The Best Life Lessons From the Pandemic
We will remember this year for the rest of our lives. We will tell people decades from now, “This is what I did in 2020. This is who I was. This is what changed.”
A couple weeks ago, I reached out to my email list and asked, “What have been your biggest lessons from 2020?”
Over a thousand people replied, some with multiple pages of thoughts and experiences. The replies hailed from dozens of different countries, from men and women as young as 15 and as old as 84, from people who had one of the greatest years of their lives and people who had one of the worst.
After spending the greater part of a week combing through the emails, some major themes emerged. I’ve condensed those themes into the 10 practical takeaways below.
You Only Really Know Who You Are When Everything Is Taken From You
A year ago, if you told me that my favorite restaurants, half my friends and my crossfit gym would be taken from me, I would have freaked out. But not only do I not miss them, I think I might actually be happier without them.
In my book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, I wrote that it’s only by losing something that you can determine how much you value it. Therefore, the best strategy for determining what truly matters to you is by cutting things out of your life, then seeing what you miss and what you don’t.
Early in the year, I wrote that the pandemic was about to offer an excellent opportunity for all of us to experiment with this. Whether we wanted it or not, we were about to lose access to a lot of activities, events, hobbies, and friendships that we were accustomed to having whenever we wanted. At the time, I predicted that many people would be surprised by both who/what they missed, and who/what they did not miss.
This experience was, by far, the single most common experience reported. Hundreds of people said that they didn’t miss their work, hobbies, or favorite events. Some even discovered they didn’t miss many of their friends and family. Many reported that much of what they spent their lives doing pre-pandemic was not who they actually wanted to be. Some made the startling discovery that they hadn’t really known who they were!
As one young reader said, “I finally learned what my hobbies are. I spent so much time focusing on school before that I never really thought about who I am outside of the school setting.”
A woman from the Netherlands had a similar discovery: “The thing I learned this year is how much I have been going against my nature all my life. I have always suspected it, but now I fully understand how much of an introvert I am. When everything got cancelled, I realized I had been burning up socially for years. In lockdown my friends were suffering. They just wanted to go out, but couldn’t. And I… was fine?”
This discovery was common. People who thought they were extroverted realized they were introverted. People who believed they were introverts discovered they were actually quite extroverted. In both cases, people realized that much of what they thought was their personality was merely molded by social pressures.
One young man said, “I always thought I was okay being alone, but this pandemic showed me how much I need people around me. It’s actually bugging me how lonely I feel, even when I’m able to talk to people every day. I had never realized how needy I could be.”
But perhaps the biggest effect of no longer having a full schedule of activities to distract people from themselves was how many came to the realization that for many years they had been avoiding some ugly shit in their own lives.
As one reader put it, “I have spent years running from addressing depressive and anxious symptoms. When there were no social distractions or trips to plan, there was nowhere to hide from myself.”
Another said he discovered that he had probably been a highly-functioning alcoholic for many years, but it was only in isolation in the spring that he was forced to accept that his drinking wasn’t just a social activity, it was a real problem.
And a number of readers were forced to confront the fact that they were not happy in their marriages for the first time.
This theme of self-discovery will continue to surface throughout this article and play a part in many of the other lessons. Some of these realizations will be positive and joyous. Others will be dark and upsetting. But, in each case, by stripping away what we took for granted, the challenges of 2020 clarified for people who they actually are.
84 people had breakthroughs last week. This week, will one of them be you?
No spam or unexpected emails. Ever.
A Crisis Doesn’t Change People; It Amplifies Who They Already Are
Adversity seems to bring out not necessarily the worst in people, but the essence of people.
If the elimination of extraneous stuff clarifies who we are to ourselves, then it only makes sense that it would clarify who we are to others as well.
“Adversity seems to bring out not necessarily the worst in people, but the essence of people. In my months working in retail through the pandemic, I’ve noticed my cranky customers get even meaner. The pleasant customers have gotten more friendly, understanding and compassionate towards our challenges. The generous ones have been leaving even bigger tips than before this whole thing started. The creative, optimistic business owners on my block have gotten more creative to survive while the businesses that were already failing have chosen to blame everyone else for their failing business.”
If you’re a bad friend and not generous with your time or energy, there’s no more hiding behind working long hours or endless business trips. If you’re a shady, shifty fucker, there are no more excuses to cover up your duplicitous behavior.
