Ten Lessons The Year 2020 Is Desperately Trying To Teach Us
“Your wife has a mass in her brain. We need to figure out whether the cancer originated there or started somewhere else.”
This statement, from an emergency room doctor at 9:30 p.m. on November 19, 2020, was the first time I have ever heard the word cancer associated with a member of my immediate family. In shock, I muttered an awkward joke about the doctor’s lack of foreplay and tried to wrap my head around the moment.
Then I called my friend Dr. Ari Levy, sobbed uncontrollably, and asked for help.
“Life is school and problems are curriculum.” —Rick Warren
There are specific moments when your worst fears become a reality. For many of us, these moments were happening in rapid succession in 2020. It is in these moments that life offers us courageous pathways and unimaginable possibilities.
Prior to the ER visit when people asked how I was doing, I would smile and answer: “Living the dream.” This was my way of reminding myself that every single one of my 2020 issues—and there were many—was a first-world problem.
Before my wife got sick, my 2020 list of first-world problems included:
- A failed strategy to have one of my businesses acquired, which contributed to a dramatic, gut-wrenching downsizing of the firm (and business family) that I had co-founded 29 years earlier.
- Deconstructing and selling off the pieces of an award-winning workspace my co-workers and friends had designed and created.
- COVID-related financial stress that had forced the sale of the family vacation home, rental property and a long list of other first-world assets.
- A bank that had lost patience with one of my businesses and had turned off the financial spigot to get my attention.
- A paid public speaking calendar that went from 25 scheduled appearances to zero, instantly.
- A book launch that was “COVID-ed.”
- And like all other extrovert entrepreneurs, the loneliness and self-doubt that comes with your once-in-a-century pandemic.
But other than that, life was really good. I mean it. Because until November 19, nowhere on my list were issues like health, hunger or my own mental health.
So, for the good of the whole and with the help of my thoughtful, generous friends, I give you the 10 lessons that 2020 has been desperately trying to teach me (and maybe you too).
1) Grace is a gift that seasoned leaders give themselves first.
People have always turned to you for the answers to difficult questions. This year, you probably didn’t have the answers. Nobody did. Give yourself some grace. You have earned it. Being gentle with yourself is the first step to being empathetic with the people who count on your leadership.
Yes, you have been taking care of others. But are you taking care of yourself?
2) Authenticity eats intelligence for breakfast.
Whether you are staring at someone in person or on a Zoom call, people won’t hear you if they can’t first feel you. My favorite people have always been Wizzywigs (WYSIWYG: What You See Is What You Get). The camera doesn’t lie. The people who show up as the same person in the boardroom, and lately the work space carved out of the living room, are now more valued than ever. We just published the results of a large research project that proved—among other things—that empathy and authenticity matters more than credentials and job title.
How can you become more comfortable with your unique brand of mojo?
3) A friend in need is a friend indeed.
A friend is someone who shows up in your driveway with a shovel at 3 a.m. without asking any questions. We all needed help getting through a pandemic. Who showed up for you this year?
Who needs you to show up for them right about now?
4) Gratefulness is a superhero power.
Victims look at a pandemic and see problems. Creators see every challenge through the lens of possibility—just another thing to be grateful for. I believe the long list of multibillion-dollar companies that were launched during recessions is proof of one person’s abilities to see possibilities while most see problems. Nothing accelerates innovation like a crisis.
Is it time for you to start a new company? A new job? A new journey? What possibilities for you or your industry have been hidden in plain sight?
In his incredible book Shoe Dog, Phil Knight, Nike’s founder, cites the phrase above as the best business advice he ever received. After 2020, can I get an “Amen”?
What is the most important thing for you to do in the next hour?
6) Choose your battles.
It turns out that managing through a crisis is exhausting. (Who knew?) Whether yours is related to a relationship, physical health, a business (or a pandemic), your energy has absolutely become a more limited resource. In times like these, it gives me comfort to see that my mentors can accomplish more in one hour than I can in eight. How do they do it? They choose their battles. They manage their time and energy as their most precious resource—because they have learned it is.
What is on the list of things you are NOT going to do today…or maybe ever again?
7) Faith and hope are inseparable.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. I have two drawers full of “Life is Good” T-shirts. I wear them as a reminder to myself that faith, hope and gratefulness are inseparable. Growing up Catholic, we were asked to pick a patron saint. I chose Paul, mostly because he appeared to be the most controversial option; and at the time, I considered myself a maverick. Paul wrote that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Faith, hope and gratefulness have been the fuel driving and sustaining my most productive, creative and fulfilled friends.
What practices can you adopt from your most faithful and hopeful friends and associates?
8) Science, facts, expertise and wisdom matter.
We either need to do our work and learn from research and history, or trust people who have done the work—really done the work—on our behalf. We currently live in a tribal, polarized world. But historically, tribes that survived relied on wise elders who had seen, learned and been trusted to pass on wisdom—elders who had done their work.
Who do you call a mentor? Are you learning to be more humble and curious?
9) Be present. Live in the moment.
Four years ago, one of my best friends told me he had been diagnosed with a cancer that would likely kill him.Today, he is still with us, living a well-choreographed, chemotherapy-sustaining life. He feels sick one week and better the next—just in time for his next round of chemo. On his good weeks and bad, he cherishes every moment with his wife and son. He has been given the gift of knowing every moment matters. Ironically, this is a gift that most of us “healthy” people never receive.
We can’t change the past. We are not promised the future, but we have the moment we are in right now. What distracts you from being in this perfect moment?
10) All of humanity is connected.
Mark Twain said, “I’ve never met a well-traveled racist.” The more miles we travel, the more opportunity there is to understand that all of humanity is connected by the same basic desires, the same fears, and even the same dreams. “United we stand, divided we fall” now applies to the global community. Our global community.
What can you do in 2021 for the good of the whole world?
In 1991—in the middle of a recession—I started Maddock Douglas. Our “office” was in the basement of Tom Cain Design. Tom was a guy who I had done some freelance package design for, and he had encouraged me to start my own company. I remember him winking at me and saying, “Michael, there is no way you will fail because you are too stupid to understand you shouldn’t be starting your own company.”
My first week in the basement, I pinned the following quote to the wall in front of my desk. Every day I looked at it, smiled and just…kept…going….
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” —Theodore Roosevelt
As I write this, I do not yet know how our health crisis will impact our family journey or how the economic crisis will ultimately impact my businesses. But I am certain that 2020 was a gift that I am still opening. After all, I am living the dream!