Train yard

Five Things I Learned in 2020

A few nights ago at dinner, my daughter asked, “What’s a train wreck?” My wife and I had used the expression earlier that day while describing our relief that 2020 was coming to a close. 

When I explained the meaning of the phrase, she thought for a moment and said, “But it’s not all bad, Daddy; you can learn things from a train wreck, like maybe drive the train slower!” 

My precocious (and optimistic) eight-year-old was right, of course, and got me thinking…what lessons have I learned in 2020?

 

I learned that no matter how savvy your plan is, you can neither fully predict the future, nor control the world around you.

This year reminded all of us that it’s more important to be grounded in a clear vision of the kind of impact you want to have than to adhere to a detailed plan that accounts for every contingency. The most effective philanthropists aren’t the ones who have figured everything out or the ones who stuck to their plans no matter what, they are the ones who are responding to the reality of the evolving world around them, learning from mistakes, and adjusting course along the way.

 

I learned just how dramatically a large-scale crisis widens existing equity gaps.

The recession that COVID-19 triggered has been the most unequal in modern U.S. history, with job losses overwhelmingly affecting low-wage, minority workers the most. Existing disparities in access to health care have led to higher susceptibility to the coronavirus, increasing the emotional toll of the pandemic on poor and vulnerable communities. Women lost ground in the fight for income equality when they disproportionately took on childcare duties and as they lost hours or got laid off in higher numbers than men. By and large the poorest schools have had the rockiest transition to the virtual learning environment, and the achievement gap is expected to widen. We cannot run from the very real inequities that exist in America nor should we try to. Forward-thinking philanthropists will seize the opportunity to re-imagine systems, collaborate across sectors, and innovate to chip away at those inequities in the course of recovery. 

 

I learned to appreciate my kids in a whole different way.

It has not been easy to live as a family of five, including two working adults and three kids attending virtual school, in our narrow Philadelphia rowhome. But, I now know that my five-year-old fixes his own lunch with the zeal of a chef preparing a five-star meal, that my eight-year-old will cozy up next to me with a good book for hours on end while I chat away on conference calls, and that my 10-year-old attacks his math homework with the ferociousness of a bullfighter. These are not things I could have fully appreciated before. For all the challenges and complexity of running a business while homeschooling, I will be forever grateful for the new ways in which I’ve gotten to experience my children.

 

I learned that people driven to make change see calamity as motivation, not a deterrent.

Like all of us, the most effective change agents are mourning the human, economic and cultural toll of the pandemic, but they are also rolling up their sleeves. They don’t let injustice, economic devastation, and political mayhem stand in the way of their work. But, the work is hard and the risk of burnout is real. It’s important for change agents to manage their energy and perspective. Which brings me to my final takeaway from 2020… 

 

I learned to play the guitar.

With some online lessons, a patient wife, and a lot of free time at night, I checked off a box that’s been on my bucket list for years. I don’t think there is a better way for me to feel present and at peace than while playing music sitting by the fire pit on my back patio. 

It may not be wrong to call this year a train wreck; as a society, we will face extraordinary challenges, even as the pandemic wanes. Far too many have suffered pain and personal loss with still more to come. But our willingness to grow and to learn, even in the most difficult of times, is part of what sets effective change agents apart. 

This holiday season, I extend both gratitude and a wish for peace, reflection, and a bountiful 2021 to all those fighting for a more just world.