“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!
For many CEOs, leadership development is an ongoing challenge, and not just because they’re short on time.
The problem comes from having too many options for leadership development, and too few ways to measure the ROI of those methods. How does a leader know whether it’s worth it to take that training program, watch that webinar or read that book?
Adding to this challenge, CEOs are under increasing pressure to expand their leadership competencies in a fast-changing world. In Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Trends survey, 80% of respondents agreed that 21st-century leadership has “new and unique requirements” important to their organization’s success.
Here, we look at seven ways CEOs can develop as effective leaders, considering the potential perks and pitfalls of each option. Master these 7 laws of leadership to take your business to a new level.
It’s no coincidence that many world-class leaders, such as Warren Buffet and Elon Musk, are also voracious readers. Reading spurs creative thinking, builds vocabulary, sharpens communication skills and encourages reflection — all qualities that are important for strong leadership.
As a tool for leadership development, books present two main challenges: One, it’s easy to fall into the trap of passively reading about ideas instead of actively applying those ideas. Two, it’s hard for CEOs to know what to read, considering the sheer number of titles available (Amazon alone has more than 60,000 books on leadership).
Two suggestions: One, consider this list of business books recommended by Vistage members and executive coaches. Two, read something that has nothing to do with leadership at all. “Absorb yourself in a work of fiction, like The Alchemist from Paolo Coelho” to reduce stress, sharpen your focus and open your mind to new ideas, says Gair Maxwell, a Vistage speaker.
2. Online learning
There’s a lot to love about online learning: It’s convenient — something you can do at any time, on any device and from any place in the world. It’s customizable — allowing you to learn at your own pace and focus where you want to. It’s effective — often featuring visuals and interactive components that make it easier to retain information. It’s also usually less expensive than in-person courses.
The downside? Online learning doesn’t allow you to have face-to-face interactions or informal conversations with peers, both of which are highly valuable for leader development. You might also find it hard to stay motivated and engaged in a leadership training when the material is delivered remotely. Finally, online courses usually aren’t useful for building relationships or expanding your network.
Whether delivered through a one-day workshop or a week-long business school program, seminars are a great way to take a deep dive into a leadership issue and develop stronger leadership skills. They get you out of your day-to-day routine, give you the time and space to focus, and create opportunities for networking with industry leaders. Most leaders also find it energizing and inspiring to learn directly from experts.
However, seminars fall short if they emphasize content more than context. This is a common problem among leadership development programs, note the authors of the McKinsey Quarterly article, Why leadership development programs fail. “Too many training initiatives … rest on the assumption that one size fits all and that the same group of skills or style of leadership is appropriate regardless of strategy, organizational culture, or CEO mandate,” the authors write.
Leadership development webinars offer a convenient way to access expert insights from anywhere in the world. Typically catering to specific audiences with specific challenges, they offer targeted learning in a condensed timeframe. Recorded webinars offer additional convenience for CEOs who don’t have time to attend a live session or may want to revisit content later.
Webinars present a few drawbacks, however. First, many may limit your ability to ask questions of experts. Second, they can be difficult to engage with if you’re distracted by other tasks, such as answering email. Third, they demand a larger time commitment than, say, skimming a whitepaper.
5. Industry associations
Joining an industry association offers a few advantages: They can help you easily connect with a group of like-minded leaders. Some offer exclusive professional-development opportunities, such as conferences and meetings. The reputable ones can boost your professional credibility or the credibility of your firm. And associations that maintain a membership directory may help you find new clients or new partnerships.
The main downside of industry associations? They can be limiting if they only connect you with people who already run in your professional circle. Most of the time, these memberships won’t help you gain access to diverse perspectives and ideas from outside your sector.
6. Executive coaching
Executive coaches are great for helping CEOs explore issues from multiple angles, bringing attention to blind spots and getting to the root of a problem quickly. Great coaches also know how to keep CEOs motivated, focused and accountable for their actions.
“Leaders need coaches for the same reason that great athletes need a coach: They provide feedback,” explains Phil Liebman, Vistage Chair.
“Tiger Woods needed a coach because he couldn’t see his own backswing. You need a coach to give you feedback on whether what you’re doing is working, and whether it’s the right thing to be doing.”
For all its benefits, however, traditional coaching has a few potential drawbacks. First, some people who claim to coach are not qualified to do so or haven’t delivered results. Second, some coaches focus too much on giving advice and too little on giving actionable steps. Third, short-term coaching sessions (e.g., those lasting one day) don’t usually provide lasting benefits. Fourth, a coach only has one opinion — their own — which can limit your perspective on an issue.
7. Peer advisory groups
As a complement to traditional coaching, peer advisory groups can make a significant difference in a CEO’s leadership development. They’re especially valuable for CEOs who feel “lonely at the top” and need support working through complex challenges or making tough decisions.
The best peer advisory groups are made up of high-potential leaders who come from diverse companies, industries, backgrounds and areas of expertise. In this setting, group coaching helps leaders gain fresh insight, broaden their perspective, pressure-test their assumptions and avoid the trap of confirmation bias.
Vistage Chair Ginnie McDevitt has witnessed the power of peers in her own Vistage group. As an example, she remembers how one business owner in her group couldn’t figure out why his company’s sales were slumping until he started talking about it with his Vistage peers. “The group challenged his assumptions,” McDevitt says, “and made him think about his problem completely differently.” Following the advice of his peers, the business owner changed his strategy and turned around his sales in just nine months.
This is not an isolated instance; it’s a typical one. Vistage analyzed the growth data of its member companies and found they grew 2.2x faster than non-member companies.
Which option is best?
The best approach is a comprehensive one, where CEOs draw upon multiple resources to address their weaknesses and hone their strengths.
The past year has been a tough one, which is why it’s more important than ever to spot the warning signs that your mental health is suffering. That means being on the lookout for physical symptoms (like headaches or stomachaches), as well as any persistent changes to your eating habits, sleeping habits (which could mean sleeping more or sleeping less), activity level, energy level and mood.
If you feel like you’re no longer functioning at your best and your mood is interfering with your overall enjoyment of life, it might be time to make some changes. Here are five simple yet powerful things you can do to start feeling better right now.
1Pay attention to the physical health fundamentals. Ensure that you’re getting adequate sleep, participating in regular physical activity and eating well. When you’re sleeping well, you’re more likely to feel energetic and less moody. When you’re exercising regularly, you’ll sleep more soundly and feel calmer and more alert during the day. When you’re eating well, your blood sugar will be more stable, which can help to minimize fatigue and mood swings.
2Have your own personal toolkit of strategies for managing stress. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to stress management. It’s a matter of figuring out which strategies work best for you. You might want to experiment with relaxation breathing, positive visualization and mindfulness meditation.
3Know how to put the brakes on unproductive worry. Instead of endlessly spinning your worry wheels, either find a way to take action on that worry or give yourself permission to take a mini-vacation from the worry by losing yourself in an activity that you find pleasurable and engaging.
4Learn how to treat yourself with self-compassion. When you’re treating yourself with self-compassion, you’re treating yourself with at least as much kindness as you would extend to a friend who is struggling. It’s a powerful and science-backed strategy for silencing the inner voices of self-criticism and self-blame that only serve to make life harder and can actually fuel feelings of anxiety and depression.
5Tap into support from other people. As humans, we’re wired to turn to one another for support in times of struggle. Let friends and family members know that you’re having a hard time. And if you’re finding things are really tough, don’t be afraid to seek support from a mental health professional. You deserve to feel happier and better.
December brought positive news about the future of small business with overall confidence rising to its highest level since the pandemic began. The WSJ/Vistage Small Business CEO Confidence Index reached 93.6 in December, doubling the 44.7 recorded in April. However, there is much room for improvement as this reading is still well below February’s peak of 105.7.
Small businesses are increasingly optimistic and seeing signs of recovery for their business in terms of stable revenue projections in the year ahead, however these signs of life are not yet evidenced in their sentiment about the economy today. Small businesses maintain a cautious view; three-quarters indicate the U.S. economy has worsened compared to a year ago and just 8% thought it improved, on par with economic sentiment recorded in November.
