crumpled papers in the shape of a human faces

Thank You, 2020: Lessons I May Not Have Learned Without You

January 1, 2021

It sure has been a year like no other. Complaints and frustrations have been easy to come by. Though, I suspect most of us will not leave this year the way we entered it, and I wanted to reflect on what learnings I will take with me into the years ahead. I hope some of these thoughts may resonate with you and inspire you to consider what 2020 gave you as well. Here’s what I learned.

  1. We can only control our response. All of us began 2020 with various plans. The keeners among us had contingency plans. But virtually no one anticipated a global shutdown. The frustration of being at the mercy of a virus forced me to recognize the limitations of my authority. I cannot control the world around me, only my response. And for me, that was oddly uplifting. It was the difference between hope and despondency. Stoic thinkers frequently expounded on happiness simply being reality minus expectations. And it took real work to adjust my thoughts, emotions, and expectations. Though, whether it was expectations of myself or those around me, 2020 taught me that we can either be frustrated and disappointed by unmet expectations or focus on managing our controllable response and attempt to show leadership to those around us.        
  2. Our mental health needs active nourishment. This year I saw too many casualties in the form of teen suicides and rising rates of anxiety and depression among peers. It hit very close to home and occurred to me that perhaps the largest toll this crisis will take is psychological rather than physical or economic. Personally, I’m surrounded by a loving family and wonderful friends; all my basic needs are met. I’m remarkably stimulated by my work, and generally brimming with joy. Yet, the last 9 months introduced feelings of anxiety I never felt before. Even more so, my heart goes out to those that don’t share my blessings. Researchers at London School of Economics identified mental illness as the single-greatest contributor to misery and inhibitor to happiness (far surpassing poverty, lack of education, unemployment, physical illness, etc.) And while this year created the perfect cocktail for amplifying anxiety and/or depression, it also highlighted the need for us to approach our mental health with the same care as our physical health. Mindfulness, meditation, and therapy may need the same routine attention as a healthy diet, exercise and annual check-ups.  
  3. The most important investment is in our closest relationships. It’s a cliché to say that there’s nothing more valuable to me than my family. Yet, prior to this crisis, I certainly didn’t act that way. It is embarrassing to admit that I’ve likely seen my kids more in the last 9 months than in the last 9 years. Arguably, I’ve underinvested in loved ones and overinvested in passing acquaintances. Though this year we’ve all become acutely aware of the ‘deathbed issues’ – the value of those we love and cherish most. Research from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which is the longest-running study on happiness, suggests that the quality of our relationships is the single greatest contributor to happiness, longevity, and brain health. Personally, I never felt more starved for those obligatory family get-togethers I used to grumble about. I’ve realized that these relationships – along with the warm embrace of loved ones - are essential for my soul. I’ve also learned how important it is to help others improve their relationships, as there’s likely no greater gift I can give them.  
  4. We are so wildly interconnected. It took a virus to show me that a tiny ripple in Wuhan can translate into a tidal wave around the globe. What a powerful reminder of our interconnectivity and interdependency. It’s likely no coincidence that amidst this crisis, the issue of race and inequality has taken center stage. Much like an imperceptible infection, the consequences of inequality are profound and unsustainable. The African philosophy of Ubuntuism, which is literally translated as “I am because we are”, embodies the humanist view that there is a shared bond and fate connecting all of humanity. This year I’ve learned to appreciate how intertwined we are – socially, economically, spiritually, environmentally, and now digitally. Recognizing that we cannot be islands unto ourselves made me more aware of our impact on our environment, and that we carry a great responsibility for those beyond our immediate community.  
  5. Our work is our purpose. Historically, humans have been uniquely adept at acquiring power or creating wealth, but hopeless in converting that success into fulfillment and happiness. Doing so requires conscious attention to purpose. I used to think of purpose as a value, but this year highlighted the need for purpose to become a destination. It is something we create. We do not just act with purpose; we live and work for purpose. Again, I do not think it’s coincidental that this year has seen the greatest increase in Impact and ESG investing. We saw more money flow into sustainable investing in the first half of 2020 than in all of 2019 put together. And 2019 was a record-breaking year, having grown 42%, from the year prior. Large private equity sponsors such as Bain and TPG are raising multi-billion-dollar Impact vehicles. Social consciousness is permeating finance, and purpose is underpinning more economic activity than ever before. For many investors and entrepreneurs (now, myself included), it is no longer about merely checking the environmental box; it's about envisioning a better world we want to co-create.