One reader commented that the pandemic brought out “the factory default settings” of everyone. The paranoid became more paranoid. The needy became more needy. The anxious became more anxious and the optimistic became more optimistic.
I found this true in my own life. I have a tendency to be a workaholic and a bit depressive. Throughout the pandemic, I have battled through weeks of depressive symptoms, usually by inspiring and distracting myself with work.
Well, it was about mid-November when I realized that I hadn’t taken a full weekend off in over eight months. I was exhausted, burnt out, and miserable. I’ve since had to force myself to slow down a bit.
That amplification of our neuroses has created a “it got worse before it got better” dynamic for a lot of people. Early on, they discovered a lot of stuff they had been covering up for years. But as the months wore on, they were forced to confront and deal with their issues.
The Little Things Are the Most Important
Myself, and my patients (friends and family also) have learnt and re-learnt that when all you have are the little things, the little things take on huge significance.
One way I like to think about pandemic life is that it’s kind of like a science experiment. You don’t really know how things affect you until you can isolate them enough to see their full effects.
For example, I never realized how awful I felt for days after drinking alcohol, even if I only drank a little. The reason I never realized it before is probably because there were six other things in my life that were making me feel awful and tired too, so I was never able to isolate the effect alcohol has on me. But sitting at home all week, doing nothing, sleeping as much as I wanted, it soon became apparent that just a couple glasses of whiskey go a long way to wrecking my energy.
I had similar realizations around staying up late, excessive amounts of video games, having regular check-ins with family members, and going outside for walks and getting sunlight. All affected my mood and energy much more than I suspected… which makes me wonder exactly how exhausted I must have been for pretty much all of my adult life.
Many readers had similar experiences this year. An Egyptian reader put it very well when he said his biggest lesson from 2020 was that, “mundane decisions are underrated.” Something as simple as going to bed late one night can impact everything you do for the next two or three days, potentially causing a ripple effect through your life. You are tired and cranky so you skip the Zoom meeting you were scheduled for. But that Zoom meeting could have led to another business deal which you now did not get. And the lack of that business deal causes budget problems for your company three months from now.
That may sound dramatic, but I have developed a much greater respect for the downstream effects of small, simple choices. There’s a famous study that found that judges give harsher sentences to criminals if they hadn’t eaten and were hungry. Having my day basically be the same every day for nine months straight, it’s much easier to notice how these slight shifts affect me, my mood, and my energy.
That is partly why, at the beginning of the year, I preached routine and ritual. With less going on in our lives, the more the small things mattered. As one reader put it, “This year has taught me that ritual is the antidote to chaos. Small rituals, when practiced daily, give a sense of order to the mind.”
When all of this is over, I hope to continue some of my basic routines that I’ve adopted this year, simply because they make me a healthier, more sane, individual. I imagine many people feel the same.
The Great Social Filter
Ironically, this social distancing thing is great for weeding out useless relationships.
Nothing like adding a dimension of risk to social interactions to quickly determine who is worth giving a fuck about and who is not. This experience was so common that I decided to name it, “The Great Social Filter.”
“Ironically, this social distancing thing is great for weeding out useless relationships. I’ve gotten so much closer to certain friends and let go of others that I now realize were very superficial. What’s more, people I didn’t think I had made much of an impression on came back around and wanted to talk, which in turn sparked greater, deeper, more meaningful conversations.”- Erica
The Great Social Filter is as simple as an unconscious risk/reward calculation: “Is this person worth the probability that we get COVID and something horrible happens?”
Interestingly, the Great Social Filter hit two groups the hardest, for completely opposite reasons: young people and old people.
Young people had the disconcerting realization that most of the people they considered “friends” were really nothing more than glorified acquaintances. Old people isolated themselves far more because of the greater danger posed by the virus. In the end, both groups ended up feeling isolated.
But perhaps the most troubled readers were not those who lost friendships, but rather those who lost romantic relationships or marriages. One reader’s email is representative of many who had similar stories:
Some readers used these epiphanies as an opportunity to repair their family relationships. Others watched them slowly fail, adding even more pain to the steaming shit-heap known as 2020 (more on those people further down).
Perhaps the greatest side effect of The Great Social Filter though is a renewed appreciation for friends and loved ones who managed to get through. Literally hundreds of readers expressed gratitude for renewed closeness with family members and old friendships. Many also shared the joyous realization that they loved their partners even more after spending all-day, every day with them for nine months. It reaffirmed to many that they chose who to be with well.