CEO sentiment about the future of the economy is more optimistic with 56% of small businesses reporting the economy will improve in the next 12 months, this 7-point gain from last month is not enough to offset the pessimism about current conditions.
However, one thing that will be driving the economy in the year ahead are the expansion plans of small businesses. Robust expansion plans are the primary driver behind the increase in the overall Index, plans that are necessary to support stable revenue projections.
Expansion plans support revenue expectations
Looking ahead, 67% of small businesses expect increased revenues in the year ahead, and an additional 22% expect them to remain the same. To support this anticipated demand, small businesses are increasingly investing in their infrastructure.
The most notable finding from the December survey is that more than two thirds (67%) of small businesses reported plans to increase their workforce in the year ahead, up significantly from 55% in November. These expansion plans among small businesses are the highest since February of 2018.
While not as robust as workforce expansion, investment plans are also on the rise with 38% of small businesses reporting plans to increase investments, up from 33% last month. These expansion plans reflect that small businesses are looking forward, having successfully mitigated the negative effects that were realized early in the pandemic.
Revenue impacts of the pandemic diminished over time
In May, our survey showed that 85% of small businesses had some level of revenue declines as the result of the pandemic, with 36% reporting that those declines were 25% or more. As economic activity stabilized and small businesses developed new ways to connect with customers, these statistics have improved. In December, less than two-thirds (64%) reported revenue declines and just 19% of small businesses reported revenue declines of 25% or more.
Over time small businesses have also stabilized their cash reserves; 58% of small businesses said their funds would last longer than six months, a figure that has remained stable over the last four months. But clearly small businesses are divided in their preparation for the future, as 41% report cash reserves that will carry them 5 months or less, which reflects uncertainty that exists among certain segments of small businesses.
Economic outlook factors in growth and uncertainty
The data reveals that 56% of small businesses believe the economy will improve in the coming year, the highest figure since the start of 2017. In terms of timing of that improvement, that is a longer game as most think that the improvement will take place in the latter part of 2021. A small portion – 17% – believe that improvements to the U.S. economy will take more than a year. Those that believe the improvement will take longer are likely in industries that were hardest hit by the pandemic with no clear view of recovery based on current restrictions.
Dr. Richard Curtin, a researcher from the University of Michigan who analyzed the December survey results shares his thoughts on the data. “Small businesses sense that the economy is poised to mount a robust response to the expected success of the coronavirus vaccine,” Curtain says. “There is substantial uncertainty about how soon and how fast which may impact the pace of renewed growth, however.”
Uncertainty abounds, from a tenuous transition of political power, to rising cases of COVID-19 and slow roll out of vaccines. Time will tell if this uncertainty will again cause a waning of optimism among small businesses.
Summary. Extensive research shows that when employees get hands-on managerial support, they perform better than when they’re left to their own devices, but unnecessary or unwanted help can be demoralizing and counterproductive. So how do you intervene…
“Micromanagement” is a dirty word in today’s workplaces. Bosses who intervene too often or too extensively in their subordinates’ activities get a bad reputation, and most forward-thinking organizations have come to value employee autonomy more than oversight. Research shows that people have strong negative emotional and physiological reactions to unnecessary or unwanted help and that it can erode interpersonal relationships. Even the U.S. Army General George S. Patton, a leader in one of the most traditional command-and-control groups in the world, understood the danger of micromanaging: He famously said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
Managers shouldn’t be completely laissez-faire, however, especially when subordinates aren’t colocated, as is the case for many during the global Covid-19 pandemic. People doing complex work often need more than just superficial advice or encouragement; they need assistance that is both well-timed and appropriate to their issues—and providing it can be challenging without opportunities for serendipitous encounters in a physical office. Extensive research indicates that pervasive helping in an organization correlates with better performance than letting employees go it alone does. So how can you give subordinates the assistance they need without undermining their sense of efficacy and independence?
Over the past 10 years we’ve been studying how leaders effectively offer help without being perceived as micromanagers. We have observed and talked to people inside various companies, including a prominent strategy consulting firm (we’ll call it ConsultCo) where we interviewed partners who were named by top management as exceptional hands-on leaders. At a design consultancy that’s well-known for its helping culture (pseudonym: GlowDesign), we conducted a large-scale qualitative study using daily diaries and in-depth weekly interviews with help givers and receivers. And we’ve run two behavioral experiments in the laboratory, exploring how 124 groups responded to differently timed interventions when asked to make decisions about opening a fictitious restaurant.
Together those projects have yielded important insights into how managers can better assist their employees. As a starting point, your employees need to know that you’re willing to offer help—and they must feel comfortable asking for it. Additionally, you need to have a baseline understanding of their work and its challenges, as well as time and energy to give. But just how and when should you roll up your sleeves to get involved in employees’ work? We’ve uncovered three key strategies for being a hands-on boss without micromanaging: (1) Time your help so it comes when people are ready for it, (2) clarify that your role is to be a helper, and (3) align the rhythm of your involvement—its intensity and frequency—with people’s specific needs.
Time Your Help Wisely
When involving yourself in your employees’ work, timing matters, but not in the way you might expect. Conventional wisdom suggests that heading off potential issues is the best strategy (recall Benjamin Franklin’s famous adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”). We’ve found, however, that the leaders who are viewed as the most helpful don’t try to preempt every problem or dive in as soon as they recognize one. Instead they watch and listen until they believe their subordinates see the need for help and are ready to listen receptively. They understand that people are more willing to welcome assistance when they’re already engaged in a task or a project and have experienced its challenges firsthand.
GlowDesign, where we spent two years studying leaders’ helping behavior, offers some illustrative examples. In one case, a manager checked in on a shorthanded team and discovered what he felt were fundamental issues with the project’s scope. But rather than jump in right away with assistance or advice, he simply told the project lead, Violet, that he was available. (All names in this article are pseudonyms.) “I offered help,” he told us, but “it took a while for Violet to figure out how she could use me.” She ultimately asked him to weigh in on several key matters.
Those known as great helpers at ConsultCo were similarly careful about the timing of their help. One of the firm’s partners, Adriana, described her approach when some of her people were struggling with their work. She told us that even before she met with them, “I thought the team was on the wrong track. [But] when I got in the room, I listened. I limited my questions to clarifying questions to make sure I understood what they were saying. There are two reasons I did this. One is that these are smart people, and I have enough respect for them—even the most junior-tenured people in the firm—to know that the work they do is very valuable….Second, I thought they would be more willing to rethink [their ideas] if they had a chance to first explain what they were doing.” By the end of the meeting, the team seemed ready for Adriana to offer suggestions, so she did.
Our experimental research—studying those 124 groups making entrepreneurial decisions—confirmed the importance of lending a hand at the right time. We found that when advice was given in the course of teams’ work, after problems had emerged rather than beforehand, members understood and valued it more. This led them to actually use the help, improve their processes, share more information, and make objectively better decisions than did groups that received more instruction at the start of their discussions.
What prompts employees to welcome assistance may vary from situation to situation. But we’d counsel managers not to provide input without first allowing those they supervise to gain knowledge of the task and express their views on it. In many cases, a well-timed cure may be better than that ounce of prevention.
Clarify That Your Role Is to Help
Even if the timing is right, intervening can go wrong when it isn’t clear why you are getting involved. Managers play a lot of different roles, and their responsibilities include evaluating employees and doling out rewards and punishments. This power dynamic can get in the way of effective help. When bosses step in, their involvement can imply that people are messing up in a big way. That’s why employees often hide or downplay issues and fail to solicit guidance. They can become unreceptive to the assistance, defensive, or demoralized, which hinders creativity and performance. Therefore, as a leader at GlowDesign told us, managers must be careful “not to go in there and create so much anxiety that you’re in a worse spot….It can be like ‘Here’s the boss, and gosh, he’s really unhappy with what we’re doing.’”
