Retrospective On 2020
I am sad to see 2020 go. It has been a monumental year in many ways. Lots of things were shaken very hard, and many things broke under the stress, but many things were improved.
Life is consistent about one thing: change. You can choose to complain that things are not what they used to be, or you can embrace the opportunity and try new things.
2020 was a year of opportunity, although it was not the opportunity that we thought it was going to be in 2019. 2020’s opportunities were different, but they were plentiful.
Marketers have always known that you are more likely to change toothpaste brands when you go through a big life transition, like going off to college, getting married, moving to a new state, having a child, etc. COVID threw all the balls in the air, letting each of us throw off the shackles of our old habits and try new ones in ways we could not imagine.
COVID has put opportunity on steroids.
COVID’s Positive Impact on Education
There has been soft grumbling about the value of a college education for years. In 2019, the focus of a university education as the “experience.” In 2020, students are studying through video. All of a sudden, students and parents are asking what do they get out of it? In 2020, the focus of college is not an “experience” but has flipped to the “value” the student receives. Take away the college “experience,” and the student is forced to evaluate the skillset they are learning. This is a huge step forward.
Similarly, the school shutdowns in K-12 education have forced parents to become more involved with what their kids are learning. Many parents might not have considered homeschooling before, but now parents had a taste of it and know that it is at least possible. Those that choose to send their kids back to public school are hopefully more aware of what their kids are learning.
The short-term effects of school shutdowns, both in the K-12 and university settings is disastrously disruptive, but the long-term effects will be every bit as positive. Purely shining a light on what happens behind the classroom door will bring positive change. I pity the students who were short-changed by the school shutdowns, but the parents increased involvement and a focus on what is the true value of education compensates.
From a long-term social standpoint, this change is monumentally positive.
COVID’s Positive Impact on Careers
I came of age in the 1990’s, when the economy morphed from having 30-year careers at a big company to endless layoffs during the 90’s. No longer could you climb the corporate ladder or rely on a union job, you had to keep your resume up to date and be ready to move when the opportunity came. People began to take responsibility for managing their careers because nobody else would do that for them.
There is an insatiable demand for taking personal responsibility. It is part of the American way. Over the last decade or two, the notion of being a freelancer – taking personal responsibility – has grown exponentially. Uber and Lyft allow anyone with a car to make an extra dollar. Airbnb has lowered the barrier to becoming a landlord. eBay and Amazon take the pain out of selling physical products to a worldwide market. 99designs and Upwork allow anyone to be a freelancer. Countless people have gone out on their own as consultants, freelancers, or small retailers in a myriad of ways. In all these cases, people are taking personal responsibility for their future and trying to make a better life for themselves.
As someone who has worked from home for 20 years, I welcomed everyone else to my lifestyle in 2020. Working from home is a lifestyle change in the sense that many aspects of your life need to adapt. Some days, working from home is great, and other days, it is a mess, but so is working in an office.
The key to working from home is that the value you provide as an employee needs to be much more measurable. Without the inter-personal interactions inside the office, bosses will only see an employee’s output. They cannot tell if you are in your pajamas, but they can tell the quality of the output.
I see this as a blessing.
Working from home is not about grinding out eight hours at the factory; it is giving us the freedom to manage our lives while delivering a specific, measurable value to our employers or customers. Work from home focuses on value delivered, not time in the saddle.
2020 has been a huge step in breaking some preconceived notions that have built up since the Industrial Revolution. Before the Industrial Revolution, people mostly tended farms. On a farm, you worked hard, and you were rewarded by surviving the cold winter. During the Industrial Revolution, a worker was paid by the hour, where they screwed the tops on the toothpaste tubes as they rolled past. By making people work from home, everyone is responsible for their deliverables, not the time spent in the office.
Corporate America has always tried to evaluate employees based on performance, and working from home will separate the higher producers from the slackers. It will force people to take responsibility to deliver value to their employers.
Couple the work-from-home employee’s personal responsibility with the abundance of educational opportunities, and everyone can pick up a new skill, make themselves more valuable, and take control of their future.
2020 is a year where the positive, long-term trends of personal fiscal responsibility lurched forward again.
The Fear is Real
There is a real, tangible, deep-down fear when you are forced to take personal responsibility. Every parent feels it: am I making the right decision? Am I doing this right?
As a parent, do you make the kid eat the peas left on the plate? There are no right answers – and your kid will be in therapy for years – no matter if you made them eat the peas or not.
There are people and institutions that feed on this fear, and they have for centuries. When the stress and fear of taking personal responsibility can be overwhelming, there is always someone promising to make it go away. Just like the college education that always promised a bountiful career, or big corporations or unions promising a 40-year career without worry, or even communism or socialism, these institutions never succeed in the long run.
