Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, June 15, 2020
When I went to college, the one album that rocked my world, that set me on fire and shaped my vision of what could be was Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” And that album reminded me of the song “Tombstone Blues,” whose refrain seems to appropriately frame our quarantined moment — “I’m in the kitchen with the COVID tombstone blues.”
The onslaught of painful news (not just COVID, and I will refrain from mentioning Minneapolis) takes its toll. I see it all around me, the beaten-down-ness of my friends, not miserable per se, but sullen and fearful. So I went looking for some Pollyanna, and Harvard Business School Professors Dina Gerdeman and Danielle Kost polled their colleagues for some insight on how to cope at this time.
Harvard Business School Professor Arthur Brooks suggests that when you realize that “your life is your start-up, the thing to do is to put your own oxygen mask on first.” This is exactly what they tell you on the airplane (which you are not going to fly on for another six months) when the mask drops down.
Tighten the straps and oxygen will start flowing as soon as you turn off the news. I understand the desire to know, but the nightly news doesn’t just move the goalposts, it relocates the entire stadium. Fox and MSNBC are the equivalents of Alabama playing LSU. Brooks says, “This is such an impermanent state of affairs that we just have to do as best we can. Focus on today.” We all know that being in the moment increases our sense of authenticity and gives us strength.
Brooks goes on to say, “Make time for introspection.” Well, I am going to advise some caution on that one. If you are borderline neurotic already (what, me worry), the risk on this one is if you look too closely, you are likely to enter an Alice in Wonderland slide down the white rabbit hole, (Jefferson Airplane), when everything up is down.
Francesca Gino, another Harvard Business School professor, has different advice. She suggests that “rather than fighting for ways to get back to our usual routines, we should tap into our inner spark of curiosity.” This past week I spent one day cleaning out the garage. I found pieces of my creative past as a professional photographer under boxes of old bedding. And I confess to a mixture of delight and sadness. “I coulda’ had class, I coulda’ been a contender.” I have spoken often about the exigencies of time and timing.
Gino asks us to think about what new skill we might learn, rather than feel paralyzed in the moment. I have a client whose business was wiped out by COVID. He closed up shop, gave the landlord the keys and has rediscovered his three children and is learning to code software. He entered a new life he had often thought about, but couldn’t bring himself to embrace, until COVID did it for him.
Ashley Whillans, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, recommends we schedule a specific block of time to work on the tough problems. Block it out, turn off the alerts, hunker down. “Gracefully bow out of extraneous activities.” I agree, although I confess, I did get roped into a virtual marble race. (The team I picked won.)
Whillans advocates for us “to take the personal time we have accumulated.” Lots has been written about the startup world’s policy of vacation time — take what you need, except that we all know that we never do. So consider that COVID has created enforced time for embracing your renewal.
Zoom. Oy! We have all found that it takes a significant effort to participate in the Zoom world. There is protocol and confusion, technical and human. When I try to convince my compatriots of the righteousness of my argument, I need to pace and attack the whiteboard — and that does not show well in a 2-inch square (not to mention the infamous double chin effect).
Finally, Brooks suggests we “hug it out” when there is internal strife and friction in the family unit (six people ranging in age from 3 to 47 in a 1,523 square foot apartment). Sounds good in principle, but in that case, I am breaking out my childhood drum set and channeling some Ginger Baker.
Rule No. 663
In the end, choose living