This dual realization about the significance (or insignificance) of people in one’s life actually leads us into the next lesson…
Most Things Are Both Good and Bad at the Same Time
If you only see the bad, then you are missing the good and also if you only see the good, you are missing the bad (and the chance to grow).
Long-time readers know that one of the dead horses that I’ve beaten for years is that it’s often impossible to know if an experience is actually good/bad for us. Our judgments on things that are bad tend to be very short-term and emotionally driven. This is especially true in the age of social media, where the slightest amount of hurt, offense, or setback is perceived as some great oppression.
“The one lesson that keeps coming back to me this year is how something can be both good and bad. If you only see the bad, then you are missing the good and also if you only see the good, you are missing the bad (and the chance to grow). I was laid off from my job of 19 years this summer. It’s bad that I don’t have a job, bad that I went through a bit of an identity crisis, but also good that I went through an identity crisis and good that I can be home to help my kids through this shitshow of online school.”
Dozens of readers emailed me with stories about losing their jobs, their houses, their relationships, and even losing family members to COVID-19. In most of these emails, the people, while extremely upset and hurt, also noted silver linings to their suffering. It brought their families closer. It gave them a chance to reconnect with their kids. It gave them a way out of a destructive marriage. It gave them an opportunity to rethink what they wanted to do with their lives. It showed them who really loved them for who they were and who didn’t.
There continues to be hidden value in suffering and I will continue beating that dead horse.
Interestingly, a lot of people reported that this realization of the double-sidedness of events changed how they see the world and its problems, as well.
One reader said, “I learned things are never black and white no matter how hard someone tries to convince you they are.” Another reported how she used to believe in conspiracy theories, but after seeing government after government botch fundamental and basic actions against the pandemic, it became impossible for her to ignore the rampant incompetence in human organizations.
By Slowing Down, Everything Somehow Speeds Up
In spite of all the doom and gloom that the pundits and press have been saying about the boringness of staying home with my husband, I’ve advanced my cooking, read and really enjoyed the boring times. Maybe I was boring all along and trying to be “active” to fit in. I’ve found the lack of fast pace to be good for my attitude.
Another consistent theme of the emails was the appreciation of “slowing down,” readers taking their time, enjoying the boringness of their lives. One reader said she “found something deeply gratifying about delaying my own gratification in the interest of keeping others safe and healthy.”
Another said, “I’ve actually found that by doing less with my days, I enjoy and appreciate each one of those things more.”
This “slowing down” of life has been endlessly fascinating for me this year, especially in how it relates to perceived time. Everyone I speak to about 2020 says that it feels as though the year flew by. Remember the Australian bushfires? Remember Kobe Bryant dying? That feels like eons ago.
There’s something about a lack of activity that makes time feel compressed and shortened, which is completely counterintuitive. A month goes by in what feels like a week. Yet, we look back and what happened a month ago feels like a year ago. What the fuck, brain?
We Consistently Underestimate Our Resilience and Adaptability
I’ve learned that I’m much stronger than I thought. I have been able to maintain love and happiness, through a pandemic, political insanity, cancer, job changes, and whatever the world is becoming.
A large percentage of the emails struck a similar chord—“I thought I would never be able to get through it… yet, somehow I did.” Rather than pontificate, I’ll just let some readers speak for themselves.
“The pandemic has not been kind to me, to be honest. I had a mental breakdown in March, lost my job in June, moved twice in the past four months, slept on sofas and in moldy rooms, was disappointed by friends and lovers. Despite all this, I have learned that I am more resilient than I ever thought.
“This has been the hardest year of my life, bar none. I used to think that I couldn’t live without my friends, my social life or a steady paycheck. Now I’ve learned I can survive without any of them.”
Many years ago, after suffering through a few difficult and isolated months of my own, I wrote an article about this: that in hardship, we are often surprised to discover that most of what we need is already within ourselves.
But it wasn’t just the adaptability of individuals that was surprising, many were surprised (and impressed) at how quickly society adapted itself to the new realities.
And on an optimistic note, one reader sent:
Fear Is Dangerous
I learned that fear drives people to be highly selfish, capable of only thinking of themselves, their own health and convenience.
A number of readers commented on the fear that pervaded public discourse this year and how we reacted to it as a culture. It was not pretty.
A reader named Jean described it well:
Interestingly, disgust for political leadership was common across people from nearly every country I heard from. Whether it was poor policy response or botched execution of plans or politicians leveraging fear and division for political gain, everyone outside of a handful of countries in the Pacific seemed pretty disillusioned.