Because seeking and receiving help can make people feel so vulnerable, managers need to clarify their roles when intervening in employees’ work. They should explain that they are there to help, not to judge or take over. They need to foster what Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, calls psychological safety—an environment in which interpersonal risks are encouraged.
The importance of this framing was evident at GlowDesign. We found that leaders rated as particularly helpful took pains to persuade subordinates that they were stepping in for only one reason: to support their employees’ work. Consider what happened when a team tasked with one of the firm’s biggest projects was hobbled by several members’ personal issues. The project leader, Aaron, emailed one of Glow’s senior partners, Gary, for advice. Gary was the client’s main contact at the firm, but Aaron knew him only slightly and was surprised when he volunteered to fly from Chicago to New York to help. Many people would balk at accepting such an offer, worrying that top managers lacked confidence in them. But Gary was careful to emphasize that he would not supplant Aaron as the person in charge. “I’m not here to change the project,” he said. “I’m just here to help you…to be your crutch.”
Across our research, we found that when managers clarified their intentions, as Gary did, employees were more candid about the problems they faced and more willing to accept help and work collaboratively to solve them. Don’t assume that employees concerned about performance reviews and pay can accurately discern your intentions. No matter how supportive you are as a boss, they won’t forget that part of your job is to monitor and assess them. So when you start taking a stronger hand in their work, assure them that you’re there as an adviser, not an evaluator. Be explicit about what you are trying to accomplish with your intervention.
Align the Rhythm of Your Involvement to People’s Needs
To give people useful help, leaders must take the time to fully understand employees’ problems, especially when the issues are thorny. If the work is complex, creative, and cognitively demanding, you’ll need to engage deeply. But that means more than delivering help with the right content. It also means allocating time and attention in a pattern that works for receivers. We call this the rhythm of involvement, and it will vary depending on whether employees need intensive guidance in the short term or intermittent path clearing over a prolonged period.
Concentrated guidance is required when employees encounter hurdles that can’t be overcome with quick feedback or a few hours of input. In such scenarios, leaders collaborate closely with subordinates in long sessions tightly clustered over a few days. That might sound like the definition of micromanaging. Indeed, bosses who assisted in this way without ensuring that their people were ready for it and without clarifying their helper roles were perceived as taking over. Employees felt undermined, with morale and performance suffering as a result. But when managers instead began with the other strategies we’ve described, this kind of time-intensive deep help was heartily welcomed.
For example, Hazel, a senior manager at GlowDesign, successfully guided a team as it moved from the research phase of a project to the design phase. Though she had attended a brainstorming session early on, she had been hands-off until the team leader asked for help. She obliged but spent the first day listening and asking questions to better understand the project and ensure that the team was ready for her input. On the second and third days, she suggested a framework to help everyone identify and communicate their key insights, articulate ideas, and move forward. Her intense involvement over a short period wasn’t viewed as a threat or a commentary on the team’s performance; instead it eased the pressure enormously. Moreover, it marked a turning point for the project: The work done during those three days became the foundation of the client presentation, which led to contracts for several additional projects.
In the second form of help, path clearing, leaders offer assistance in briefer, intermittent intervals when employees face ongoing problems. For instance, if your team is short-staffed, you might stop by every few days for a half hour or so, to help with whatever needs doing—whether it’s participating in an important client call or simply ordering lunch during a long work session.
Path clearers maintain enough general knowledge about the project to understand emerging needs but seldom dig into the core work. Rather, they look for smaller ways to give relief to their subordinates. That’s how Kaya, a partner at ConsultCo, helped the members of one team who were so busy struggling to meet client demands that they barely had time to update her on what was happening. She found ways to take pressure off them in short, scattered bursts: by talking to individuals about their concerns, cleaning up the team’s shared calendar, and handling meeting logistics with the client.
Leaders trying this approach shouldn’t underestimate the importance of staying informed about the work. Those who fail to do so can provide only shallow criticism or vague advice when they drop in—interactions that Glow designers derisively referred to as “swoop and poops.” So keep abreast of the issues your employees are facing, and step in when you see roadblocks you can remove.
Our research suggests that leaders can help their employees in hands-on and meaningful ways—without being accused of micromanaging—if they pay careful attention to timing, articulate their helping role up front, and match the rhythm of their assistance to receivers’ needs. These guidelines are especially important when teams are physically separated, as so many have been during the ongoing pandemic. When workers aren’t colocated, managers are more likely to either check in too frequently and interrupt their colleagues’ flow or fall out of touch and leave employees adrift. People working from home or from any separate location can easily feel isolated, confused, or even abandoned. Thus being a hands-on manager in such situations is critical; it not only improves employees’ performance but also lets people feel supported and connected.
However, intervening in your team’s work while ignoring any one of our guidelines can render your help ineffective or even harmful—potentially worse than doing nothing. Offering preemptive advice can keep people from seeing its value. Failing to frame your role can allow subordinates to feel threatened and undermined. And using the wrong rhythm—especially not allocating enough time to be an effective guide or path clearer—can lead to superficial or off-target feedback or be perceived as an invasion, engendering cynicism rather than gratitude. You can easily avoid these micromanagement traps, however. Follow the three strategies we’ve outlined and become a boss who truly comes through for employees when they need it most.
Every year in December I tend to spend more than I plan. I get into this frenzy of seeing things and deciding that I need them, whether to give as a gift, or for myself and I end up spending more than normal. I budget for it, but it can get out of control. It starts to be almost a habit- “what else do I need or want?” For the last five years or so, I have gone on a spending fast in January. For 21 days I only spend money on groceries, gasoline and medicine. It is an interesting exercise. The first year I did it, I remember going by the skating rink and dying to go skating and I hadn’t skated in years but the thought of not being able to, made the desire seem very real. I liken it to being on a diet and then thinking and wanting everything you cannot eat. Well, the article below is about a young woman who decided not to buy anything in 2020 and to get rid of 2020 things from her home, whether by selling or donating. She shares how she adapted to the idea, and how her life is simpler now and the things she has have more meaning.
I’m going on another spending fast this year with one change: in my commitment to support local, eating out will be part of my spending fast. Instead of buying a book, I will check it out from the library; instead of buying new clothes, I will “go shopping” in my own closet; instead of shopping online, I will spend that time sending a note to someone I care about. Is there something you need to take a break from? Something you could fast from to give you more clarity? Take 21 days and see how it impacts your life. Then tell me about it.
A new guide to living through climate change. Robinson Meyer brings you the biggest ideas and most vital information to help you flourish on a changing planet.Editor’s Note: The Atlantic is making vital coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find the collection here.
The influenza pandemic that began in 1918 killed as many as 100 million people over two years. It was one of the deadliest disasters in history, and the one all subsequent pandemics are now compared with.
At the time, The Atlantic did not cover it. In the immediate aftermath, “it really disappeared from the public consciousness,” says Scott Knowles, a disaster historian at Drexel University. “It was swamped by World War I and then the Great Depression. All of that got crushed into one era.” An immense crisis can be lost amid the rush of history, and Knowles wonders if the fracturing of democratic norms or the economic woes that COVID-19 set off might not subsume the current pandemic. “I think we’re in this liminal moment of collectively deciding what we’re going to remember and what we’re going to forget,” says Martha Lincoln, a medical anthropologist at San Francisco State University.
The coronavirus pandemic ignited at the end of 2019 and blazed across 2020. Many countries repeatedly contained it. The United States did not. At least 19 million Americans have been infected. At least 326,000 have died. The first two surges, in the spring and summer, plateaued but never significantly subsided. The third and worst is still ongoing. In December, an average of 2,379 Americans have died every day of COVID-19—comparable to the 2,403 who died in Pearl Harbor and the 2,977 who died in the 9/11 attacks. The virus now has so much momentum that more infection and death are inevitable as the second full year of the pandemic begins. “There will be a whole lot of pain in the first quarter” of 2021, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told me.
