It occurred to me earlier today that perhaps I should not write this article. This hesitation is not the self-doubt that always comes with staring at the blank page, but I wonder if this time my argument is heartless. If it is, I could upset a lot of people.
What I want to do is write the article that I haven’t seen yet—the one about how there is always a silver lining in every challenge, and that this pandemic is no exception.
But this morning I’m asking if that mission isn’t reckless. My doubts crept in after reading a few forum comments from a woman who is in many ways me, but 20 years in the future—activist, writer, coach, and, I suspect, still not entirely sure what she wants to do with her life. Naturally, she’s a mirror for me.
Her statement went something like, “I’m tired of people telling me there are silver linings in this pandemic. People are being so glib about it, and they are ignoring the very real and horrible economic tragedy that’s coming.”
I suspect that I am one of those glib, glass half full optimist-holes that spurred her remarks. Earlier this week I sent her one of those many “we’re all in this together” emails that are overloading Gmail’s servers, sharing my unsolicited thoughts about silver linings. My rational mind tells me that my friend is not singling me out, and that this cause-effect I’ve manufactured is only my own narcissism; a cocktail of the low-grade paranoia that everyone’s feeling right now, coupled with the lack of sleep that accompanies new-dad-hood.
Regardless, the evidence is on the side of her argument. We are, to quote my dad, up the creek without a paddle. While the doctors and grocery clerks fight to exhaustion on the front lines, I imagine that it’s the economists who are having real trouble sleeping right now, self-medicating with whiskey in the quarantine-era speakeasies that I suspect are hiding on every second cul-de-sac, belly up to wood-paneled basement bars, next to climate scientists and bee-keepers, wishing they had studied to be doctors or nurses, rather than rebuild the free market from the ashes.
I’ve been waiting and hoping for much better writers, like Tim Kreider or Paul Krugman, to pen that “everything’s going to turn out fine” article, but I can see now, after a pretty solid nap, that those hard-headed realists would never embark on that kind of naïve exercise. Instead you get me, set up for the impossible task of trying to make sense of this brave new world.
I don’t know if at the end of this article I’ll still believe my own silver lining drivel, so bear with me while we pick up the broken pieces of The Worst Crisis in 100 Years, and work out, in real time, whether there is in fact a bright side to this pandemic, or if we are, to put a fine point on it, screwed.
The Time Shift
I can’t be the only one who has noticed that the biggest change in my pandemic-life is my new relationship with time. In part I’m talking about how I spend my 24 hours a day, but also about how time feels…
In a way this is disorienting; it feels as if the engine of the world has slowed to idle. I’m getting out of bed at inconsistent hours, and waking in the night from strange dreams (last night in Prague an old drinking buddy told me “you are in grave danger”).
But mostly—I have to admit, with a twinge of guilt—my time management has drastically improved. Sure, I’ve freed up a handful of commuting hours each week, but as someone who was already working 100% online and mostly from home, I haven’t discovered boatloads of additional time in my schedule. So why does it feel like time is a friend again, the way it hasn’t in about a decade?
Simple: I’ve slowed down. I have been forced, with a conspicuous lack of kicking and screaming, to let go of obligations that have turned out to be completely superfluous to my happiness. What comes with slowness, of course, is time to pause, and reflect.
In the La-Z-Boys and at the kitchen tables of the world, people are sitting around with a once-in-a-century permission slip to sit and think. As a planet, we are taking the long-overdue and much-needed break from the dynasty of the extroverts, and the forced-march of ambition, to turn inward.
To ask ourselves the most important questions.
We are discovering for the first time what “quality time” means; learning that our family members are not autonomous drones passing in the night, but our most valuable anti-possessions. I hear stories from all corners of the world of the family spontaneously sitting up all night in the eldest son’s bedroom and talking; of book clubs and movie clubs and virtual happy hours and pandemic parties cropping up, populated by friends who haven’t spoken since college and can’t remember why not.
I’ve been fantasizing for years about getting my fellow 40-year-old-dad friends to play some online shooters with me. Achievement (finally) unlocked. I’ve had two or three very uncomfortable and desperately needed conversations with my wife, and the dividendshave been large enough to make the most jaded day-trader green with envy. The dinner table is no longer a dumping ground for random papers and sundries, but a nucleus of our fledgling family, and she and I are becoming best friends again. I get to play with my 3-month-old daughter without that nagging feeling that I need to get somewhere by a certain time.
No more am I overwhelmed and distracted by the flotsam and jetsam of the non-essential.
What rushes into the void when we remove the temporal and energetic obligations we’ve hung around our necks for so many tired years?
Our true purpose.
Breaking Our Self-Limits
On a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast, I listened to relationship expert Esther Perel predict that this pandemic will generate a spike in marriages, divorces and pregnancies. Why? Because people no longer put up with fence-sitting when there’s an existential axe hanging over their heads. Dilemmas that have had “pins put in them” are now being pulled off the cork board and placed front and center for inspection. People are finally speaking up about the elephants that just don’t go with the room’s furniture anymore. Why wait to make changes when this virus has pulled back the curtain on life’s extreme fragility?
We are realizing that the limits on our lives have been mostly self-imposed. The Emperor of 99-Problems Town has no clothes! Ain’t one problem that we haven’t either created ourselves or allowed to persist in our lives. That statement will upset some readers, so in reply I ask, who but you has responsibility for your own happiness? When you answer that question in the only way possible, you’re ready to break your self-limits.
