14 Life Lessons I Learned During the Year of COVID

A Year Unlike Any Other (Or Was It?)

Photo by Chris Charles on Unsplash

One year ago, we received the agonizing phone call from our daughter, Maddie, that we wouldn’t be traveling to the University of Michigan that weekend. Gymnastics season was officially over. The last three meets of her senior season at Ball State had just been canceled.

Although we figured it was coming, the official word was difficult to hear. She was devastated, and so were we.

Many of you have similar stories. For almost everyone in the US, and previously or eventually the world, that weekend started the quarantine. Little did we know how long the effects would last.

We’ve now spent a year in the US dealing with the SARS-COV-2 virus and the resultant COVID-19. The year was unique in some obvious ways, but in many ways, it was just like any other year.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned. These may also help you, or at least inform your opinion. Some of them are directly related to the past year’s events, whereas others are simply due to life.

Hindsight Provides Insight

What turned out to be Maddie’s last gymnastics meet was a home meet against the University of North Carolina, and it was senior day. In addition to my wife and I, both of her brothers and grandparents made the 10-hour journey.

As her final 90-second floor routine came to a close, she nailed her last double-back, threw her hands in the air, and was mobbed on the floor by her teammates.

The Final Moment

And then it was over, without foreknowledge or pomp and circumstance.

No ability to mentally prepare for the last meet of her life. No ability to prepare for what was already to be a difficult transition.

Tears of joy turned to tears of sadness and anger.

But as it so often is, hindsight has been a wonderful provider of insight.

My wife and I now look back fondly on that final meet, and how her career ended. We celebrated senior day with the extended family. She had a great final routine to culminate what had been a tough senior season. COVID canceled three meets, but they had already competed in the previous ten, and we were in attendance for each. Comparing last season to the restrictions of this season, we had it easy.

Even if I had a magic wand, I wouldn’t change a thing, and I’m very grateful for how it turned out.

Sometimes we just need a little distance and perspective to reshape our feelings about a particular event.

Technology Has Helped Us Evolve Community

Imagine the quarantine without Zoom, Slack, Teams, Skype, and FaceTime.

Imagine the quarantine without smartphones, streaming services, and social media.

Imagine the quarantine without the internet.

Thank a software developer next time you see one.

Technology does have downsides that we need to address, but I learned that quarantine with technology is infinitely better than quarantine without technology.

Technology has helped us build new paradigms of community.

Once the crisis has passed, physical communities will grow back and thrive. We want and need them to, but I’m optimistic that the communities and conversations we’ve built virtually will continue.

However…

I Need Physical Community (Even as an Introvert)

I’ve worked from home full-time for the past four years, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other work situation. I also acknowledge that little changed for me day-to-day when the quarantine started because I was already a remote worker.

But I miss my once per month trip to the office.

I miss those few days a month of personal connection, whiteboard sessions, and social camaraderie. These interactions do wonders for my mood, motivation, and productivity.

I also miss in-person worship.

Like many churches, mine pivoted nicely, rose to the challenge, and started broadcasting on YouTube. But there’s just something about the shared experience in the room.

I’m an introvert, and I don’t need much personal interaction beyond the people “in my bubble,” but I sure am looking forward to monthly trips to the office and the buzz of Sunday morning worship.

Knowledge Work Companies Must Embrace Remote Work Forever

Knowledge workers all over the planet were sent home en masse in the first few months of 2020, and we didn’t miss a beat. I haven’t found published statistics, but I suspect knowledge work will show up as one of the few economic bright spots during the year.

Companies that embrace remote work will win. The ones that do it better will win faster.

To clarify, “remote work” doesn’t have to mean full-time remote or no office at all. A remote workforce that gathers regularly but infrequently is the holy grail for the future of knowledge work.

Workers want flexibility in both time and geography. Not every industry offers that capability, but knowledge work does.

If you are a remote worker and struggling, here are some resources that have helped me:

A corollary — Billions of square feet of suburban Class B office space will face a reckoning over the next five years. The kind of reckoning that requires creativity to solve. Therefore, some owners and agents will pivot and thrive, and some will lose their shirts.

Experts and Scientists Are Also Humans With Opinions

I was listening to Professor Brian Keating on a recent episode of James Altucher’s podcast (episode 690), and he had a great point about the phrase “believing in science.” Here is what I hope to be an accurate paraphrasing of his point:

[“Believing in science” or “believing in the science” is not a thing because science is not subject to belief. Science is a quest for knowledge. Believing in science is an anti-science proposition because this quest is never complete. Questioning the facts, which are actually theories, is the core of science.]