But that pain could soon start to recede. Two vaccines have been developed and approved in less time than many experts predicted, and are more effective than they dared hope. Joe Biden, the incoming president, has promised to push for measures that health specialists have championed in vain for months. He has filled his administration and COVID-19 task force with seasoned scientists and medics. His chief of staff, Ron Klain, coordinated America’s response to the Ebola outbreak of 2014. His pick for CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, is a widely respected infectious-disease doctor and skilled communicator. The winter months will still be abyssally dark, but every day promises to bring a little more light.
On the Fourth of July, Ashish Jha wants to host a barbecue at his house in Newton, Massachusetts. By then, the state expects to have rolled out COVID-19 vaccines to anyone who wants one. The process will be bumpy, but Jha is hopeful. He thinks that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus will still be spreading within the U.S., but at a simmer rather than this winter’s calamitous boil. He expects to keep all his guests outside, where the risk of transmission is substantially lower. If it starts raining, they could come indoors after putting on masks. “It won’t be normal, but it won’t be like Fourth of July 2020,” says Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “I think that’s when it’ll start to feel like we’re no longer in a pandemic.”
Many of the 30 epidemiologists, physicians, immunologists, sociologists, and historians whom I interviewed for this piece are cautiously optimistic that the U.S. is headed for a better summer. But they emphasized that such a world, though plausible, is not inevitable. Its realization hinges on successfully executing the most complicated vaccination program in U.S. history, on persuading a frayed and fractured nation to continue using masks and avoiding indoor crowds, on countering the growing quagmire of misinformation, and on successfully monitoring and countering changes in the virus itself. “Think about next summer as a marker for when we might be able to breathe again,” said Loyce Pace, the executive director of a nonprofit called the Global Health Council and a member of Biden’s COVID-19 task force. “But there’s almost a year’s worth of work that needs to happen in those six months.”
The pandemic will end not with a declaration, but with a long, protracted exhalation. Even if everything goes according to plan, which is a significant if, the horrors of 2020 will leave lasting legacies. A pummeled health-care system will be reeling, short-staffed, and facing new surges of people with long-haul symptoms or mental-health problems. Social gaps that were widened will be further torn apart. Grief will turn into trauma. And a nation that has begun to return to normal will have to decide whether to remember that normal led to this. “We’re trying to get through this with a vaccine without truly exploring our soul,” said Mike Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota.
I. The Vaccine Endgame
having vaccines is not the same as achieving vaccinations. First, pharmaceutical companies need to make enough doses. Manufacturing the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines is a delicate process, involving fragile supply chains. Quality control must be uncompromising, and small glitches can cause steady production lines of vaccine to sputter. “Vaccines are fragile biologics; they’re not T-shirts,” said Kelly Moore of Vanderbilt University, who studies immunization policy. More approved vaccines, though, could mean a more resilient supply.
Vaccines must then be distributed and deployed. Moderna’s can be stored in normal freezers, but Pfizer’s requires ultracold storage such as dry ice. Both require two doses. Tracking these will be challenging for a country without comprehensive national or state vaccination records, and with a poor history of measuring vaccine uptake at the local level. Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vials contain five(-ish) and 10 doses, respectively; these must be used within hours of being opened, which poses logistical challenges for rural clinics that serve widely dispersed communities. And while many vaccines come in ready-to-go syringes, these were developed too quickly to add such conveniences; health-care workers must remember how to thaw and prepare each dose. (Think of the vaccines as cars whose airbags and engines were tested thoroughly, but whose dashboards need work.)
All of this must be done in the middle of a pandemic, in part by understaffed and overworked public-health departments. “We are trying to plan for the most complex vaccination program in human history after a year of complete exhaustion, with a chronically underfunded infrastructure and personnel who are still responsible for measles and sexually transmitted diseases and making sure your water is clean,” Moore said. Although Operation Warp Speed spent $18 billion on developing vaccines, the federal government initially offered states less than 2 percent of that—$340 million—to deploy them. The recently approved stimulus bill will add $8 billion for vaccine distribution, but, though welcome, those funds were needed months ago. And there is still no national vaccination strategy, said Saad Omer, a vaccinologist at Yale. The Trump administration has again left things up to the states, which have again concocted a hodgepodge of plans. “We shouldn’t be going into the biggest immunization effort this country has ever undertaken without a solid playbook and without enough resources to back the plays,” Omer said.
If vaccines are successfully distributed, Americans must agree to get them. As of earlier this month, 27 percent said they wouldn’t get a free COVID-19 vaccine, though that proportion had fallen since September. Many Americans are simply watching to see if the first vaccinations occur without issue. But here, the campaign might run into the same problem that vexes all prevention efforts: People don’t notice when they successfully avoid a disease, “but a negative reaction is memorable,” said Emily Brunson, an anthropologist at Texas State University. Because millions of people are getting vaccinated, many will coincidentally have heart attacks, strokes, or other problems soon after their shots. If viral social-media posts or half-baked news alerts link these health problems to the vaccines, while dwelling on every one of the expected side effects in real time, fear might unduly ground the campaign.
Already, conspiracy theorists, QAnon supporters, and far-right groups believe COVID-19 to be a hoax or a nonissue, and this network, alongside traditional anti-vaccine activists, will downplay or disparage the vaccines. Donald Trump flirted with anti-vaccine messages before his presidency, and may do so again “to echo back what his base wants to hear,” said Kate Starbird of the University of Washington, who studies the spread of disinformation during disasters. Conspiracy theories are hard to counter once they take off, but they are also predictable and can be “pre-bunked,” Starbird said. “The first time you hear a piece of misinformation, it forms a lasting memory, and a correction doesn’t always change it,” but a preemptive countermessage could set that first memory correctly.
Americans who worry that Operation Warp Speed cut corners may be reassured by endorsements from trusted figures such as Fauci. Meanwhile, some 42 percent of Republicans currently say they would refuse a vaccine; “if Trump was enthusiastic about the vaccination, he could play a remarkably constructive role” in swaying his supporters, said David Lazer, a political scientist at Northeastern University. (Mike Pence was vaccinated on December 18.)
Many Black Americans, too, are understandably suspicious of the vaccines and the broader medical establishment after regularly receiving discriminatory care, hearing about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and seeing family members die of COVID-19. “The health-care system has not proven itself trustworthy,” said Jasmine Marcelin, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Members of wary communities can help vouch for a vaccine: “As a nurse, I’ll be one of the first people in line,” said Monica McLemore, a nursing professor at UC San Francisco, who is Black. But truly engendering trust in historically wronged communities, McLemore said, would mean investing more fully in care, including free masks, testing, and consultations.
II. The New Patchwork
one certainty about the vaccines is that they will be deployed unevenly. Just as the virus created a patchwork of infection in 2020, the vaccines will create a patchwork of immunity in 2021. Globally, many poor countries will barely be able to start the vaccination process, because richer countries have hoarded doses. Even within the U.S., there will be difficult months when some states are vaccinating all their citizens while others are still working through prioritized groups, such as essential workers and the elderly. Urban areas could speed ahead of rural areas, where people live farther away from any health facility, including commercial pharmacies such as CVS; where clinics have fewer staff members and fewer ultracold freezers; and where local health departments are busy with pandemic responses. “Who’s going to get to those people?” asked Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University.
Some scientists have estimated that 50 to 70 percent of the country will need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, but the actual threshold is still unclear, and several researchers suspect it may be much higher. Whatever the actual number, it will also apply at smaller geographical scales. So what if infected people from regions that have not reached the threshold travel to neighboring areas that have? “The technical term is that it becomes a big mess,” said Sam Scarpino of Northeastern University, who studies infectious-disease dynamics.
Herd immunity is frequently misunderstood. It is not a force field. Outbreaks can still begin in communities with herd immunity if someone brings the virus in, but they will die out on their own because every unvaccinated person is surrounded by enough vaccinated people that the virus will struggle to reach new hosts. Or at least that’s how it works in theory. In practice, there are two complications. First, the theory assumes that the vaccines prevent infected people from passing on the virus—and it’s still unclear whether they do. If they don’t at all, the endgame becomes harder, because vaccinated people might unwittingly spread the virus. But this is more of a theoretical concern than a likely one: Vaccines that are 95 percent effective at preventing symptoms would be expected to “reduce the rate of transmission significantly,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale.
