Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in numerous meetings (in-person), a few summit events (in-person), and many conversations – business and otherwise. I’ve been struck by the collective energy, focus, and depth of pretty much all of these face-to-face encounters with other human beings. As the fear and doubt wrought by the pandemic have disappeared, they have been replaced by a renewed sense of engagement and expectation.
Have all our troubles gone away? No. Is the world a safer place? No. Are there plenty of ugly things appearing that were hidden behind the pandemic? Certainly. Despite current uncertainties in this topsy-turvy world, it seems a good point to stop and take stock of a world changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m going to bullet some thoughts below, in no particular order nor by any means comprehensive – it is clear that we’ll be unpacking the lessons of the last 24 months for years to come. However, in the spirit of lessons-learned and the hope of improvement, there are some observations worth making.
- Despite our technological prowess, we are not in control. During the pandemic, the rallying mantra became “follow the science.” We quickly found that the science we held so dear and desperately needed to answer the frightening unknowns was itself unequal to the task. In this process, we were reminded that science itself is an imperfect process, prone to speculation, and ever-changing with new information. We threw massive resources at answering the big questions, solving the scary problems, and charting a course beyond a virus that affected the entire world. Emerging from the entire experience, our faith in technology’s ability to solve all of the problems we face is shaken. Yes, we’ve learned much along the way but it is clear that we are not in control.
- There is no absolute safety. Once we realized that we were in a pandemic, we discovered that we, as a nation, seemed to have a very low tolerance for risk. At least to our health. An incredibly ironic discovery given our comfort with behaviors that create many, many health risks. With the onslaught of COVID-19, we quickly went to extremes to try and protect ourselves – and our loved ones. Along the way, we found that our lockdowns, masks, isolation, and even our vaccines were unable to fully protect us.
- We need new heroes and they are living among us. During the most intense surges in hospitalizations amid the battle to contain the pandemic, we discovered a new class of hero in the individuals working within our healthcare system. Signs stating “Heroes Work Here” began to appear outside of our hospitals and medical offices. We learned of the frightening conditions on the front-lines and the grueling work conditions for those who were working to treat all suffering from COVID-19. The heroes of this war did not need weapons or capes, they were armed with a different set of tools.
- Virtual is useful but empty without the analog. The pandemic introduced us to a new set of virtual tools and taught us to interact outside of in-person encounters. Moments previously shared face-to-face went virtual as necessity fostered a new approach to the human need for connection. Along the way, we realized that we could interact in this fashion but our virtual encounters fell short of the human connection possible in-person. We were reminded that we are social animals and desperately need the analog; the low-tech beauty of touch, physical presence, and nuance afforded us when face-to-face.
- We need each other more than ever. A continuation of the previous point but worth some extra space. We acknowledge human dignity through our connections with others and it remains the name of the game. We are in it together. We are dependent on one another. We cannot do it alone. And, life is so much better when shared.
- Work fosters human dignity and the employer-employer relationship remains critical. The pandemic, and our reaction to it, decimated much of our work life. Businesses were shut down or failed in massive numbers and many of us were unable to work. We all like some time off but we are made to engage with the world in productive ways. Work fosters dignity through purpose, exertion, and the utilization of our skills. Many depended on their employers for guidance, health support, and human connection throughout the pandemic. Many employers responded with hybrid work policies, massive flexibility, testing and PPE access, and a host of other services in attempts to help. Despite headlines now focused on “The Great Resignation,” the employer-employee relationship is still central to much of our lives and, though imperfect, remains a cornerstone to our own sense of belonging, purpose, and fulfillment.
- Fear is a frightening motivator. The pandemic reminded us of fear as a powerful motivator. We quickly gave up many liberties in the name of our collective safety. Businesses were shut down. Schools were closed. Our loved ones died alone in our hospitals. We accepted mandates believing they were necessary even as the landscape changed moment by moment. We isolated our families from one another and created an entirely new form of divisiveness around individual levels of compliance with the mandates. Fear, founded and unfounded, drove us to many extreme behaviors and it did it quickly.
- The pandemic created its own winners and losers. There were many companies and individuals who profited from the pandemic. There were many who were devastated by the pandemic. We should be grateful for the organizations that were able to respond and support the massive shifts that occurred during the challenges of the last two years. We should also be aware of the profiteering, predatory practices, and pillaging that occurred in the name of a crisis.
- Division has not helped our nation. There are those who profit from our division and power stems from how the powerful can keep us voting and behaving according to the broad buckets into which we’ve been thrown. Through the pandemic, we’ve seen our divisiveness move to a new level and continue to be bombarded with messages that highlight our differences. It really isn’t helping.
- Caring, trust, and connection are still highly valued currencies. Divisions are still there but our emergence from the pandemic is showing a real appetite for caring and connection. Individuals are showing up for opportunities to connect. We are valuing those who care very highly and recognizing the power, and need, for trust in our interactions. As obvious as all of that seems, the the 24 month absence of face-to-face human moments has highlighted the value of caring, trust, and connection. Perhaps it’s a little odd to compare these important elements to mediums of exchange, but one doesn’t have to look very far to see how powerfully they move others.
- Evil still exists in the world. The pandemic is fading but we are reminded that there are many who do not share our values, including the value of human life and the dignity of the individual. This reality is sobering and a good reminder that we are meant for more than our own prosperity. With such unknowns, we are reminded that there is no certain path but purpose and belief still matter.
- Change and transition are fixed realities. The sand is still shifting below our feet and it is not going to stop. The pandemic has shifted, old challenges remain, and new ones are on their way. Our governments cannot protect us from all of the scary things of the world, our institutions are imperfect, and human beings will often choose the path of self-interest. Amid it all, we are evolving, struggling, and sometimes thriving. Change remains certain.
Albert Einstein once said “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Whether it is the social ills within our country, the political ills of the broader world, or the relationship and professional ills of our own lives, we are called to wrestle with them all and must continue to evolve our approaches. The pandemic has taught us that we are fragile in many ways but there is also a lot of resilience within us. COVID-19 reminded us that we can face the terror of the unknown and still persevere. Even amid missteps, infighting, and ongoing disagreement, we can find ways forward to better places.
No, there is no absolute safety, but we can face the uncertainty knowing that caring, trust, and human connection are integral to our experience and still valued among us. We will continue to uncover the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic and will likely see similar challenges in the future. We’ll also continue to learn and evolve. Perhaps we’ll find new levels of thinking along the way to help. Perhaps we’ll discover new generations of leaders up to the challenge. Maybe we’ll do better next time.