Depending on whom you believe, the COVID-19 pandemic is either limping to a close — Omicron being the last gasp of the virus in its flop era — or the bug will never really end, it’ll just peter out and plateau, becoming one of the many threats facing us in this crazy world.
However we define the length of the pandemic, though, one thing’s for sure: the Panny D will be the defining event of our generation, and we’ll carry it with us — in our minds, in our hearts, and probably in our bodies — for the rest of our lives.
And like any defining event, this pandemic served up a whole lot of misery and fear — in fact, some scientists have concluded that the pandemmy was officially traumatic. But if we’re being honest, this period has also served up a ton of insight and growth. For some of us, it’s even been a period of surprising peace and joy.
Our job now — whether the ‘rona drags on, mutates, or fizzles — is to figure out which downsides to leave behind from this weird chapter, and which positives to take with us into the future.
Now, look. There are aspects to the last two years that are unquestionably terrible. Some of us have lost our loved ones, our jobs, our callings. Hobbies, communities, and physical spaces have been disrupted, fractured, shut down. We’ve endured isolation, fatigue, hopelessness. Even the supply chain — which I literally never thought about until last Thanksgiving — is falling apart.
These are very real wounds, undeniably brutal challenges. (Okay, the supply chain stuff is probably more of an inconvenience than a trauma. But when you can’t get a computer chip or a friggin’ jar of chia seeds at the supermarket, that’s a real issue. Yep, I’m that guy, I’m officially “I want chia seeds on a weekly basis” years old.) And the sad truth is that the pandemic has hit low-income countries and vulnerable people much, much harder than well-resourced ones.
So I’m not going to sit here in my Herman Miller chair in my home office in beautiful NorCal like, “All this suffering was really just a spiritual test in disguise! Look for the silver lining! #growth!”
What I am saying is that if we take a full accounting of the last two years, we have to acknowledge the good as well as the bad. And that it’s up to us to decide what meaning to make of all that struggle — because that meaning is ultimately all we have to work with.
And meaning, in my view, is always inherently positive.
So while the news and social media and that one weird cousin at your Christmas table bang on about how divided people are these days, how dumb everyone is, how bleak the future looks, let’s look at this pandemic in a different way.
Let’s look at the upsides, the insights, the rewards of this chapter — and how we can integrate them into our lives moving forward.
Starting with the fact that…
We’ve been forced to investigate our “why.”
Every breakdown creates a crisis, and every crisis invites us to reconsider our most basic assumptions. When the pandemmy took a wrecking ball to our lives, it forced us to ask some very basic questions — absurdly basic ones — about how we do what we do, and why we even do it in the first place.
Do I really love my job?
If not, why am I hanging onto it?
Is there something else that’s calling to me?
If not, then what do I really care about?
Who brings me joy?
And who doesn’t?
What makes me happy, stimulated, fulfilled?
Why am I not chasing that?
When I can’t see anyone, who do I miss the most?
And whom do I not miss?
And why the hell am I still obsessing over those chia seeds?
(Okay, maybe that last one was just me.)
Bottom line: The pandemic took our lives down to the studs, and removed the busyness that distracted us from these fundamental questions. Questions that are so important we generally don’t want to face them.
Because if you really asked yourself what made you fulfilled, or which friends you didn’t truly care about, or which habits would actually improve your life — and you answered those questions honestly — you’d have to make some profound changes.
And we humans don’t like change. We like stability. Familiarity. Comfort. It’s easier to be carried along by the tide of our “normal” lives — attending pointless meetings for half the day, going to birthday parties of people we don’t even like, filling every second of free time with TV or alcohol or gossip — than to interrogate our most basic assumptions about what makes our lives worth living.
But Covid took away that luxury. As soon as we went into lockdown (or some version of it), we were thrown into an existential shitastrophe that threw us back into those questions.
To use Simon Sinek’s phrase, the pandemic forced us to ask the fundamental question: What’s our “why?” And where the hell do we find it?
As things open back up, though, it’s very tempting to slip back into that old pattern of distraction and complacency. Regular life is resuming (with some hiccups), and you can already see our busyness papering over these crucial questions. In the fog of our renewed urgency, it’ll be a lot harder to find the space to explore the purpose and quality of our lives.
