Now that 2020 is almost over, I’m seeing many messages in the internet-o-sphere who want it to just be over and done with. They’re ready for 2021, because it can’t possibly be worse, can it? 

This seems to express the underlying thought that 2020 was just randomly bad, and that it is highly unlikely to have two such bad years in a row. Yay for that!

Yet I’ve noticed something about “bad things” that happen to we humans – both at an individual scale, and at the larger social and cultural scale.

These “Bad things” always contain an opportunity for change and growth. Often, they result from patterns of behavior that are not sustainable or suitable.

As an example, I’ve repeated the story of being a fresh young faculty member at UNC Chapel Hill who had repeated rejections from grant reviewers. That period of repeated rejections lasted for several years.

Lackluster Reviewers? Bad Luck?

At the time, I wanted to blame it on the “lackluster” reviewers and/or on bad luck.

However, that blame just kept me stuck in a cycle of ongoing rejections – because it gave me an excuse to not work on the role I had in the problem.

In that case, the role I played in the rejections included: expressing myself poorly, lacking clarity in my proposals, and rushing to get them done at the last minute.

It was only after a few years of that, that I got fed up with rejections and decided to consider: maybe the problem was me, and if so, only I could fix it.

That one “little” turn of thought led to a stunning turnaround in my fortunes with grants – with the next four NIH R01 proposals I submitted over a period of seven years having not a single rejection or revision.

What’s that got to do with COVID?

In life, there are always a conjunction of external factors and internal factors that lead to the experiences we have – whether good, bad, or ugly.

None of us can directly control external factors like COVID-19 or the economic consequences it is having. So it is easy to just throw the hands up in the air and wish for a New Year to wash that all away.

Realistically, it’s not going away anytime soon. Even as the vaccine slows the spread, and even if we get very lucky with a new strain not thwarting the vaccination efforts, we still have the lasting economic toll to manage.

These things will be ours to deal with in 2021… and likely for years after that.

So is this just a message of gloom and doom?

Everything depends on perspective. If you are hoping for me to say “it will all be fine” in 2021 and beyond – in other words, a return to ‘normal’, I can’t do that. I just don’t see that happening.

On the other hand, is there the potential for progress and good things? Certainly there is, especially if we wield the right attitude.

Attitude won’t fight a virus!

There are the hardcore “realists” who, thinking they’re totally (and magically) objective, that bad stuff like COVID happens and there’s nothing we can do. It might be said “your attitude won’t fight a virus!”

Yet baked into the “realist” cake are subjective judgements of what’s good and what’s bad. Objectively, this particular virus has caused lots of mayhem – including many deaths and economic turmoil. Objectively, this virus has caused many people to slow down, and re-evaluate what they take for granted.

Are those things “good” or “bad”? It’s no doubt that, being human, most of us see lots of deaths as a “bad” thing. And that’s okay.

Yet does that preclude us from also seeing that there is, perhaps, some “good” that came along with this?

And, if there is some “good” to be found, to actually find it, incorporate it, and use it to our benefit?

Personally, I find some good in the “slowing down” and reevaluation this pandemic has caused.

The pre-COVID rush

One of the major challenges in research careers I’ve observed is that everyone is always in a rush. From the days of my father’s start in science in the 1950’s until now, the pace of everything has accelerated.

Our expectations of ourselves and of our colleagues to be “productive” have grown without stop. We are expected to bring in more funding, write more high profile papers, teach better, and be on more committees than ever…. Where does it stop?

I have come to see this as a deep illness in our culture, that has nothing to do with any virus (except a mental one). I saw it destroy careers, and lead to a lot of misery. It also led to a lot of unnecessary “busywork” such as LPU’s (least publishable units).

I saw my father literally “work himself to death” in the mid-90’s, after adopting the ever-growing standard of needing to have a big lab ever churning out publications and so-called progress.

What’s COVID got to do with it?

When it comes to this endemic “rush,” it has run straight up against the pandemic. The pandemic has forced many of us to slow down, contemplate more, and not rush around so much.

I still see many people trying to go back to the old days. I talk to clients who are very frustrated with themselves for their own seeming “lack of progress” while they try to balance their career with overseeing a stay-at-home education for their kids. I hear clients lamenting the lack of research progress (and data) to go into their next proposal.

So the question here is this: is the problem the pandemic, or is the problem unrealistic expectations that predated the pandemic, that are brought into clear relief by the pandemic?

COVID sucks, yet COVID also brings the nature of the “unrealistic expectations” problem into stark relief.

I regularly hear from clients that they are expected to submit one or more proposals for every round – whether they’re ready or not. I regularly see clients pushing themselves to the limits of exhaustion to try to meet those standards, while also trying to be good parents, spouses, partners, and/or friends to the humans around them.

This points to what can (but may not) happen in the New Year

If we just take the COVID affair as a random “glitch in the system” and now it’s time to go back to “normal,” we’ll also go right back into making the same old mistakes. While there’s no doubt that COVID has worsened mental health for many, it’s not like the status of overall mental health was great predating the virus. There were many issues I encountered my clients having – and my teenage kids and friends – all stemming from some of the same underlying issues surrounding unrealistic expectations.

The year 2020 – and the pandemic – has given us an opportunity to take a deep look at whether we want to return to that old “normal.” The question is, will we take that opportunity?

Or will we just wish 2020 away as a streak of “bad luck” from which nothing can be learned or gained?

If I had done that with my grant rejections, I’d be nowhere and nobody

As painful as it was to have repeated, crushing grant rejections for several years after starting my faculty job, it was also essential to who I am and what I do today. It led to several major insights and changes that I made, which created very different results.

The same applies to the pandemic and 2020. