Why 2020 Is Not All That Bad

It was hard but necessary

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it. — Friedrich Nietzche

It is year-end assessment season, and the verdict is in: 2020 is the worst year ever.

This is true, especially for those who have lost their loved ones to COVID-19, or their homes in the one-two punch of a pandemic and a natural disaster. Footage of houses in ruins left behind by the forest fires that raged in Australia and the US, and super typhoon Goni here in the Philippines, left me dumbstruck: how do you wage an invisible war against COVID-19 with your foxhole gone? It was too much to bear even for this mere spectator whose thoughts are with them in the year they hit the nadir.

No one was spared the sudden detachment from our old lives. In fact, some of us are still winding through a downward spiral. When the lockdown was imposed, I lost my main sources of income. I was forced to again rely on my folks who, in exchange, relied on my youth to manage the household. My usual undivided focus was split between the hustle of finding more work and the seemingly endless load of housework. It has been difficult to do things well, and that never sits well with me.

But COVID-19 only took away my livelihood, not my life.

I am still standing and COVID-free. This pandemic also struck at the peak period of digital innovation, where advanced technologies that permit remote transactions in retail, health, and finance are already widespread. We have the options to reduce our risk of infection, whereas in 1918, when the last pandemic struck, the precursor of the radio had just been invented. Folks then who have had to live through World War I only to be smacked hard with the Spanish Flu on their homecoming did not have the conveniences we now enjoy. They were so deprived that to arrest their boredom, they violated quarantine procedures to brave crowded theaters because that was their only source of distraction from hell.

The only world war we need to crush today is COVID-19, and we have the tools to either destroy it or to live with it. In this scenario, I am not the only one dealt with pocket aces on a flop with another ace. There are many of us who can still play our cards right even if the casino always wins.

So to declare 2020 as the worst year ever seems to me a blanket betrayal of what this year has also managed to teach all of us, no matter what our situation was before March. That too deserves its place in the sun, and what this piece is about.

A Positive Mindset

Strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation; your spirit can be full even when your stomach is empty. — Nelson Mandela

Such convictions are a double-edged sword. When the lockdown in March was imposed, I had already been working as an independent consultant for three years. There was no dramatic adjustment to remote work, but the project fees were just okay, not enough to pay off my student loans right away. I skipped the usual 9–5 route because where I live, that would mean a daily 4-hour commute. It was too much time to squander in so short a life. That choice gave me the flexible output-based life I wanted before the pandemic but left me exposed and vulnerable when it hit, since I still had student debts unpaid and suddenly no income to finance them.

But my long-standing belief, steeled by years of wasteful commute, that companies should offer more flexible work arrangements to their employees, was finally, albeit forcefully, tried by knowledge workers and is still being tested. Working from home due to the lockdown was the remote work experiment nobody wanted, hence the pain for some households of rushing to get a decent Internet connection installed or carving out a more isolated space for work. None of that is easy. It took me three years to make my home office battle-ready. But if the choice is between being healthy by staying home and possibly infecting your family by commuting to work, you stay and suck it up.

It is what it is. Deal with it. — Freddie Gruber

Now that remote work rapidly became the global norm rather than the exception, I might have a fighting chance to finally be considered for high-quality jobs worldwide. The playing field is now being leveled to where professionals who have the sought-after skills, regardless of their geographic location, can fairly compete. Distributed work advocates will even direct your focus to the balance sheet. Companies based in North America with a more permanent remote work policy can hire exceptional but more affordable talent by looking south and tapping the labor pool of countries in the same time zone. This means that if you own a company based in New York City, you can hire software developers in Lima or Bogota at a lower cost because the cost of living is not as extortionate as it is in the Big Apple. You then create a work environment that is diverse and familiar with the challenges confronting emerging markets, which could lead to new product segments and profits. You become a cog in an enhanced version of globalization, one that is more skills-specific rather than supply chain dependent. Best of all, you ensure the happiness for your global hires that are able to retrofit their lives into one that puts a higher premium on the personal rather than the professional, without abandoning their work commitments. If employees are that happy, they won’t leave you. The pirates from your competitors may not even know they exist.

If companies were pushed this year to think bigger, then 2020 cannot be the worst year ever. For them, the fun has just begun.

Improved Health

The older you get, the healthier you have been. — Thomas Perls

There is no greater tool than the human body. If we pay no mind to what makes it run smoothly, nobody benefits — not you who have to suffer through illness, not your family who has to take care of you, not your employer who is not getting what he paid for, and not society that is relying on you to make a difference.

We are nothing without our health.