  6. Accept the unknown and the unknowable. Despite constantly reminding clients that no one has a shinier crystal ball, I fell into the trap of trying to figure out tomorrow. At the start of this crisis, I spent many hours thinking about “what comes next”. I even wrote a white paper about my mental meanderings at the time. The radical uncertainty we experienced shook the conviction of our judgements, as our present has few precedents and our future seemed murkier than ever before. Operating in relative darkness, I turned to the experts and found myself grossly disappointed. Whether it was the cluelessly babbling politicians, or the healthcare practitioners instructing us in how to sanitize our groceries, or social media echo chambers filled with useless drivel that taxed my nervous system, none of them seemed to have a clue. Who would have thought that in a year of unprecedented unemployment and negative GDP numbers for every developed economy (except China) we’d end the year with the S&P 500 rising 15%? This year reminded me that most of our efforts to peek into the future are futile, and there is nothing like radical uncertainty to highlight perennial uncertainty. By accepting the unknown, I can skip the speculative efforts and focus on achieving the flexibility, resilience, and humility we need.
  7. Change will happen faster than we anticipate. Start learning. I wouldn’t have believed at the start of 2020 that by the end of it our business will be fully virtual; we would have hired a dozen people we never physically met and hired by dozens of others that have never met us. This speaks to our built-in resilience, and our need to build more flexibility. We have seen digital acceleration, and 2030 has been pulled back to 2020. Many of us have been (unwillingly) evicted from our previous comfort zones and reminded that they were just temporary dwellings. Whether we’re prepared for it or not, we must adapt to a quickly evolving world or be left behind. There’s no going back. Adapting is necessary to survive, but to truly thrive we need to be perpetually learning, growing, and disrupting ourselves before someone does it for us.
  8. Find the simplifying superpower. As the velocity of change increases, and the volume of information grows alongside, and my stress level has followed in tow. I don’t think our biological brains have evolved nearly as quickly as the exponential growth of technology. This disconnect between our medieval brain and the rate of change in the modern world is distressing. The original promise of technology was that the elegance of machines would save us time. But, on average, people are working harder than ever. Who would have assumed that the median work-from-home employee, instead of being happier but less productive, was more productive but far less happy?  In many ways, we’ve become slaves to the machines. Technology has broadened the range of choices but also introduced complexity exceeding our mental capacities. The superpower we’ll need to tap into is simplifying complexity and tying it back to our personal fulfillment. How do we enhance happiness, energy, and motivation? And how do we reduce inhibitors to our focus and peace of mind? That will be one of my 2021 explorations.  
  9. Presence is the world’s rarest commodity. Our attention is the prize every technology giant is after, with every new app is making it increasingly scarce. And 2020 has made it rarer still. At least in pre-lockdown meetings we could pretend to be present. It would have been rude for me to pull out my phone and start looking at the funny memes I just received. Today, every Zoom meeting is a license to multi-task. To achieve maximum productivity, we overlap calls with other activities. The net effect is a drought in presence. We miss minor social cues and aren’t bringing our full selves to the table, as we would want others to do for us. 2021 will require a proactive push in presence, in active listening. I’m learning that only by being present can I truly listen to intent rather than to words, as “what I meant” is far more important to most than “what I said”.
  10. We are so incredibly blessed. So many people are feeling the pain of illness or the stress of quarantine, and countless others have no jobs to return to. Some have no friends or family to lean on. Others’ savings are running low. Yet, with all these challenges, we are not at war. We are not experiencing a food shortage. Most of us are not sick. The Bubonic plague wiped out somewhere between 30-60% of the European population. And most of us are just spending more time on Netflix, indulging in extra wine (maybe that’s just me!), while wearing sweatpants to work. We can be more ourselves, as many formalities have been abandoned. We are more focused on substance over form. The quest for perfection has been tabled, vanity has gotten short shrift, and we are spending more time with family, while commuting less for work. We have more time to read, to listen and to think. Our absurdly good fortune cannot be overstated. Naturally, our blessings are our responsibilities. Our good fortune is accompanied by the onus to help those who do not share it. We have seen struggling restaurateurs sacrifice by delivering meals to those struggling even worse than they are. We have witnessed healthcare practitioners work themselves to the bone. And even in a year where we struggled to turn a profit, I am so proud of the fact that it did not stop us from running campaigns for Breakfast Clubs of Canada, from supporting covid-19 relief and sponsoring critical treatments in pediatric mental health.   If I could speak directly to 2020, I’d tell it this: if for nothing else, I am grateful to you for forcing us to confront, reconnect with, and explore deeper our humanity. I trust that the years ahead will be brighter because of you!