While this has felt like the longest year in recorded history, the end of the year sort of snuck up on me. Thankfully, it’s because I’ve been busy with work. But that means I’m behind on my end-of-year planning efforts.
One of the things I try to do each year is reflect upon and process the past year. What went well? What didn’t go so well?
What did I learn?
Given what’s happened this year, that last question feels like the most important one to me. Because in a year of struggle and turmoil and disruption we were forced out of our comfort zones in dramatic ways.
Being uncomfortable is a bad feeling. But, it is in discomfort that our growth is accelerated. And I know that’s been true for me this year.
Today, I’m going to share my reflections on 2020—specifically, what I learned. This is the kind of writing I’d normally do in my journal to help me gain clarity. But given that we’ve all experienced so many similar challenges this year, I thought it might be valuable to share my reflections with you.
My hope is that you’ll find something useful in these words and maybe be inspired to share some of your own learnings as well.
Here we go.
2020 Lessons and Reflections
What follows is a bunch of journal-style reflections. 2020 was a doozy.
So, what did I learn?
I am more fragile than I thought.
As a by-product of the innumerable privileges I’ve enjoyed my entire life, I’ve never doubted my ability to navigate through challenges. I’ve always thought of myself as being inherently resilient.
But as things unraveled early in the year, it affected me in a way I couldn’t have imagined. Yes, when the pandemic hit, I sprung into action trying to pivot and create value in the disruption. But, underneath that shield of action was fear.
As an entrepreneur and the primary provider of income for my family, the gravity of what was happening was intense. When paired with what felt like chaos everywhere, fear really started to take hold.
I mistook action and busyness for self-care, and as a result, I suffered burnout this summer for the first time in my life. I wrote about my journey here, and in hindsight, I’m grateful for the experience. It has helped me find a level of compassion and understanding of mental health that will shape my work and life forever.
The experience also reminded me of the critical nature of self-care, mindfulness, and connection. Without some really important people in my life, it may have taken me a lot longer to address my burnout.
Fear is powerful.
There have been a lot of times in 2020 when my faith in humanity felt like it was being fractured. Whether in response to the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, the U.S. elections, or any number of other things, it seemed everywhere I looked there were people behaving in ways that I simply couldn’t wrap my head around.
One of the things that fuels how I show up in the world and in my work is a fundamental belief that most people, at their core, are good. But at times this year, I found this belief hard to hang on to.
The thing that ultimately helped me not abandon this belief was a reminder that people everywhere are afraid. And we’ve spent the last four years in the United States under the leadership of a president who knows only one motivational tactic: fear.
People were already fearful for a variety of reasons before COVID got a stranglehold on us and from there it only got worse. When we’re afraid, we’re not our best selves. I know I’m not. Decent people sometimes behave in really bad ways through fear.
This doesn’t in any way excuse the behavior. Bad behavior is bad behavior, hard stop. When you behave in a way that harms or diminishes other people or threatens their safety or freedom, you should suffer consequences.
The lesson for me was to remember that people are afraid. And that helps me find some compassion and challenges me to search for understanding and solutions where there had only been judgment before.
Judgment demands punishment.
When I was working my way through my burnout, one of the things I realized had led me there was that I’d been caught in what I now describe as a “judgment vortex.”
When I looked around and saw so many people behaving in ways that made little sense to me, a narrative about that person started running in my head. My judgment of others was harsh and unforgiving.
Thankfully, I didn’t do much externally with that judgment. So, I just held it inside.
During my retreat this summer to start tackling my burnout, I ended up listening to a Brené Brown podcast conversation with David Kessler, the author of Find Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.
In it, one of the things David shares is that psychologically and emotionally, judgment demands punishment. When we pass judgment on someone else, either they need to be punished for their transgression or we take on the punishment for making that judgment.
This was an epiphany to me. Judgment comes with a price and I was racking up a lot of debt in my vortex. Letting go of that judgment and replacing it with something else was critical to getting myself back to feeling whole again.
The tactic I used (and continue to use) is that when I’m confronted with behavior that would typically trigger judgment, I have tried to instead make it a reminder of how important it is that I be the change I seek. These moments now act as a call to action rather than a passing of judgment.
It’s not easy and I frequently lapse, but it’s helped me a lot.
Less Empathy, more Compassion
Another podcast I listened to during my retreat was an interview with author Rutger Bregman about his new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History. Right at the moment where my faith in humanity was most fragile, his message started to reel me back in.