For my part, I’m determined not to. I want to keep these fundamental questions alive for the rest of my life. I don’t want to take for granted that I’m on the right path just because I’m far down a familiar one. I want to constantly ask myself — just like I did in March 2020 — if this is really the life I want to lead.
(The answer then was a resounding yes, and it still is. The pandemic didn’t change my path, it made me appreciate and double down on the one I was already on. Maybe you’re in the same boat. Or maybe you realized it was time to make a big change. Either way, the pandemic gave that choice a whole new significance — and that’s the point.)
As we stumble out of the pandemic, hang onto this huge positive: the opportunity — and the willingness — to investigate the most fundamental assumptions of your life.
Why you’re pursuing your goals.
What you’re dedicating yourself to every day.
How you’re showing up in your own life.
Who really matters to you.
What you want your day-to-day life to look like.
Those are the building blocks of everything. The pandemic as we know it will eventually end, but these questions will never go away. You’ll have to work a little harder to keep them alive, though. Which will only make them more meaningful.
But the Panny D gave us another huge gift — namely, a whole new way of operating.
Our lives are much more flexible than we think.
An exciting corollary to questioning our Why is our ability to act on that Why in totally new ways.
The most obvious example of that new operating model is the whole idea of remote work. Not confining our careers to an office has allowed us to reconsider what our jobs look like, and given us the opportunity to integrate our personal and professional spheres like never before.
Now, I have to quickly pause here once again and recognize that the whole “remote work” thing has been a mixed bag. Zoom has been a gift and a curse. It brings us together, but it’s also a paltry substitute for IRL interaction (plus it’s exhausting). Work can now creep into our personal time even more easily if we don’t have good boundaries. And the benefits of remote work have been unevenly distributed across our society.
I mean, sure, it’s awesome that a freelance engineer can code an app for a Fortune 500 company from a beach shack in Phuket, but the reality is that at least ⅓ of the American workforce (the numbers vary by study) doesn’t have the luxury of working remotely. Assembling cars, patrolling streets, treating patients, serving patrons, drilling for oil — these are jobs you obviously can’t do from your bathtub. (Yeah, I tried it. It was fun, but not as fun as it’s cracked up to be.)
So when I say that one of the upsides of the pandemic is realizing how flexible our lives are, I have to recognize that that flexibility isn’t available to a huge swath of crucial people.
And I’m not entirely convinced that 100% remote work is necessarily the best model, as much as I enjoy not having to put on pants every day. There’s still something to be said for the community and efficiency of in-person work at certain organizations (he wrote, tapping that sentence out on his iPad as he did squats in his garage gym while holding his new baby).
But now that we’re here, our idea of work has been unshackled from traditional definitions of labor. And all things considered, that’s absolutely net-positive.
And that’s true even if you don’t work in a field that’s conducive to remote work.
If you want to interview for a new job, for example, you can now hop on a video chat from your living room or your car or even a free conference room at your office, instead of telling your boss you need to leave work early for your fifth root canal this month.
And if you land that new gig, you can train remotely while taking a vacation, backchannel online with your new colleagues, and reach out to the countless peers around the world who are more accessible today than ever.
And if you do work in a job that’s at least partly remote, then the world is your oyster.
One of my friends is currently managing a 30-person development team from a WiFi-enabled RV he’s driving to the best national parks around the country. Another one of my friends is holed up in an Airbnb in Berlin, producing audio on his Macbook Pro for a newspaper while he writes his first novel. And another acquaintance of mine, after being let go from her last job, is doing some soul-searching on a cross-country bicycle tour, listening to audiobooks, and taking phone calls with interesting people while she gets in the best shape of her life. Two years ago, she would’ve been moping around her Seattle apartment, applying to jobs on LinkedIn from a coffee shop, feeling stagnant and stuck.
What’s most exciting about this period, though, isn’t just the technology that’s making our lives more flexible. It’s the mindset .
Taking three months to visit a bunch of national parks while you work from your RV wouldn’t just be technically difficult a few years ago; it would have seemed insane. Now it’s totally legit, and in some organizations, it’s even encouraged.