Pair this beautiful impatience with an abundance of new time on our hands to think, plan and work, and so many people are suddenly on the verge of bursting out of their cocoon to do Great Work. Online businesses are being launched, books written (I’m fortunate that my writer training business has seen a marked uptick in activity), meditation and yoga habits formed, calls made, conversations started. Many people who waited decades to start something are discovering the flimsiness of their procrastinatory excuses.
One of the most unexpected observations about this crisis is that the world knows boredom again. Without endless shiny baubles crossing our paths or our news feeds, we are wondering what the heck to do with ourselves. While some of that stagnant energy is flowing into Netflix’s bank account, so much more is being transmuted into unanticipated creativity.
Open up TikTok right now and spend five minutes watching new videos; I’ll wait. The sheer brilliance of human ingenuity is drastically improving my faith in humanity. Author and podcaster Rob Bell points out that constraints spur creativity. I can relate. I’m facing the prospect of putting on a birthday party for my wife this Sunday using only the materials in our house. It looks like the Christmas decorations are getting a second life this spring.
I’ve taken advantage of this isolation to build two new online writing workshops, create and launch a membership program, and open new frontiers with clients I “never had time” to reach out to in the old world. My writing output has spiked. I did not expect any of this in the midst of a global tragedy.
Compared to January I am some kind of super-entrepreneur, even though I have more frequent days of despair, (like today) where I would rather use this forced isolation as an excuse to stew in the bathtub after lunch. But I did that yesterday, and I’m too bored for more boredom right now.
I’m no longer overwhelmed with the constant seductions of the outside world, despite how I miss my daily Starbucks people-watching session. I’ve argued elsewhere that low seasons can be beautiful gifts. Two thousand years ago, Ovid said, “a field that rests gives a beautiful crop.” I can confirm—this space in my life is bearing delicious fruit.
I know that I’m no anomaly. This perfect storm—our new relationship to time, the shattering of our self-limits, new space in our lives, and boredom—are driving so many people to get started on projects and side hustles. Just look at the multitudes launching podcasts.
But there’s something else driving some of us: the discovery that our careers are incredibly fragile, our salaries far from guaranteed, and that the safest bet isn’t a paycheck, but to instead become the CEO of our own lives; the captain of our own ship. There is no other way to do that than to shift more of our eggs to the entrepreneurial basket.
If you didn’t before, I hope now you’re starting to see that this time of hardship is the best time to venture out. The iron is hot. Strike.
Realizing Our Power
In the first week of March, when COVID-19 wrested my attention, I created an Evernote titled “Apocalypse Predictions” with entries like, “People will start to remember what’s important” and “Our darker natures will show.” My record as a clairvoyant has been 50-50, but I completely missed one forecast that might become the brightest silver lining in this whole angry storm cloud: We are seeing the power in working together.
We hold individualism up high in the West, and sure, we should all be given a chance to stand on our own two feet. But what was everyone’s first reaction when the coronavirus alarm bells rang? We pulled our families a little closer. We ensured our friends and neighbors were well-stocked for the pestilential winter. We made Zoom calls to people we normally wouldn’t, just to check in.
Our natural state is not as the lone wolf, but as part of the group. Evolution favored the humans who worked together, because the mavericks perished in the wilderness, too far from the tribe’s campfire. We are strongest together.
This crisis is showing us the incredible power we have when we act collectively. Austin, Texas quickly canceled the South by Southwest music festival when 55,000 citizens petitioned the mayor’s office. Governments worldwide have passed sweeping laws overnight, shuttered whole sectors of the economy, and convinced billions of people to stay home.
Hey, on a completely unrelated note: Do you remember how, for the last 20 years, our leaders have told us that it’s impossible to move fast on climate change? That radical action is impossible? The last 60 days has revealed the pure nonsense of those lies. Our leaders could move the moon if only we told them to.
What about poverty? Can we really believe, in a world where the U.S. government is about to provide unemployment insurance for 22 million additional people who lost their jobs because of this virus, that nothing can be done about people sleeping in the streets and single mothers living on food stamps?
The jig is up—politicians and business leaders CAN take massive action fast, but it’s up to us to demand their courage. If this pandemic doesn’t show us our power, nothing will.
When Others Are Fearful
Do you have any regrets? Ask most people and they won’t point to what they’ve done, but what they haven’t. The wise see boneheaded moves as lessons on the path of life that fuel our growth. But like so much on that road, the only way to arrive at that state of peace is by choosing to see it that way.
This crisis is just one more invitation to choose. Unquestionably, this pandemic is a tragedy. People are suffering, dying and losing jobs, trapped indoors while their sanity wears thin. What’s more, it’s possible that this hardship is only beginning, and the economic fallout will bring the greatest pain. We can choose to flood our consciousness with visions of catastrophe, and fall into anxiety and despair.
Or we can reposition the situation as an opportunity for growth. When Warren Buffett said, “Be greedy when others are fearful,” he wasn’t inviting you to become a robber baron or a pandemic price gouger, he was encouraging us to find the opportunity in crisis.
I don’t know your situation. Maybe you’re struggling to make ends meet or to put on a brave face for your family. Maybe you’re fighting on the front lines of the intensive care unit or risking your health to keep the lights on for the rest of us (thank you). Whatever the case, know that 7 billion of us are fighting the same battle and facing the same choice: lay down, or rise.
Times of disruption are fertile ground for massive growth. The conditions are ripe for us to evolve, to start something new, to go inward and re-emerge stronger.
You can choose to see this hardship as just one more teacher.
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