Somehow, however, the phrase “believe in the science” and its evil cousins “the science says” and “because science” has entered our vernacular as if one could choose to believe in science or that science has an objective view on a particular matter or ontological power.

Scien-tists have a particular view on a matter. Not science. Science has no view on anything.

Today, politicians, news outlets, and Facebook friends scream, “See! I told you so!” by tossing those phrases around like self-evident truths. And they’re always helpfully accompanied by a link to a science article that guarantees you will change your opinion.

The quest for knowledge (i.e., science) requires inductive and deductive endeavors. At the core of these endeavors is a hypothesis (i.e., opinion) and then data acquired through experimentation, calculation, and reason. The scientific quest results in conclusions, which are theories about the facts. Theories are interpretations of the data, and by definition, an interpretation is informed by the person who makes it. All experts and scientists bring their humanity and perspective to the table when they interpret the data.

Science demands questioning interpretations, and we have a problem when we shut down the debate.

I don’t mean to say we don’t know anything, and scientists are not to be trusted. We do know a pile, and we should listen to experts and scientists to provide interpretations of the data for us, but we must also be aware of the human agendas, especially when we are at the front end of a scientific process.

Unfortunately, some scientists and many non-scientists have started using “because the science says ” as a euphemism for their opinion.

Watching the competing opinions during the pandemic has helped me separate the thoughtful experts and scientists from those pushing an agenda. Thoughtful scientists use the following types of statements:

  • “The data leads me to think…”
  • “Our current theory under the specific circumstances…”
  • “My interpretation of the results of the study is…”
  • “Our view of the current scientific evidence indicates…”
  • “Here’s what we know and what we don’t yet know…”

When you see an expert or scientist using these statements, these are people to whom you should be listening. These are the men and women who are staying true to the scientific quest.

We won’t fully know what “the science says” about COVID and how we handled it until later. We know a heckuva lot more today than we did a year ago, but be wary of the “know-it-all” expert shaking his fist in anger at someone else who doesn’t agree.

“Because science” is not an argument nor an answer.

All Public Health Policies Must Start By Encouraging a Healthier Population

The question of private or socialized medicine, health insurance costs, COVID testing and vaccines, financial incentives, eldercare, and big pharma aren’t the problems. They are problems, but they aren’t the problem. Nor are they the solution.

They are shiny objects meant to distract and inflame.

The problem is that our collective health is terrible, and it’s on a downward trend.

A healthy population is a better virus-resilient population. A healthy population requires the least amount of tax dollars, pharmaceuticals, medical effort, and health insurance.

We need public policy that encourages better personal and collective health.

We need public policy that creates an affordable, healthier food supply and discourages widespread medication. Let’s make “health food” a redundant term.

We need public policy that eliminates food deserts and healthcare-business-driven lobbying.

We need public policy that fully incentivizes people to be healthy and fully deters megaprofits on keeping people sick.

Let’s get out of the business of making healthcare costs a normal part of everyone’s life by helping people be healthier versions of themselves.

Safety is a Religion

Safety is a big deal right now and has been growing over the last few generations.

I’m not talking about safety on the job site, safety codes for buildings and vehicles, or airline pilots’ safety procedures.

I’m talking about Safety of the highest order — Safetyanity, the religion, with its followers, the Safety Fundamentalists (SF).

The commandments of Safetyanity:

  • Thou shalt not physically harm another person under any circumstance
  • Thou shalt not expose oneself to the possibility of physical harm under any circumstance
  • Thou shalt not expose another to the possibility of physical harm under any circumstance
  • Thou shalt not allow another to expose themself to physical harm under any circumstance
  • Thou shalt publicly report or condemn a violator
  • Thou shalt make all decisions by using physical safety as the highest priority

Like other religious fundamentalists, the SF’s walk around silently judging or publicly condemning those who aren’t up to standards or don’t see the light. If a non-SF dares to question the safety dogma, she is to be pitied, ridiculed, or excommunicated.

Like other religious fundamentalists, hypocrisy lurks close by.

Yet life requires exposure to physical risk. Waking up, going to work or school, getting groceries, walking down the street, driving in a car, seeing one’s loved ones — living.

We must consider safety, and we must be prudent, but life is worth the risk.

The Vaccine’s True Power is Hope

We don’t yet know the universal physical efficacy of the various COVID-19 vaccines currently being distributed (although it’s looking outstanding so far). We will only understand the true physical benefits over time and in hindsight.