And that’s partly because we’re valuing labor in a totally different way. We’ve made a much-needed shift away from the performative aspects of work — staying late just for the facetime, booking meetings just to feel like we’re making progress — and toward a much more meaningful metric, which is basically: How good is your work? What are you contributing? Are you achieving your goals? Are you pushing the team forward?
As long as that’s happening, more and more managers don’t care if you’re doing it from a campsite in Yosemite or from a cubicle in San Francisco. What good is the internet, really, if it’s not making us more creative, more nimble?
So as we ease out of the pandemic, hang onto this new freedom. Not just the freedom of the infrastructure, but the mental freedom to reconsider how your career — and your life overall — might look.
If you want to find a remote job — or introduce remote work into your current job — go for it.
If you want to take more advantage of the remote job you already have, do it.
If you want to start a side hustle you can do during evenings and weekends, now’s the time.
If you want to meet people in far-flung parts of the world, you couldn’t be reaching out at a better time.
Workplace policies might evolve over the next decade — although the current data overwhelmingly suggests that employees expect remote work to stay or they’ll jump ship, which is awesome — but our new conception of work is here to stay.
I say run with it.
Or at least use it to build deeper connections in your life — which brings us to the next huge upside to the pandemic.
Relationships are more meaningful than ever.
I know this one’s a little trite — everyone’s been saying some version of this since the first season of Tiger King came out — but it’s absolutely true. As soon as we were cut off from the people we cared about, we realized just how important they were. As with everything in life, we had to lose something to truly appreciate its value.
I won’t belabor this point too much. Y’all know that one of the pillars of my life is building meaningful relationships. But it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate what a huge gift this realization actually was.
Before the pandemic, having strong bonds with friends, family and colleagues seemed like a great bonus for most people. Sure, it was awesome to have good people around, but it was hard to see how crucial they were, because they were pretty much available all the time. Our network was just woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.
Then Covid hit, and those relationships took on a very different tenor. Our friends weren’t just friends; they were lifelines. Our families weren’t just families; they were anchors. Our colleagues weren’t just peers; they were companions.
If we couldn’t see our people in person, we’d stare at them on our phones. If we couldn’t have new experiences with them, we’d talk about old ones, or dream up future ones. Hell, most of us eventually broke Covid protocols just to hang out with the people we cared about — even if they were masked up, even if they stayed in a corner across the room, even if it meant that we might get sick. That’s how much we need other people.
There’s no original way to say this, so I’ll just say it: The pandemic showed us what really matters in life, and it turns out that what really matters is other people.
All the other important stuff in life — career, money, travel, learning, mission, pleasure — all of these either involve other human beings or come through them.
A killer job is ultimately about serving and partnering with other people.
An incredible vacation usually means sharing it with another person, or meeting new people along the way.
Building a company or creating a piece of art means nothing without customers, without an audience.
New skills, a compelling purpose, a strong mission — all of these assets are ultimately in service of touching other people’s lives, of leaving your mark on the world.
Everything meaningful boils down to relationships. Not to be super dramatic here, but no one in the towers on 9/11 was using their phone to check their stock portfolio. They were calling their parents, their spouses, their children. The pandemic was a less violent crisis, but it gave us a similar gift: the gift of clarity.
If there’s one thing to take with you from the pandemic, it’s that awareness of how important your people really are. And how important you are to them.
So as we shuffle out of the Panny D, make an effort to keep that lockdown mindset alive. Spend time with people who add to your life, who encourage you to grow, who reciprocate your love. Reach out to people who inspire you, whom you can help, who are walking a path you admire. And keep investing in yourself, so you can be a good friend, peer, and partner to other people.
In other words, build your tribe like your life depends on it. Because it does. The quality of your life, anyway.
And if you lose sight of who really matters, here’s a fun thought experiment: If we went into lockdown again, which people would you miss the most?
Those are the people you should call, write, invite over. Those people are everything.
Our empathy has grown tremendously.
Speaking of the people who matter most, it’s also worth noticing how much more compassionate we are since the pandemic started. Sure, there are pockets of hate, intolerance, and indifference around the world, and there always will be. But on a very basic person-to-person level, all else being equal, I think we’ve become much more attuned to one another since the pandemic began.
