Life Lessons From 2020
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
This year, more than any other in recent memory, really, REALLY needs to end. Wrapping up 2020 will not erase the issues facing the industry, the country, and the world. If only it were that simple. Still, even if 2020 was one long dumpster fire of a year, we sure learned a lot about ourselves. So, I thought I would give my closing arguments for 2020.
From what I have seen and heard, we will remember this year for the rest of our lives. I have wondered what people would say? What would we tell people decades from now? This is what I did in 2020, or I should have done. This is who I was. This is what changed.
Talking with the Al Thuraya Tribe (peers, customers, family members, and teammates) gave me many thoughts and reminded me of my experiences. Some of the shared experiences were the most remarkable years of their lives, while others had one of the worst years of their lives.
I must admit, some of their insights are very painful, and some are very enlightening. I have condensed those into six insights for you to ponder.
Insight 1: You Only Really Know Who You Are When Everything Is Taken from You.
What I have witnessed in my 58 years on this earth is that losing something or someone determines how much you value it. I share this from my own military and personal experience, but also in talking with people. I have learned that the best strategy for determining what truly matters to you is by cutting things out of your life, then seeing what you miss and what you do not.
Early in the year, we have witnessed so much. In talking with the Al Thuraya tribe many of them discovered they did not miss many of their friends and family. Many reported that much of what they spent their lives doing pre-pandemic was not who they wanted to be. Some made the startling discovery that they had not really known who they were!
So, a personal discovery for me was interacting with people. I always knew that I was okay being alone. My entire military career was about being with teammates and alone, and I was comfortable with that. But what I found was that I need to reach out to my tribe and see how they are doing. In short, I need to help others and support people around me who could not handle being alone. This pandemic showed me how much I need to be more supportive and understand the people around me. It is easy for me to be alone, but I also need to help others who need to feel part of what we call the Al Thuraya Tribe. It felt good to help others and support them.
I guess I can say that this theme of self-discovery will continue to surface throughout this article and play a part in many of the other lessons. Some of these realizations will be positive and joyous. Others will be dark and upsetting. But, in each case, by stripping away what we took for granted, the challenges of 2020 clarified for people who they actually are.
Insight 2: A Crisis Does Not Change People; It Amplifies Who They Already Are:
This one might be a little hard-hitting, but here we go. First, I have noticed that this pandemic has brought a kind of Factory Reset default-setting mode. I have seen that the anxious became more anxious and the optimistic became more optimistic. The needy became needier. The paranoid became more paranoid.
And so, if you are a terrible friend and not generous with your time or energy, there's no more hiding behind working long hours or endless business trips. If you're a shady, shifty fucker, there are no more excuses to cover up your duplicitous behavior.
I found this true in my own life. I have a tendency to be a workaholic and a bit optimistic. Throughout the pandemic, I have battled through weeks of being too optimistic, usually by inspiring, long hours shaping and reshaping possible outcomes or by distracting myself with creating new work.
Well, it was about mid-December when I realized that I had not taken a full weekend off in over 10 months. I was exhausted, burnt out, and miserable. I have since had to force myself to slow down a bit.
That amplification of our neuroses had created an "it got worse before it got better" dynamic for many people. Early on, I am sure many people were like me, we discovered a lot of stuff about ourselves that we had been covering up for years. And as the months wore on, I and I am sure we were forced to confront and deal our their issues.
Insight 3: The Little Things Are the Most Important:
This is so personal for me. I always address this and use this in my personal and business life. One way I like to think about this crazy pandemic life is that it's kind of like a science experiment. You do not really know how things affect you until you can isolate them enough to see their full effects. But the reality of life is that every moment of every day, we encounter innumerable little things.
Yet, despite this and the massive influence of social media, it's so easy for us to get swept up in the grand scheme of things and forget to pay attention to the small stuff. Today's society is always pushing us to look ahead, forget the little things, and focus on "the big picture.
But somehow, we need to learn how to pay attention to these little things because, when put in perspective, they build up over the years and eventually come to define us. Here are just a few reasons why you should learn to pay attention to the little things in your life:
1. They keep us from getting overwhelmed by the bad stuff.
2. They teach us crucial life lessons.
3. They strengthen relationships
4. They leave us with some of the most important moments
5. They lead us to the bigger things in life
I have dealt with so many tragic things in my personal life, like the loss of teammates' lives, the loss of a wife, the loss of family members, and failed business ventures. This may sound dramatic, but I have developed a much greater respect for the downstream effects of small, simple choices. Having my day basically be the same every day for nine months straight, it's much easier to notice how these slight shifts affect my mood and energy.