Second, unvaccinated people will not be randomly strewn around a community. Instead, they’ll form clusters, because vaccines are unevenly distributed, or because vaccine skepticism spreads among friends and families. These clusters will be like cracks in a wall, through which water can seep during a storm. “Those pockets of vulnerability will be the biggest problems,” said Shweta Bansal, a disease ecologist at Georgetown University. They will mean that even when some communities reach the 70 percent threshold, infections could still spread within them. People who waited because of distrust or hesitancy, and people who could not be vaccinated because of lack of access or preexisting medical conditions, will bear the brunt of these continuing outbreaks.
Such outbreaks will grow smaller and be more easily controlled as more people get vaccinated. As the year progresses, health-care workers might have to fight only localized COVID-19 fires instead of the overwhelming nationwide inferno that’s currently ablaze.
The U.S. still needs to calm that inferno, though. In a study that simulated the effects of vaccination, Rochelle Walensky, the future CDC director, and her colleagues concluded that the percentage of infections and deaths avoided through vaccination decreases “dramatically as the severity of the epidemic increases.” Other measures such as masks, better ventilation, rapid diagnostic tests, contact tracing, physical distancing, and restrictions on indoor gatherings will still be necessary during the long rollout, and will buffer that process against disruptions. “As a nation, we’ll recover faster if you give the vaccine less work to do when it’s ready,” Walensky said on Twitter.
Most Americans—across the political spectrum—support measures aimed at curbing COVID-19, including restricting restaurants to carryout, canceling major sporting and entertainment events, and asking people to stay at home and avoid gatherings, according to surveys done by Lazer, the Northeastern political scientist, and his colleagues. Some state leaders have thus far been unwilling to enact such measures, but their attitudes might shift when the Biden administration takes office. “I’ve talked to many governors who, regardless of geography or political party, want to know what they can do to limit the transmission of this virus,” said Osterholm, who is on Biden’s COVID-19 task force. Especially now, with many questions already swirling around the vaccines, clear, consistent, evidence-based advice from that task force could go a long way in countering the chaotic, conflicting counsel that Trump and his associates have offered.
So could more funding. States cannot legally run at a deficit, so some measures require the federal checkbook, including the mass manufacturing of personal protective equipment, the rollout of cheap and ubiquitous diagnostic tests, and aid for businesses and families financially harmed by social restrictions. “I’d love to see policy makers lay out the social contract on the table,” Scarpino said. “Something like: ‘Here’s the plan; we’re asking for a bit more sacrifice, we’re putting a little money in your pocket to make you comfortable, and we’re targeting a normal July Fourth.’ Until today, it’s been: ‘Do all this stuff with no support, and who the hell knows when it’ll be over?’”
Slowly, life will feel safer. Masks will still be common, and public spaces may be less populated. But many of the joys that 2020 stripped away could gradually (if patchily) return—the joys of indoor dining, the thrill of a crowd, the touch of a loved one. “Vaccines will help us to return to normalcy,” Omer said. “It’ll be a new normal, but a very human normal.”
III. The Virus’s Next Move
even as vaccinations wax and the virus wanes, SARS-CoV-2 will persevere. Drugs that block HIV infections have been around for years, but 1.7 million people still contract the virus every year. Polio vaccines were first created in the 1950s, but polio, though tantalizingly close to eradication, still exists. So do most other vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles, tuberculosis, and cervical cancer.
What happens next with SARS-CoV-2 depends on how our immune systems react to the vaccines, and whether the virus evolves in response. Both factors are notoriously hard to predict, because the immune system (as immunologists like to remind people) is very complicated, and evolution (as biologists often note) is cleverer than you.
Immunity lasts a lifetime for some viral diseases, such as chicken pox and measles, but wears off much earlier for others. There are four mild coronaviruses that cause common colds, and the immune system only remembers how to deal with them for less than a year. By contrast, immunity against the deadlier coronaviruses behind MERS and SARS lasts for several years.
SARS-CoV-2 likely falls somewhere in the middle. So far, most infections seem to trigger immune memory that persists for at least six months, although a small number of people have been reinfected. Iwasaki, the Yale immunologist, expects that COVID-19 vaccines will lead to longer and stronger immunity than natural infections, since vaccines lack the tricks that the virus itself uses to evade and delay the immune system. “The immunity may not last a lifetime, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we had to give a booster vaccine in a few years,” Iwasaki said. “But right now that’s not the major concern.”
A bigger worry, perhaps, is what the virus will do as more people get vaccinated. Viruses are always accumulating mutations—changes in their genes. For example, a lineage of SARS-CoV-2 called B.1.1.7 was recently identified in the United Kingdom and has mutations that seem to make it more transmissible. (These variant viruses are concerning but should still be containable if people wear masks, practice social distancing, and implement other measures that have worked thus far—another good reason to double down on those measures as the vaccines are deployed.) Other mutations might allow variants of SARS-CoV-2 to escape from current vaccines and infect people who were once immune. In that scenario, the virus would become like influenza—an ever-changing foe that forces humanity to regularly play catch-up. The pace at which this scenario might unfold depends on at least four factors.
First, there’s the virus’s evolutionary rate: It is commonly said that coronaviruses pick up mutations at a tenth the speed of influenza viruses, but the B.1.1.7 lineage seems to have rapidly acquired 17 mutations—a striking number. Second, there’s the pressure on the virus to evolve counteradaptations: That’s currently low, but will skyrocket as vaccinations increase. Third, there’s the scale of the pandemic: The more people who are infected with the coronavirus, the higher the odds that it will acquire vaccine-evading mutations. Finally, there’s the question about whether the virus can actually evolve around the vaccines. The measles vaccine was developed in the 1960s, and the measles virus, despite its high mutation rate, still hasn’t evolved to escape it. That’s because the same mutations that would let the virus do so also weaken it in important ways, like a burglar who can turn invisible but no longer move. “Not everything can happen through evolution,” said Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and immunologist at Harvard, is worried, especially because many of the leading vaccines in development have the same target. They teach the immune system to recognize the coronavirus’s spike protein—the studs on its surface that it uses to dock on human cells. “We’ve never bottlenecked a virus like this,” he said. “We’ll start globally rolling out vaccines that are essentially identical, at an unprecedented scale and speed, at a time when the virus is very abundant.”
Studies ofthe milder human coronaviruses show that the spike protein can evolve to evade the immune system within a decade or two. But Bloom thinks that if SARS-CoV-2 manages this feat, it wouldn’t be disastrous. Vaccinated people should still have some residual immunity to the mutated virus. Severalresearchersare cataloging the kinds of mutations that might be problematic, so watching them emerge should be possible, when and if that happens. And vaccines that use a sliver of the coronavirus’s genetic material—its mRNA—as the Pfizer and Moderna ones do, were developed to be customizable; if the virus mutates, updating the vaccines without starting from scratch should be doable. “I don’t think everything we’ve done will suddenly become useless,” Bloom said. “We have the capability of staying ahead of the virus.”
Still, “we need to prepare for the eventuality of vaccine escape, and we need to do it now,” said Kristian Andersen, an infectious-disease researcher at Scripps Research. “We have no idea how fast it’ll happen, but we can be almost certain it will.”
IV. The Lasting Scars
no matter what SARS-CoV-2 does in the future, the fallout from America’s year-long failure to control it will continue. On the surface, the country will seem to heal. But even as schools begin to operate normally and social life resumes, scars newly reopened will widen, while wounds freshly formed will fester.
Vaccines are, literally and figuratively, a shot in the arm. But despite their arrival, “there’s a tangible feeling of hopelessness”—and anger, said Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine. “It didn’t have to be this way.”