I remember riding the subway in New York about a year and a half into the pandemic and feeling that something had changed since my last visit. People were keeping their distance, they were definitely being cautious. But they were also more accommodating. People were nodding to one another, making room for people to sit, more aware that the other bodies in the car were actual human beings. It was as if everyone on the train, me included, had a new awareness that everyone else was equally real. Which is about as good a definition of “empathy” as any.
The reason, I suspect, is that no one was spared by the pandemic. Of course, there are people who are more vulnerable to the virus than others — physically, emotionally, economically. But if you come into contact with the wrong respiratory droplet, it doesn’t matter if you’re friggin’ Tom Hanks or the guy squeegeeing your windshield at the stoplight. We’re all human beings with the same architecture, the same needs. In many ways, a public health crisis is one of the great equalizers — on an emotional level, anyway.
Now, you could point out that we’re not seeing the ripple effects of that empathy on a global scale, and I won’t argue with you there. I’m not saying that everything’s amazing now. It isn’t. Life doesn’t work like that.
But I do think that most people’s capacity for understanding is greater than it used to be, because we’ve all suffered in some way over the last couple of years. I know that I’m way more patient and forgiving now than I was before the pandemic. I’m more curious about other people, more connected to what they’re going through, because we’ve all been through this gauntlet together.
If we can keep that empathy alive, then we’ll be capitalizing on one of the biggest gifts of the pandemic. If we lose it, it’ll be a lost opportunity, and we’ll have to experience some other loss to get it back.
But we don’t have to wait for another crisis to be kind. We can cultivate that compassion on our own. We can make it a practice, and use that practice to give even more meaning to an incredibly tough period.
The other thing we can do is be thankful — in no small part because…
Innovation is at an all-time high.
I almost didn’t want to write this section because I know I’m going to get a bunch of emails from people with ProtonMail accounts yelling at me for being a blue-pill sheeple stanning our new overlord Bill Gates or whatever, but I can’t talk about the positives of the pandemic without talking about the incredible advances that came out of it.
The most obvious one, of course, is the vaccines. I’m not going to get into how they were funded or who deserves credit or whether the rollout was effective — that’s a different conversation.
But purely on the level of the science, the fact that companies and governments created safe, effective, life-saving vaccines and got them to 60% of the global population (as of this writing) is absolutely mind-blowing.
(Yeah, the number should be higher, and it should have happened faster, and it should be a lot of things. But I’m choosing to be grateful for the fact that I could protect myself against this virus nine friggin’ months after it appeared on the scene. Do we even comprehend the magnitude of that accomplishment? Against a virus none of us had ever seen?
Compare this pandemic to the Spanish Flu 100 years ago, and you can begin to appreciate just how remarkable our public health infrastructure really is. Dysfunctional, political, and hopelessly complicated, for sure. But still remarkable.
And yes, Bill Gates did pay me to say that. Who do you think keeps the lights on around here? #capitalism!)
But the vaccines weren’t the only big innovation of the pandemic. Alongside the advent of remote work, teachers have also invented entirely new ways of educating people, at a time when we need to be educated most.
I won’t go on too much of a tangent here — maybe I care about this a lot now that I’m a parent — but the rise of digital learning is actually a huge positive. Not just because it was a crucial stopgap in a flawed school system, but because it’s opening up a ton of new possibilities for how we learn and grow as a society.
Learning isn’t confined to classrooms or specific time intervals anymore. Now we can all — children and adults — be educated in ways that are more flexible, more personal. That is a massive paradigm shift that could actually transform our entire educational system.
And that mirrors a big shift in corporate life, as well. I already talked about remote work, but it’s also worth noticing how the pandemmy forced us to connect and collaborate in new ways.
As Ingrid Theresa Katz, professor at Harvard Medical School, put it, it’s actually super exciting to see so many different fields collaborating in this pandemic, from basic science and clinical medicine to behavioral scientists.
“We’ve seen a lot more reciprocity across borders,” she said, “recognizing that this virus itself crosses borders, and therefore we need to be responsive in a way that doesn’t hem us in by our traditional boundaries, whether it’s by discipline or whether it’s by country. I think that sets the stage for more opportunities for team science. It’s often hard to create an atmosphere that allows for that, but this moment has opened up that dialogue and shown a way forward.”
