateful.

The a-ha: This great equalizing year pulled back the curtain on my fortune and privilege, and demanded I do more for myself and the world.

Some of my best, creative ideas come during jogs, and most of them begin to form while I’m warming up. While I didn’t jog nearly as much as 2012 (be selfish) I did made space for my body. The idea of stretching (physically and metaphorically) became really important, so the big theme for 2021 was just that — stretch. In 2021 I brought exercise back into my life, continued expanding my knowledge in grad school, and earnestly began a big writing project I’d been dreaming about.

The a-ha: Getting intentionally outside our comfort zones can be hugely rewarding.

You’ll notice some of these themes help me expand on, or heal from, the experiences of prior years. After a global health crisis — and several years of my wife and I trying to start our family — 2022 became one such year. I put guardrails around my personal time, left a miserable work situation, and focused on finishing grad school. And, as the universe is wont to do, slowing down apparently opened up space for a baby. In the summer of that slow year, we learned our son would join us the following spring.

The a-ha: Sometimes the biggest things in your life will happen while you’re focusing on the still, small things. Or, as John Lennon borrowed (stole?) from Alan Saunders, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

If you watched the 2022 Academy Awards, you likely saw Will Smith slap Chris Rock. After the incident, Smith said something I found wildly beautiful: “I took my hard and made it hard for other people.” His version of “hurt people hurt people.” Several unfathomably good things happened to me in 2023 — the birth of my son and the publishing of my book, specifically — so I wanted to take my good and make it good for other people. I widely shared my flavor of humor, I made more time to support others’ professional growth, and I helped clean up messes I didn’t make.

The a-ha: Simply being grateful for good things no longer sufficed. Turning gratitude into behaviors made a world of difference.

2024: RE-LEARN
Beyond the mindbending-ly wonderful experience of being a new dad, I knew having a child would come with some professional and physical challenges — like back pain, weight gain, work distractions, and an uber-focus on everything related to home life. As I lean into 2024, my big goal is to re-learn some of the biggest lessons from the past 15 years. I want to get back in touch with some version of my stretched, fit body. I want to practice being a better nonprofiteer. I want to reconnect with all the friends I haven’t spoken with since 2022.

I don’t expect any big hustles this year. Rather, a successful 2024 will conclude with a slimmer waistline, some pride in my work, and a million friendly phone calls.

Thank you. Thank you for journeying with me on this trip down memory lane with a nod to the future. If you treat your annual goals in a similar way, send me a note. I’d love to know how it works (or doesn’t); I expect to be theming my way forward for a long time. Happy New Year!