2020 was a year where people faced those fears whether they wanted to or not. Facing a fear and surviving is one of the most powerful positive events of a lifetime. How many people in Corporate America have spent 40 hours a week in a cubicle and wondered about starting their own business? Working from home has showed them it is possible, and that is tremendously powerful.
Do not underestimate the power that was unleashed by COVID.
The Blessings of 2020
2020 was a year where some of our big institutions were badly shaken, and society is taking stock of them.
The long-term trend is that society always functions better when we all take personal responsibility. You can think about it as each of us working in our own selfish interest, or as capitalism in its purest form.
Taking responsibility can be as small as mowing the lawn and making our section of the neighborhood more appealing, or it can be as big as starting a new business after being laid off or starting a side hustle business.
Uncertainty always comes with fear, and there are institutions that promise to make that go away. These will always be around, and they have been over-playing their hand lately. Having spent time in both sides of the political spectrum, I can confidently say that the general public is far stronger, far more resilient, and far smarter than is portrayed by the media and our political leaders.
As society lurches forward to being forced to take personal responsibility for their education, their work situation, their relationships, and, ultimately, their government, I am encouraged about the future.
This rolls over to the political divisions in the United States.
Politically, our Dear Leaders have shown us what we always knew about them. They were given an impossible situation in COVID, and they had to navigate in the fog of war. Sadly, we got to see their character on display.
Their character was not shown in the initial decisions, which are based on little information and the “fog of war.” We should applaud and support anyone who made difficult decisions during that period.
Their character comes out in how they updated their decisions (or not) as things progressed. Did they double down on the previous bad decisions or did they change course when the data showed they should? On top of that, we also got to see character from shameless and reprehensible armchair quarterbacking of whoever had a political axe to grind. Rest assured, the general population is much, much smarter than our leaders appear to believe.
An uncertain future means a person needs to navigate with no solid answers. They learn as much as they can, and they listen to different sources, and they try something. If someone is outfitting their office for Zoom calls or thinking of starting their own freelance gig, they look at dozens of different people’s videos on the subject. They are using the critical thinking to get conflicting data from multiple sources, then try something. This skillset is the savior of the world, even though it seems trivial at first.
A society that is making individual decisions has the skillset to listen to conflicting information. The soon-to-be-freelancer who is planning to go solo researches everything they can. In fact, the most experienced people actively seek out the opposite viewpoint and try to understand it because they know it makes them better.
Much of our information comes from echo chambers of our own choosing, and the news sources and social media platforms cater to it. We like people who agree with us, so that is where we consume our information.
Those kinds of institutions eventually fail when people have the skillset of making their own decisions. These institutions will have a good run for a while, no doubt, but eventually, people will begin questioning what is going on behind the scenes.
COVID sped up the long-term trend of our “trusted” institutions failing us.
This opens up the opportunity for change – drastic change – in our news sources, our politics, but mostly in our own hope for the future.
One of the Curses of 2020.
It will take years, maybe decades for the effects of COVID to percolate through the system.
For example, look at the medical device industry.
COVID saw a few big steps forward in healthcare, such as telemedicine across state borders and a vaccine. But COVID created huge stagnation in every other aspect of health care delivery. Every non-COVID medical device company suffered because sales reps could not physically get into the hospitals to sell their wares. The net result is that countless advances in medical care have been put on hold while the COVID restrictions continue.
In the short term, there is a backlog of medical technology that is piling up, waiting to get in the hands of doctors once the reps make it through the front door. This glut will take a time to work through the system and it remains to be seen if companies can survive through this famine.
For the medium term, the constant innovation and improvement in the medical space has been put on hold. Smaller companies will not be able to survive the COVID-induced delay, and they will disappear along with the innovation. The result is that investors will be less willing to invest in medical device companies. Sadly, medicine has retrenched into a much more fiscally conservative mindset with less interest in innovation.
Our rapid pace of innovation has come to a halt in medical devices, and it will take years to recover.
As with any investment situation, I look at the fundamentals. If all the fundamentals are pointing in the right direction, it is a good investment.
2020 gave us the opportunity to try new things that we would never have done. It allowed us to question some institutions that probably needed shaking up, from our education system to how we work as employees or employers, to our politics, to our news sources.
Yes, there are things that changed badly in 2020, but there are a whole host of things that went well. Many of our crusty, petrified institutions have been shaken, and as those scales fall off, new life will be breathed into our society.
COVID and 2020 have given us an amazing chance to grow, and I see nothing but opportunity.