This is a fundamental fact that those who, for years, have endured the long procession of cars to get to work and do a job they might not even like, day in and day out, may have forgotten. Scrambling to get out of bed causes stress. A maniacal driver who cuts you in the middle of the rush hour also causes stress. You are already stressed even before you get to the office, where you are expected to perform at the top of your game. So you end up performing on all four cylinders with hardly any rest, every single day. Without proper and regular maintenance, your body will eventually give up on you, no different from a machine suddenly conking out. If you had been well aware of what compounding stress does to the body, you would have probably fought for work flexibility much sooner.

This year gave us the rare, remarkable gift of rest. No alarms. No commute. No road rage. No office politics. Suddenly, my most guarded asset — time — is abundant. From the usual 6, I now get at least 7 hours of sleep. The 1.5 hours I used to spend just to get ready for work is now spent on preparing meals. The 1–2 hours I needed to go to a meeting went to workouts and hobbies. It still surprises me, despite being a remote work veteran, how unforgiving my erstwhile commute of four hours truly was. All that time I had spent on the road could have been better spent harnessing the staying power of the one true machine — my body!

The upsides do not end there. At the start of the year, I weighed 77.6 kg. I now weigh 64.1 kg. All because I suddenly had the time to sleep, to meditate, to cook my own food, to walk leisurely, and to do push-ups at home. No additional expenses, only savings. The pandemic paved the way for a healthier lifestyle, the easiest and least expensive way to protect ourselves from the wrath of COVID-19.

Goodbye Social Media

Body fat was not the only thing that needed trimming to weather the crisis of our age. I also wanted to shed the fluff and negativity that undermines my focus. Much of that comes from social media so this year, I deactivated my Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts.

Not all social media content is abominable. I find social networking useful in maintaining connections while socially distanced. It is vital for small home-based businesses. But presence on the platforms comes at a high cost: no user is exempt from the preponderance of fabricated news. Sadly, not everyone has the ability to discern well. Suicide rates are up, buoyed by a booming yet shallow influencer culture. Democratic societies still elect tyrants masquerading as saviors through their online propaganda. They even continue to support their leaders’ clear incompetence in handling a medical emergency like COVID-19.

I quit the major social platforms as an experiment and felt vindicated after reading Deep Work by Cal Newport. In this book, Newport explains why the popularity of social media is precisely why anyone serious about creating anything of value should reject it:

“Part of what fueled social media’s rapid assent, I contend, is its ability to short-circuit this connection between the hard work of producing real value and the positive reward of having people pay attention to you. I’ll pay attention to what you say if you pay attention to what I say — regardless of its value.

I waited for withdrawal symptoms but there were none. What I did experience as my abstinence wore on was this sense of relief of not having to think about what to post next. No secret agonizing over likes and comments, no mindless scrolling on the phone. I was no longer agitated by news about matters over which I had no control.

Getting off social media afforded me additional uninterrupted time to dive deep into what truly matters to me: reading books, writing my first book, learning new music, and acquiring new skills. None of that requires the world’s opinion. To keep one ear to the ground about pandemic updates and world affairs, I subscribe to well-curated newsletters. With that as my filter, I am less distracted and more able to finally work on projects that have long been back-burnered.

Stronger Relationships

One of my newly acquired skills this year was baking, so I gave away dessert, bread, and even sourdough to anyone who would eat them. Getting hangry in a stressful situation like a pandemic is not an option. If anything, we should be eating better at home. And when we do, we should enjoy good food together.

2020 was my year of al fresco dining, cookouts, food sampling, and themed lunches. Sundays are reserved for a 3-hour themed lunch with my family. We have tried almost every known cuisine: Korean, Japanese, Italian, and of course Filipino. Meeting with friends means potluck meals on someone’s patio, with me always bringing the dessert. Random rendezvous events are for taste testing my freshly baked bagel or sourdough loaf. Food became an excuse to meet and to cope with the looming uncertainty.

Most of these people I partake with I saw infrequently before the pandemic. And when we did see each other, it was usually at a restaurant — constrained by personal commitments, with one or two people absent, travel time, and even alcohol restrictions for the drivers. Quarantine meals are healthier, more affordable, and almost unlimited. It beats splurging at a buffet any day.

2020 wasn’t all that bad for these reasons, and maybe a few more.

Anesthesia was only invented in the early 19th century. There had already been four major plagues before it was proven successful for widespread use. The ventilator, a key lifesaver of COVID-19 patients, was only developed during the polio epidemic of 1952, years after the Spanish Flu pandemic that most resembles the current one.

We have the tools and technology to combat COVID-19. It will be overcome. Perhaps, until that day comes, we can go easy on 2020 and treat it instead as the springboard for better things yet to come.

Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. — Ted Chiang

Former presidential speechwriter, still a musician; writes about urban gridlocks. Will work full time for the planet. Harvard Kennedy School ‘14 🇵🇭

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