This moment has opened up that dialogue and shown a way forward.
But the greatest upside of all might be our ability to make it through unprecedented events like these in the first place. Because no matter how horrible the pandemic might have been…
We’re a hell of a lot more resilient now.
Whether you feel shaken and demoralized by the Panny D or motivated and enlivened by it, the fact is: you’re still here. You made it through the clusterf*ck, you’ve evolved as a person (whether you wanted to or not), and you’re literally willing to read an article about the positives you can take away from this period.
If that isn’t resilience, I don’t know what is.
It’s easy to overlook, but there is no resilience without adversity. Resilience and adversity are two sides of the same coin. Our ability to process the struggle is resilience. Grit is the reward for surviving the challenges of life. You can’t have one without the other.
And this pandemic is probably the greatest form of extended adversity many of us will ever face.
For most of us, that adversity consisted of isolation, fear, confusion, boredom, and stress. For some, the adversity took the form of more severe wounds — a failed company, an unexpected termination, a broken relationship, a lost loved one, a bout with the virus itself.
But no matter who you are or what you went through, you definitely lost the one asset all of us took for granted: stability.
Pretty much overnight, we were thrown into a ton of uncertainty, with no clear end in sight. (In fact, we’re still somewhat in that phase.) The only option we had was to keep showing up, putting one foot in front of the other, and working through all the thoughts and feelings the pandemic brought up. For some people, just sitting with themselves — even if nothing objectively terrible was happening — was the worst part.
Big or small, tangible or abstract, external or internal, that adversity put us through the wringer. And that wringer is the mechanism of resilience.
We’ve weathered the storm, and now we know how to weather the storm. And we know that we know we can weather the storm. Which is one of the most important parts of building grit — trusting that we have the resources to take on adversity again in the future.
(Unless the market runs out of chia seeds again, in which case I will apparently have a meltdown in the baking goods aisle. We’ve all got our flaws. I’ve accepted it.)
But the reason resilience works this way is that we play a huge role in what all of this suffering means. Which brings me to my last big takeaway from this chapter.
The Pandemic Is Largely What We Make of It
George Bonanno — one of the OG researchers in the field of resilience — famously discovered something crucial about adversity.
After studying a ton of people with different personalities and life experiences who experienced major challenges, he found that the variation in resilience among different people doesn’t come down to how bad they had it in life.
It comes down to how they think about a stressful event.
According to Bonanno, if we think about a stressful event as traumatic, then it becomes a lot harder to keep going. But if we think about a stressful event as an opportunity to learn and grow, then it’s a lot easier to press on.
To put it even more simply: Resilience is largely about perception. It’s about how we understand and process the challenges we go through, rather than what the challenges simply do to us.
Sure, there’s some aspect of a stressful event that is objectively painful, traumatic, or damaging — like losing a loved one to Covid or shuttering a business during the pandemic.
But whether that blow strengthens or weakens our ability to keep going — that’s largely up to us.
Take, for example, the death of a parent. One person could see that as an unjust and senseless injury to be nursed for the rest of their lives, while another person could see that as an opportunity to live their parent’s values and appreciate the relationships they’ve been given even more deeply.
Or consider being fired from a job — something millions of people experienced in the pandemic. To one person, that might be a fatal blow that creates resentment, paranoia, and insecurity for years to come. To another person, being let go could be an opportunity to become an even stronger candidate, build deeper relationships with new peers or pursue an even more fulfilling career.
Of course, these traumatic events can be devastating and galvanizing, painful, and educational. Life isn’t binary. And that’s the point.
People who respond well to stressful events — like a global pandemic — tend to extract meaning and significance from them.
Philosophical traditions from Buddhism to Stoicism have been saying this for millennia. Ivy League scientists are now confirming it in the lab. If we have any hope of coming out of this pandemic stronger, more grateful, and more connected, then it’ll be because we find meaning in the adversity of the last few years. Which means choosing which upsides to embrace, and taking them with us into everything we do in the future — whatever we decide that future looks like.
[Featured photo by Beniamin Şinca]