As the supply of health care dwindles, demand will soar. The U.S. population is still aging; chronic diseases are still becoming more common. A wave of mental-health disorders is on its way. Between the stresses of the year, the isolation of physical distancing, and the closure of social spaces, rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders have spiked. “I have a ton of patients who were stable for 30 years and all of a sudden are really struggling,” Gold said. Their ranks will swell, she predicts. “In a crisis, you can say, ‘It makes sense that I’m anxious, sad, and not sleeping.’ But there’ll be a surge of problems once people finally get a chance to breathe and realize what the toll has been.” And when that happens, many Americans will learn “quite how hard it is to get care,” Gold said. “The mental-health-care system is inherently broken. We simply have never had enough providers.”
The same goes for chronic illness. Well into the vaccination campaign, many of the 19 million Americans who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 will still be struggling with “long COVID”—rolling waves of ongoing and debilitating symptoms, including extreme fatigue, cognitive problems, and crashes that follow even mild bursts of activity. Somestudieshaveestimated that 24 to 53 percent of infected people have at least one symptom that lasts for at least a month, if not several. Many “long-haulers” will soon be marking the one-year anniversary of their illness. “It’s going to be really hard,” says Hannah Davis, an artist in New York City who has experienced brain fog, memory issues, pain, and problems with her autonomic nervous system since March 25.
Once neglected, long-haulers have forced the world to recognize their existence. In May, many scientists I spoke with had never heard of the phenomenon; this month, the National Institutes of Health held a two-day conference to discuss it. “I don’t think we can ever be forgotten,” Chimére Smith, a middle-school teacher in Baltimore, told me. “The health-care industry can never again say they don’t know what a long-hauler is.” But “nothing is happening fast enough to help the first wave of us,” Davis told me. Some long-haulers have been diagnosed with chronic illnesses such as myalgic encephalomyelitis and dysautonomia but few specialists study or understand these conditions. Those who do will soon be overwhelmed by a tsunami of new patients. “There’s already such a shortage of doctors who know about long-haulers and can do anything to treat them,” Davis said. “I can’t imagine what will happen with hundreds of thousands more people going down this route.”
Medical inattention is just one concern among many. Davis and four other patients turned researchers recently surveyed 3,800 long-haulers who first became sick in the months before June. Of them, 93 percent were still not recovered, and 72 percent were either not working or working reduced hours. Many people in this cohort couldn’t get access to tests or medical care; without documentation of their illness, they were also struggling to access disability benefits. “A lot of people are reaching the end of their financial and emotional limits,” Davis said.
V. The Widened Gaps
after world war ii, women who entered the workforce in Western Europe mostly stayed there to help rebuild their battered nations. To support them, governments provided better child care, longer school hours, and extended maternity leaves. But the U.S., which was less severely affected, did the opposite, encouraging women to relinquish their wartime jobs to returning men and resume their supposed place at home. “That set the stage for the inequalities we have today,” said Jess Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University, “where women disproportionately do the work a welfare state should be doing.”
When COVID-19 closed schools and child-care centers, American women shouldered the extra burdens of household work, parenting, and remote learning. Without governmental support for affordable child care, many of these burdens became untenable. “In interviews I’ve done, women felt like they were failing as mothers, workers, and teachers,” Calarco said. “Many had to choose between sending their kids to school and maybe getting them sick, or keeping them at home and dropping out of the workforce.” Many women in heterosexual couples picked the latter. In September alone, four times as many women left the workforce as men—865,000 in total. “That will have lifelong effects,” said Loyce Pace, of the Global Health Council. “You can barely have a baby in this country and have a job again, and that’s not even a two- or three-month leave.”
The closure of schools has widened inequalities among children too. “For a lot of people, school is a place where they get food and safety,” said Seema Mohapatra, who studies health equity at Indiana University. Many students with disabilities have struggled without individual attention from trained professionals. Children in 4.4 million households, especially in Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities, lack access to personal computers. Overseeing remote learning is hard enough for parents with flexible, well-paying jobs; those who work hourly, low-wage jobs have been put in an even harder position. These disparities will have generational consequences, because early inequalities can “set kids up for a lifetime of success or catching up,” Mohapatra said.
For some families, educational struggles are compounded by grief. Black, Latino, and Indigenous people are roughly three times more likely to be killed by COVID-19 than white people. People in these communities die not only at higher rates, but at younger ages: While just 10 percent of white Americans who have died of COVID-19 were younger than 65, 28 percent of Black Americans and 45 percent of Indigenous Americans were. The pandemic has wiped out the past 14 years of progress in narrowing the life-expectancy gap between Black and white people. That gap was 3.6 years; it is now more than five.
These inequities stem from centuries of racist policies that segregated people of color into neglected neighborhoods, deprived them of medical care, and concentrated them in low-paying jobs that have made social distancing impossible. And because Black, Latino, and Indigenous people have been more likely to lose their jobs, homes, and access to health care during the pandemic, they will be even more vulnerable to the inevitable epidemics of the future.
Biden has appointed Marcella Nunez-Smith of Yale to lead a federal task force focused on racial inequities during the pandemic. “There’s a strong commitment to equity, and there’s not a single conversation that doesn’t involve talking about how we reduce disparities,” Luciana Borio, who is part of that group and who was formerly on the National Security Council, told me. “That was never a consideration” for the outgoing administration. But Pace, who is Black, worries that the broader societal will to recognize and reduce health inequities will fade as the U.S. begins edging back toward normalcy. “People are accustomed to us dying,” she said. “It’s always been acceptable for us to not do well, to be locked up, to die. It’s a habit, and habits are hard to break.”
VI. The Lessons Learned
in the coming years, the full toll of the pandemic will become clearer, as researchers calculate more accurate estimates of how many lives were affected and lost. A blizzard of investigations by independent commissions will assess how governments and agencies fared against the virus. (Some have already begun.) Helpfully, the coronavirus pandemic has been documented extensively, providing an unparalleled trove of real-time accounts.
But many tragedies are still hidden. Some of the most overworked people, including health-care workers and caregivers, have had little time to record their experiences. Many long-haulers have suffered in silence, lacking the energy to share their stories. Many patients have died in hospital beds, alone. The need for medical privacy has meant that most people have never learned what the virus can truly do to a body. And from America’s gaping political fissure, warring versions of reality have emerged. With conspiracy theories now mainstream, “we can’t analyze disasters anymore without [asking if] we can even achieve a shared description of the events that are happening,” Knowles, the disaster historian, told me. How does a country learn from its mistakes if it cannot even agree on whether it made any?
COVID-19 will neither be the last pandemic nor the worst. Its lessons will dictate how well the U.S. prepares for the next one—and the country should start with its understanding of what preparedness actually means. In 2019, the Global Health Security Index used 85 indicators to assess how ready every country was for a pandemic. The U.S. had the highest score of all 195 nations, a verdict that seems laughable just one year later. Indeed, six months into this pandemic, the index’s scores had almost no correlation with countries’ actual death rates. If anything, it seems to have indexed hubris more than preparedness.
The idea that “America and the West are more advanced than Eastern and African countries is not true, but is seeded in the way global health operates,” said Abraar Karan of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “But when the tires hit the ground, the car didn’t start.” In retrospect, many Western health experts were too focused on capacities, such as equipment and resources, and not enough on capabilities, “which is how you apply those in times of crisis,” said Sylvie Briand of the World Health Organization. Many rich nations had little experience in deploying their enormous capacities, because “most of them never had outbreaks,” she added. By contrast, East Asian and sub-Saharan countries that regularly stare down epidemics had both an understanding that they weren’t untouchable and a cultural muscle memory of what to do.
Vietnam, the first country to contain SARS in 2003, “immediately understood that a few cases without an emergency-level response will be thousands of cases in a short period,” said Lincoln, the San Francisco State medical anthropologist, who has worked in Vietnam extensively. “Their public-health response was just impeccable and relentless, and the public supports health agencies.” At the time of my writing, Vietnam had recorded just 1,451 cases of COVID-19 all year, fewer than each of the 32 hardest-hit U.S. prisons.