When all of this is over, I hope to continue some of the basic routines that I've adopted this year, simply because they make me a healthier, more sane individual. I imagine many people feel the same.
Insight 4: We Consistently Underestimate Our Resilience and Adaptability
I am reminded of Samuel Beckett quote that I learned in Primary School -- a Military Academy school for boys. I was 10 years old when I read it: "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on."
As humans, we assume we know what it is like to have a beautiful life, but the reality is that we must build a beauty for life. As a young child attending a private military school, I was taught and still hold that a leader develops in the period between these two conflicting thoughts: I can't go on. I'll go on.
You must lead and inspire your soldiers from a place where they will realize: I will go on. Our personal mission must be to go on and continue to grow and develop.
Like most things in life, leadership, personal habits, and resilience are a muscle. It strengthens as we train and build it but atrophies when not stressed. Resilience is a skill that can and should be taught, trained, reinforced, and then leveraged both in our personal lives and our teams for long-term success.
Remember, through all of life's challenges, we must find the ways to go from "I can't go on" to "I'll go on." More importantly, we as people and as leaders must get our people, family members, and society to make that transition too. And so, I impart to you: May the force be with you.
Insight 5: Fear Is Dangerous
I have witnessed and have learned that fear drives people to be highly selfish, capable of only thinking of themselves, their own health, and convenience. Sad. Fear is not merely an emotion; it is dangerous. In my military career and then as a civilian, I have often excused others' behavior in crisis as just fear manifesting itself and preached humanity. Still, as things got more intense, you can see how dangerous and destructive fear can be. So this goes back to insight three (The Little Things Are the Most Important). I have witnessed that it can override our sense of altruism. Soon enough, it is like rats fleeing a sinking ship, panicking, and hurting each other. The reality is that it is not enough to simply recognize, acknowledge, and forgive our fears. You must find ways to crush it by finding reassurance and a sense of security – and giving others a sense of security in any way they need it. In my past military, I accepted my mortality, and then a personal tragedy happened. My late wife was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and told she had 8 months to live.
The fear was dangerous to her; she stopped eating, lost so much weight, and was giving up on life. I never thought I would be having the conversation about accepting our mortality -- those talks I gave to my teammates in my military life -- to the one I married and loved. But we had that talk. There is a benefit in accepting that someday you, too, will die. Recognizing your mortality can help you take stock of your life and open your eyes to the opportunities in front of you. Embracing your mortality can be a catalyst to create something that will outlast you, touch lives that will outlive you, and experience the places and things you'd always filed away in your mind's "someday" drawer. Now is the only time there is. When you recognize that life is finite, you can finally get life right. To live as you mean it. Or, you can let mortality cripple you. You can let your fear of death shrink your life.
I gave you a window into my life because fear affects our ability to reason and see the commonality. After her passing, I spoke about this at a conference, where I shared that fear changes our perspective more than we realize. Fear basically forces us to not think. We humans usually have assumptions about everything, so the fear usually forces us to believe in those assumptions without much thinking. The solution which I found is to have the courage to accept even the worst of things that could happen. In short, I apply this to anyone working in our companies or even working with a customer. To overcome fear is to have the idea of negative visualization to imagine the worst-case scenario and challenge yourself to mentally prepare for it and become comfortable with it. This comfort will then eliminate or at least drastically reduce the emotional reaction to many of your fears.
Insight 6: You Have No Excuse to Not Be Who You Want to Be
Okay, on a lighter note, people love to bitch and moan that they do not have enough time. In most cases, I have found that it is rarely a problem of time, but usually a priority problem. People spend hours scrolling through Instagram or an entire weekend binge-watching Netflix and then complain they do not have the time to take that online course or go to the gym.
In many cases, removing the time constraints will show you that you are that problem all along.
I can certainly relate to this lesson. In prior years, I had so many meetings, calls, business trips, and deadlines, it was never a question of what I needed to be doing on any given day. But when the lockdown started and all those meetings and trips were suddenly canceled, I quickly found myself enjoying not having to be so predictable; it gave me more time to be creative and support my teams and customer in new ways. I found that I could spend time on long walks and talk to myself about my ideas and concepts.
Like any other struggle in life, you can dictate how you will live in the pandemic, or you can let the pandemic dictate to you. Just because you are confined to your apartment does not mean you do not still have complete control over how you spend your time and grow as a person. Just because your gym is closed doesn't mean you are limited in your social interactions.
It simply means you must be willing to take responsibility for adapting to the circumstances. I feel as though many people forgot this year that freedom mostly does not reside outside of ourselves, but rather it resides within our own minds.
So, I will end this piece and year 2020 with my closing statement: No matter what challenges we face in the world, our fate is ultimately up to ourselves.
Happy New Year's.