We still have many questions:

Does it work for everyone?
Will we need yearly boosters?
Will new strains require new vaccines?
Can I still transmit if I’ve had the vaccine?
What are the long-term side effects of the vaccine?
If I’ve had COVID, do I need the vaccine?

However, the collective mental and emotional efficacy is undeniable. People are starting to imagine and discuss “post-COVID” life. We’re sleeping better, our moods are better, and our fear is abating.

Hope is a powerful drug.

When Properly Motivated, Focused, and Unified, We Can Do Amazing Things

My favorite scene from the movie Apollo 13 takes place a short time after the famous, “Houston, we have a problem.” A group of engineers stands around a table staring at a mish-mash of pieces and parts available to the spacecraft crew. Their mission is to turn that pile of stuff into an air filter because C02 buildup is slowly asphyxiating the crew (here’s a great article on what they did).

I love this scene because a) I’m an engineer, and b) look what we can do when we’re properly motivated, focused, and unified in mission — we can turn a bunch of spare parts into a life-saving air filter from 100,000 miles away.

Now bring on the COVID vaccinations.

How did the COVID vaccines come to market so fast with such high efficacy? Was it questionable science, breaking the rules, and skipping steps? Should we be concerned that we’re about to be vaccinated with something harmful or that hasn’t been studied well enough?

Heck no — when it’s your turn, you should have no hesitation to take your place in line.

Academia, regulators, and industry moved from theory to practice quickly because they had laid the groundwork for years in research, policy, mass production, and distribution. When COVID hit, they were almost immediately properly motivated (and funded), focused, and unified in purpose.

As in politics, unified doesn’t mean a single correct solution or that we all believe the same thing. It means we all agree to row the boat towards the same destination.

United we stand.

National Politics is Trending in a Terrible Direction

It’s trending toward more division in a time where more unity is required. We’re moving in a direction where party affiliation is a defining characteristic of a person. That scares me.

If you don’t wear my color, you’re stupid, and you hate people, hate liberty, hate the constitution, hate science, you’re selfish, you’re privileged, you’re a socialist, you’re a racist, you can’t do anything for yourself, and you’re a bad person.

This trend isn’t due to partisan principles and philosophies. Differing philosophies and individual beliefs about the best way to run our country is critical to our collective perspective and direction.

In fact, the polarization isn’t yours nor my fault. The parties have outright manipulated you and me.

They encourage polarization because it directly benefits them — financially. The farthest 5% of the left and right fund 90% of each party.

Unfortunately, national politics has never been about policies and political philosophy. That’s not a new trend. National politics has always been about winning, but now it’s moving towards winning and burying your opponent.

I’m not optimistic because continued polarization prevents us from working together on solutions, creates animosity in communities, and ultimately hurts our citizens.

Divided we fall.

We’ve Lost the Thread on Authenticity

During the past year, my wife and I ripped through the 54 episodes plus a feature-length film that is Downton Abbey. I was all-in on the Crawleys.

I’m glad, though, that I don’t live in early 20th century Britain. The strict socio-economic classes, the lack of control within those classes, and the etiquette and facade that govern everyday life seem overly pedantic and draining. I wouldn’t trade our current culture for 1920’s nobility or servant life.

However, there is one thing from that culture that I wish we had in today’s society — public decorum in conversation, especially in conflict.

Today, we yell at each other and rarely listen. Everybody has a broadcast studio in their pocket, and the method to gaining attention is to pick a side, yell as loud as you can, and call the other side dumbasses. So now we have a culture where self-righteousness and condescension are part of the mainstream discourse, all in the name of authenticity.

The problem is that we’ve lost the thread on what authenticity means. We’ve come to see authenticity as “my feelings at the moment” and all feelings, however fleeting, are valid to act upon.

But when each of us looks inside, we recognize that our feelings bounce around, and we’re a lot less sure of our opinions than we publicize. That’s certainly true for me.

Part of the solution is to define authenticity better. Here is the best I’ve come across. It’s from Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection”:

“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.

Choosing authenticity means
* cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable;
* exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle; and
* nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe we are strong enough.

Authenticity demands Wholehearted living and loving — even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it.

Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.”