Rwanda also took the pandemic seriously from the start. It instituted a strict lockdown after its first case, in March; mandated masks a month later; offered tests frequently and freely; and provided food and space to people who had to quarantine. Though ranked 117th in preparedness, and with only 1 percent of America’s per capita GDP, Rwanda has recorded just 8,021 cases of COVID-19 and 75 deaths in total. For comparison, the disease has killed more Americans, on average, every hour of December.
Crucially, while U.S. health care is skewed toward treating sick people in hospitals, Rwandan health care is skewed toward preventing sickness in communities. The U.S. devotes just 5 percent of its gargantuan health budget to primary care; Rwanda spends 38 percent. The U.S. was forced to hire and train thousands of contact tracers; Rwanda already had plenty of community health workers who knew their neighbors and had their trust. “Community health workers know where the most vulnerable people are and what they need,” said Sheila Davis, the chief executive of the nonprofit Partners in Health. A living safety net, these workers can intervene early if people need food, medications, or prenatal care. “We [in the U.S.] wait for someone to completely crash and burn before we provide those things,” Davis said. “We are too focused on high-tech and expensive health care. We’re set up to fail in a pandemic like this.”
After the post-9/11 anthrax attacks in 2001, fears of bioterrorism encroached on American attitudes toward naturally emerging diseases. Preparedness was framed with the rhetoric of national security. Health experts developed surveillance systems for disease, simulated epidemics in war games, and focused on fighting outbreaks in other countries. “This came at the expense of investment in public health, equity, and housing—boringly crucial sectors that actually support human wellness,” Lincoln said. “One cannot prevent a pandemic by preparing for a war, but that is exactly what the U.S. has been doing.”
To truly prepare itself against the next pandemic, the U.S. has to reimagine what preparedness looks like. Every epidemic is different, as new pathogens with unique characteristics emerge from different regions. But those pathogens eventually test the same health systems and expose the same historical inequities. Think of epidemics as a million rivers that must all flow through the same lake. The U.S. has been trying to dam the rivers. It has to focus on the lake.
It must reverse the decades-long underfunding of public health. It should invest in policies such as paid sick leave, affordable child care, and reparations that would narrow the old inequities that make some Americans more susceptible than others to new diseases. “Epidemics are always social phenomena with historical roots,” said Mary Bassett, who studies health equity at Harvard. “Viewing them purely as a matter of an individual confronting a virus leaves out all the things that affect that person’s vulnerability. I worry that as vaccines come online, that part of the equation will be forgotten.”
There is a likely future in which America’s immune system learns lessons from COVID-19 but its collective consciousness does not. Indeed, the U.S. has a long history of plastering over social problems with technological fixes. It and other wealthy countries have already monopolized global vaccine supplies, and, despite having the worst outbreaks, are likely to reach the pandemic’s endgame first. They might deduce that magic bullets won the day, forgetting the costs of idly waiting for those solutions and leaving vulnerable people to die.
In The Past Is a Foreign Country, the historian David Lowenthal wrote, “The art of forgetting is a high and delicate enterprise … It can be a process of social catharsis and healing or one that sanitises and eschews the past.” The choice between those options is now before us, as the coronavirus pandemic enters its second full year. As Americans get vaccinated, they must decide whether to remember the people who sacrificed to keep stores open and hospitals afloat, the president who lied to them throughout 2020 and consigned them to disaster, the families still grieving, the long-haulers still suffering, the weaknesses of the old normal, and the costs of reaching the new one. They must decide whether to resist the decay of memory and the elision of history—whether to forget, or to join the many who will never be able to.
ED YONG is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers science.ConnectTwitter
With just days left in what will be one of the most memorable years of our lifetime, a new relief bill has been signed that will offer Americans the support they need to make it through the darkest time of the pandemic to date. There are many measures in the bill that are advantageous for small businesses as well, and to help you understand what you need to know, I spoke once again to Matt Garrett, Vistage speaker and CEO and Founder of TGG Accounting. Here he shares eight things you need to consider to maximize the benefits in the new relief bill — listen for our full conversation about the implications you need to act on before year-end. Master these 7 laws of leadership to take your business to a new level.
1. Leverage new tax advantages for PPP loans.
Per the new act, small businesses will not have to pay taxes on forgivable PPP funds, which is a tremendous benefit to the businesses that were funded, followed all the rules, and either received forgiveness or are in the process of getting forgiveness. Garrett calls this “a huge boon to small businesses because if you got, for example, a half a million dollars in PPP funding, you could have been subject to as much as a quarter million dollars in tax, be it both the state and the federal level.”
The implication of this? A lot less taxable income in 2020 than businesses might have been projecting. For cash-basis taxpayers, it is advisable to push expenses into 2021 to manage your tax rate based on overall taxable income, which is likely less than it was just two weeks ago.
How states will handle this is unknown, so Garrett advises “it’s really important to be extremely careful with your cash. We don’t quite know what’s coming, so I would definitely reserve a little bit, but make sure you talk to your CPA. Each business’s tax situation is going to be different.” As an example, he shares “If you bought a big piece of equipment as a tax deduction under the CARES act, your taxable income has been reduced to such a level that this doesn’t really matter.”
2. Plan to secure PPP funding.
For businesses previously not eligible or that didn’t take the full amount of the PPP the first time around, the eligibility window has re-opened. This can significantly impact specific industries like hospitality, media and marketing related industries. For those not eligible in prior rounds, there might be opportunity for funding this time around.
3. Include new eligible expenses in PPP forgiveness.
While forgiveness rules continue to require that 60% of PPP loans are used for payroll, the allowable non-payroll expenses have been expanded to include things like software, cloud computing, HR and accounting. Additionally, the safe harbors that were previously enacted are still in place to protect businesses that could not return to the pre-pandemic payroll levels. Garrett is optimistic this will “really help a lot of people in terms of receiving forgiveness, as it broadens the base and allows businesses to use funds for more expenses over the same period of time.”
4. Determine eligibility for additional PPP funding.
Funding is now available for businesses that did not previously get funded, or for those — like bars or restaurants — that did not receive adequate funding in prior rounds. For those significantly impacted, funding is available for those with a 25% year-over-year drop in quarterly revenue from 2019 to 2020. As an example, if you had a 25% drop in revenue between Q2 2019 and Q2 2020, you are eligible for funding. To take advantage of this, Garrett advises “it’s very important to work with your internal accountants to figure out how you are recognizing revenue. Make sure you’re doing it on an accrual basis because this is a huge opportunity to get a second bite at the apple with new PPP funds.”
5. Make tax planning a priority.
As we are waiting for more guidance from the SBA, don’t spend time thinking about the administrative details now. Garrett recommends using the next few days for tax planning as there is limited time if you want to take actions before year end. From a tax standpoint, a lot is dependent on whether you file on an accrual or cash basis. Those who file on a cash basis are limited by time, but there are still opportunities if you file on an accrual basis.
6. Understand eligibility for new PPP funding.
Previously, the PPP loans were capped at $10 million, and this cap has been reduced to $2 million in this new round. If you are eligible — with a 25% reduction in revenue in Q2, Q3 or Q4 — for new round, small businesses can receive for 2.5 times their average monthly payroll based on 2019 payroll. For small businesses in hospitality, the multiplier increases to 3.5 times their average monthly payroll.
7. Maximize EIDL loans.
Previously businesses that took EIDL emergency grants and received PPP loans were required to reduce the amount of the EIDL grant from what could be forgiven in their PPP loan. Garrett shares that this new legislation “completely repeals the section of the CARES Act which required PPP borrowers to deduct that amount from their loan forgiveness. So now you can get the full forgiveness and get the full $10,000 in the EIDL loan.”
8. Leverage “Three-martini lunch” deductions.
For businesses that use networking and entertainment as customer engagement activities, the new act recognizes this as fully-deductible business expense compared to the 50% limitation in prior law. Not only is this a deductible expense for businesses, but this is also aimed at helping hospitality and restaurant industries who may have had volumes impacted by the 50% limitation.