I ordered the book and dug in. There is so much goodness in this book, but there’s one thing in particular that really stood out and has stuck with me—and it has to do with empathy.
Typically, the advice for combatting judgment is to develop empathy. Empathy is having a moment right now. I’ve been riding the empathy train for quite a while.
That’s why the advice in this book really stopped me.
“Temper your empathy, train your compassion.”
I’d never deeply considered the differences between the two. Both demand an understanding of the other. Being curious and seeking to better understand others—who they are and why they do what they do—is a vital ingredient to both.
The difference is at an emotional level. Empathy is “feeling with.” Compassion is “feeling for.”
In the book, Rutger shares some research where they showed that having empathy for others, particularly those who are suffering or in need of support, often leads you to having negative feelings and increased pessimism. Not exactly what you’re needing if your goal is to help.
Compassion, on the other hand, fuels more positive and constructive emotional responses. The way I’ve come to understand it is that both require an opening of your heart. One requires you to take on the feelings of others (empathy) while the other invites you to share what’s inside your heart (compassion).
None of this is to say that empathy is bad or that you should stop having empathy. Empathy is a powerful tool that we should cultivate. It’s just that in some circumstances, taking on the pain of others is counterproductive when our goal is to help.
This bit of insight helped me start to rectify how to feel about my own privilege and good fortunes in this time with those who are struggling so mightily. When I leaned into empathy, it led to feelings of conflict, which got me stuck.
When I made the pivot to compassion, it helped free me to move forward, holding gratitude for my own circumstances while being motivated to take action to help others who need it.
Scarcity vs. Abundance
I’ve worked hard in my career to cultivate what I call an “abundance mindset,” particularly in my business. What that means to me is that there’s plenty of opportunity to go around.
As a result, I don’t worry about someone else popping up in my space to do similar work to what I do. I also don’t mind highlighting the work of others who do similar things to me because there is so much work to be done.
There is plenty of opportunity if you can find your way to it. But when COVID struck and my fear started to grow, I fell out of abundance mindset into a scarcity mindset.
As a speaker, March and April of this year were pretty scary. Every event for the next six months was either canceled or postponed. People who host and manage events were freaking out and all conversations about future speaking work came to a screeching halt.
There were a lot of ways to react to this. Mine was fueled by a fear of what this might mean for me and my business. My scarcity mindset led me to conclude that the speaking business was likely gone for the next year—maybe two.
Time to pivot.
But, once you settle into a scarcity mindset, everything starts to look treacherous. I started making assumptions and determinations about other areas of my business as well—assuming that either the economy or the virus would take away all opportunity.
Pivot, pivot, pivot.
This meant that I stopped scanning the horizon for opportunities in these areas. And worse, I stopped trying to find the opportunities that might be out there.
By stopping, I was essentially manifesting my own disaster.
At the same time, I had some projects in motion, so I kept myself busy. But busyness isn’t progress and things were looking scarier to me by the week.
A scarcity mindset is a dangerous place to be. The road ahead kept looking more daunting and the pressure kept mounting. All while I tried to distract myself with loads of work.
Pile this on top of a judgment vortex and you get burnout. At least that was the recipe for me.
In hindsight, what I just described to you was a reality that existed only in my mind. I am blessed and have privilege everywhere around me. Opportunities never left me, I just let my fear overtake me.
The speaking business did dramatically slow down for a time, but then it started to pick up again with virtual conferences and events. There were opportunities to be had, but I couldn’t see them. This was another thing that needed adjustment during my retreat this summer.
A big part of what helped me pull out of this was conversations with trusted friends and colleagues. Talking things through made a huge difference.
Turning the Page to 2021
2020 was a year of growth. Discomfort fuels learning and that couldn’t be more true for me. This long diatribe only captures a fraction of what I learned. I also took up the harmonica in a serious way. Plus, I rode shotgun as my wife poured her heart and soul into a campaign to be the mayor of our community only to come up a few percentage points short.
I’ve grown as a husband, parent, and human being. I’m largely proud of how I’m emerging from 2020 (albeit a few pounds too heavy with some ailing joints).
While 2021 is likely to be another year full of challenges and disruption, there’s one thing I’m sure of: the way we emerge from this is up to us. The future is still being written and we have a big role to play in how this chapter ends.
I, for one, am motivated to play a bigger role in 2021 fueled by my growth in 2020—powered by compassion and abundance.
I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes, first shared with me by my friend and co-conspirator, Joe Gerstandt:
“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.”
-R. Buckminster Fuller