I, like many people, had a faint hope back in March that having a common cause would unite people across political divisions. Apparently, it simply did the opposite in most places.
Part of this is because of how fear affects our ability to reason and see commonality. One reader summarized it thus: “Fear changes our perspective more than we realise. Fear basically forces us to not think. We humans usually have assumptions about everything, so the fear usually forces us to believe in those assumptions without much thinking. The solution which I found is to have the courage to accept even the worst of things which could happen.”
What the reader is referring to is something that is sometimes referred to as, “negative visualization,” a practice that originated with the Stoics. The idea of negative visualization is to actually imagine the worst case scenario and challenge yourself to mentally prepare for it and become comfortable with it. This comfort will then eliminate or at least drastically reduce the emotional reaction to many of your fears.
Always Be Financially Prepared
Living within your means is not a ‘nice goal’ to have—it is a must. Those that do not are in serious shit immediately when things go sideways.
It’s funny, every time I crowdsource an advice article like this, lots of people bring up money. When I asked older people for advice for someone in their 30s, the number one piece of advice was to get debt-free and save for retirement. When I asked hundreds of happily married couples for marriage advice, over and over again, they brought up the importance of being aligned about money (and being able to trust your partner with saving and spending).
Well, the streak continues. Hundreds of readers chimed in with the tried and true advice to always save for a rainy day:
Of course, there were many readers on the other side of this equation:
It’s often trendy in my line of work to tell people that money doesn’t bring happiness. Well, that may be true, but a lack of money can sure bring a lot of unhappiness. If you’ve always been lax in your financial habits, hopefully this year was a wake-up call.
You Have No Excuse to Not Be Who You Want to Be
“What have I learned from 2020? That we do what we do. That there’s little point saying, ‘When I’m rich I’m gonna…’ or ‘When I retire I’m gonna…’ Because you won’t. If you’re not doing it now, you won’t do it then. I always kidded myself that if I were locked up for years, I’d get scarily fit and read all the great books of history. Instead, in lockdown, I got fat (well, fatter) and read no more top-notch literature this year than any other year.”
People love to bitch and moan that they don’t have enough time. In most cases, I’ve found that it’s rarely a problem of time, but usually a problem of priorities. People spend hours scrolling through Instagram or an entire weekend binge-watching Netflix and then complain they don’t have the time to take that online course or or go to the gym.
In many cases, removing the time constraints exposed people them to this issue—that they were the problem all along.
In other cases, it made people more aware of Parkinson’s Law—that a task will shrink or expand to fit the time allotted to it. As a reader named Brad put it:
I can certainly relate to this lesson. In prior years, I had so many meetings, calls, business trips, and deadlines, it was never a question of what I needed to be doing on any given day. But when lockdown started and all of those meetings and trips were suddenly cancelled, I quickly found myself floundering and wasting many an afternoon without much sense of what I should be doing instead.
It took a few weeks, but I solved that problem the same way Brad did: I got insane about scheduling. Even if it was dumb stuff like, “walk outside for thirty minutes at 2PM; check email at 3PM.” I created daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly to-do lists for myself. For the first time in my life, I developed routines around writing, exercise, and sleep.
As obnoxious as I find schedules and routines, these saved my ass this year. And as horrified as I am by my newfound predictability, I will probably be keeping many of these routines post-pandemic.
Like any other struggle in life, you can dictate how you will live in the pandemic, or you can let the pandemic dictate to you. Just because you’re confined to your apartment doesn’t mean you don’t still have complete control over how you spend your time and grow as a person. Just because your favorite bar is closed doesn’t mean you are limited in your social interactions.
It simply means you must be willing to take responsibility for adapting to the circumstances. I feel as though many people forgot this year that freedom mostly does not reside outside of ourselves, but rather it resides within our own minds.
I will end this piece with one of the more inspiring emails I received—a perfect example that no matter what challenges we face in the world, our fate is ultimately up to ourselves.
“Life is what you make it. During the pandemic, at the end of the first UK lockdown, I moved to a different country, started my dream job and I am now expecting my first child. This is the last year I thought that all of these things would happen but I never lost hope. This pandemic shone a light on how precious life is and how lucky some of us are, my gratitude completely took over a lot of fears that I had previously had. Of course along the way I still shit my pants but it all led to great things happening. I feel free strangely at a time that we have the least freedom. I know a lot of terrible things have happened this year even to myself but perspective can go a long way.”