Back to Downton Abbey…

Another part of the solution is to take a lesson from early 20th-century Britain for discussing difficult topics. They present a framework and model for how we can authentically engage in a public and private discourse towards useful ends.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. No matter how passionately opposed you are to another’s opinion, you can still sit down and have a pleasant dinner together.
  2. There is a proper time, place, and company for difficult discussions.
  3. Leave heat of the moment emotions out of difficult discussions.
  4. You can win and lose an argument with dignity, and many times allowing your foil to lose with dignity pays dividends.
  5. The bigger picture demands an examination of one’s feelings.
  6. Politics do not trump love.

The Crawleys have taught us how to speak to each other when we don’t agree, including if we vehemently disagree.

I now find myself asking, “How would Lord Grantham or Mr. Carson handle this conversation?” and it’s honestly helped quite a bit.

A Pellet Smoker Makes Good BBQ Available to Us Grill Hacks

I was a propane grill guy for years, until July of this past year.

I used to think propane was the only practical choice. For me, charcoal is only practical when on vacation. And offset stick smokers — well, I honestly don’t have the brains, nor patience, nor storage space for all that nonsense.

But I sure do love the food that comes off of them. Good BBQ is an art and one that I appreciate immensely.

Enter the Camp Chef Woodwind pellet smoker. The veil has been lifted. The combination of the set-it-and-forget-it technology of the pellet smoker coupled with the concept of cooking to internal temperature has been a revelation.

If you’re a non-expert, grill-hack like me, and you like BBQ, do yourself a favor and give it, or one of the many tech-infused pellet smokers on the market a look.

Sleep is the Most Important

I work on my physical health by eating real food, exercising daily, and getting enough sleep. Even though I’m 51, my Garmin tells me I have the fitness level of someone in their early 20’s. I assume that’s a case of toxic positivity from my watch, but I’m excited enough about it to brag to you all.

However, this last year has taught me that sleep is the most important of these three categories because good sleep has sometimes eluded me. Maybe you’ve experienced the same.

I’ve had shoulder issues, and with the general weirdness in the world, I’ve struggled to get a restful sleep at times. And when my sleep pattern is interrupted, everything gets worse.

Without enough sleep, my mental sharpness and energy suffer — my desire to do both mental and physical activities wanes. My discipline is tested, so I’m more inclined to reach for easy and crappy food. My mood sucks, I’m grumpy towards others, and I’m in no way close to my best self.

I don’t like myself without enough sleep.

Luckily, I have found some remedies that have helped me sleep better. If you have trouble sleeping, or falling to sleep, here is a routine that has helped me. Maybe some or all of it will help you:

  1. Be intentional about going to bed, i.e., pick a time. With a regular bedtime, your body finds a rhythm and naturally starts to adapt to get you in sleep mode.
  2. Put the phone and the news down (in fact, quit the news forever) for at least an hour before going to bed. Stop watching the numbers (you can’t control them) and the talking heads (you can’t control them), and stop listening to what your Facebook friends are egregiously offended by today (you can’t control them). You gotta disconnect from the stuff that irks you or riles you up.
  3. If you have some physical issues, take time to take care of yourself. Stretching, ice, heat, yoga…whatever is the prescription, prioritize the time in the evening.
  4. Spend an hour of quality time unwinding with your partner and/or kids. Watch a show (not the f’n news), play a game, work the hobby, discuss the day, or do whatever it is that you love to do together. A happy, content and disconnected mind is primed for rejuvenating sleep.
  5. Layoff the alcohol 3 hours before and caffeine 8 hours before your bedtime. This is the one that I too often violate. If you enjoy a beer or glass of wine in the evening (I sure do), have it earlier in the evening.
  6. Read before getting into bed or in bed. This is probably my most important sleep remedy. Reading has a very different cognitive effect on your mind than watching TV or engaging in social media.

Focus on What You Can Control

Now, more than ever.

Focusing on what you can control is not focusing solely on self-interest or taking a selfish approach to life. It’s closer to the Gandhi saying, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

It means letting go of the things that are outside of your sphere of influence, and working on what’s inside your sphere. Letting go of unnecessary worry and recognizing the control you have over your life, regardless of what’s happening around you. It means taking care of what you can to make a positive impact on the world.

You can’t control government regulations and restrictions, but you can control your attitude and what you do within those guidelines.

You can’t eliminate exposure to viruses, but you can control your health and your behavior.

You can’t control what others say about you, but you can control what you tell yourself.

You can’t control your results and outcomes, but you can control your activities and process.

You can’t control the news and social media content, but you can control what and how much you consume.

This past year gave us many lessons. But then again, so does every year, if you’re willing to learn them.

If you have some of your own lessons submit them as per the following submission guidelines:

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