When asked about the most important thing for CEOs to know right now he states emphatically to “talk to your CPA immediately and figure out what you’re doing for 2020 because your tax liability for 2020 just shrunk by some amount.” There are implications for tax rates, tax brackets and some businesses might now find themselves in a loss position. This opens the opportunity for personal planning as well. “If you’re in an S-Corp and are now in a loss position, this is flowing through to you,” Garrett shares. In that case, he recommends considering taking an IRA and turning it into a Roth IRA. And time is of the essence for changes like that.
This new legislation comes at the end of a year that has redefined disruption. The year ahead holds promise of a resolution of the COVID-19 crisis, and pent up demand that will lead to several years of growth. Garrett sums it up best. “This work by Congress is a bit of a ray of sunshine that we can celebrate the year-end with,” he says.
Last week was my 11th wedding anniversary. The traditional gift for 11 is steel. Jim bought me pruning shears because we are building a house in the east mountains and I have a lot of pruning in my future. His dad is literally a master gardener. (600+ rose bushes in his back yard and former President of the American Rose Society). Jim called his favorite gardener and said “what’s the best shear I can buy?” Without missing a beat his dad replied “felco, F-E-L-C-O”. Jim checked it out; these are the BEST shears he could buy. People tell stories of having theirs for 15 years and never having to sharpen them. Nice. In our commitment to support local he called around to find these awesome shears. A local store owner told him “these are so good, you never have to replace them, that’s why we don’t carry them” (they want you to come back and repeatedly replace the cheap ones that break??) What?!?! So instead of being the source of the best I could buy so I can tell all of my friends, they’ve decided that selling me a cheaper pair that I’ll come back to replace when they break is the way to go. I guess it’s a strategy… Unfortunately, he had to buy them online. I’m reminded of the story of the CFO who complained to the CEO, “what if we pay for this training for the employees and then they leave?” And the CEO replied, “what if we don’t train them and they stay?” Who do you want to be for your clients, your employees, your community? What would be different if you took one scarcity thought and turned it into one of abundance? What kind of ripple effect could it have? I’m making a commitment to come from abundance this year. Join me?
Here’s a better way to start the new year: Skip the traditional January resolutions and make time for some New Year’s reflection instead.
Take a moment to look back on the past 365 days of your life. Years from now, when you talk about 2020, what stories will you tell? Will it be clapping for health care workers every night at 7 p.m.? Or perhaps it will be a memory from the months spent mostly at home with family members — or the pandemic “bubbles” you formed that helped friendships grow stronger. Maybe you will tell the story of losing someone you loved or remember finding strength and resilience you didn’t know you had.
While reliving much of 2020 may sound like a terrible idea, psychologists say it’s a better way to start the new year. Looking back will help you build on the lessons you learned, and you may even discover some hidden positive habits you didn’t realize you had started.
“I don’t think we’ve given ourselves enough credit,” said Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University and author of “The Willpower Instinct.” “I don’t think we have had the emotional appreciation that we need and deserve for the kind of year many people have had. The reflection that’s needed right now is a real, honest and self-compassionate look at what’s been lost, who’s been lost and what it is that you want to choose to remember about 2020. Reflection is a way of being ready to move forward into the new year. I say that every year, but I think that it’s especially true for this year.”
Reflections vs. Resolutions
Reflecting on what you accomplished in 2020 — and what you missed or lost — is also a healthier path toward self-improvement than the typical New Year’s resolution. Studies consistently show that New Year’s resolutions don’t work. By February, most people have abandoned them.
The problem with many resolutions is that they tend to be inherently self-critical and stem from a sort of magical thinking that with one big change — some weight loss, regular exercise, more money — life will be transformed. “It’s just too easy to look for a behavior that you regularly criticize yourself for, or feel guilty about,” Dr. McGonigal said. “It’s that false promise of, ‘If you change this one thing, you’ll change everything.’”
Studies show that one of the best ways to change behavior and form a new habit is to bundle it with an existing behavior — what in the science of habit formation is called “stacking.” It’s the reason doctors, for example, suggest taking a new medication at the same time you brush your teeth or have your morning coffee: You’re more likely to remember to take your pill when you piggyback it onto an existing habit. Adding steps to your daily commute often is a better way to add exercise to your day than trying to carve out a separate time for a daily walk.
By reflecting on the lessons of the past year, we can stack and build on the good habits we started in 2020. Maybe that involved figuring out new ways to exercise when gyms were closed, strengthening friendships forged through our social bubbles, organizing our homes for 24-7 living and learning, learning to cook healthier meals or making ourselves accountable for the care of others.
Now, with the distribution of vaccines and the end to the pandemic in sight, you don’t need to abandon those changes — instead, try building on them. The first challenge is listed below. Then, starting Monday and every day next week, the 7-Day Well Challenge will identify a popular quarantine habit and offer a new strategy for turning it into a healthy lifelong habit. Just sign up for the Well newsletter, and you’ll receive a daily email reminder to join that day’s challenge.
Build on Your Gratitude Habit
Quarantine clapping became a nightly ritual in many parts of the United States and around the world as a collective thanks to health care workers. It was both a show of community and a show of gratitude. The experience was what sociologists call “collective effervescence,” which happens when people simultaneously come together and take part in a group ritual.
Clapping for essential workers had the effect of “both unifying and energizing the group for action toward a common cause, such as persevering through the pandemic,” said Joshua W. Brown, professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University Bloomington. “Group expressions of gratitude can be empowering for both those expressing it and those receiving it.”
Perhaps you showed gratitude in other ways. Did you offer larger tips than usual to delivery and restaurant workers? Did you find yourself saying a heartfelt thank you to the grocery and pharmacy workers at checkout? When things got tough at home, did you remind yourself and your children of all the things for which you felt grateful? I adopted a regular gratitude hand-washing ritual, thinking of 10 things to be grateful for — one for every finger I washed.
Why it matters: Numerous studies show that people who have a daily gratitude practice, in which they consciously count their blessings, tend to be happier, have lower stress levels, sleep better and are less likely to experience depression. In one study, researchers recruited 300 adults, most of them college students seeking mental health counseling. All the volunteers received counseling, but one group added a writing exercise focused on bad experiences, while another group wrote a letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. A month later, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health. And the effect appears to last. Three months later the researchers scanned the brains of students while they completed a different gratitude exercise. The students who had written gratitude letters earlier in the study showed greater activation in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, believed to be related to both reward and higher-level cognition.
Take the Gratitude Challenge
This week, try one or more of these simple gratitude exercises.
Start small. Send an appreciative email or text, thank a service worker or tell your children, your spouse or a friend how they have made your life better. “A great way to develop more gratitude would be regular small steps — an extra email or note of appreciation to a colleague, or an extra in-person thank-you, and a focus on how rewarding it is to brighten someone’s day with appreciation,” Dr. Brown said.
Create a gratitude reminder. Dr. McGonigal keeps a sticky note on her desk lamp that reads:
1. Someone 2. Something 3. Yourself
It’s a daily reminder to express gratitude not only for the people, events and gifts in her life but also for her own accomplishments. She might feel gratitude for completing a workout, for a healthy body or for taking on a new challenge. “Gratitude is really good when what you need is a belief in your ability to create a more positive future and a willingness to trust others to help you do that,” Dr. McGonigal said. “And that feels like a really good mind-set for right now.”
Express your gratitude in writing. You can send emails or post feelings of gratitude on social media or in a group chat. Or think of someone in your life and write them a letter of gratitude. (You don’t have to mail it.) Fill your letter with details describing how this person influenced your life and the things you appreciate about them. Or keep a daily gratitude journal.
“I think the full potential of gratitude is realized when people are able to express gratitude in words,” says Y. Joel Wong, chairman of the department of counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University. “When we are able to say what we’re grateful for and explain why, it shifts our attention from what’s negative to what’s positive in our lives.”
Tara Parker-Pope is the founding editor of Well, The Times’s award-winning consumer health site. She won an Emmy in 2013 for the video series “Life, Interrupted” and is the author of “For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage.” @taraparkerpope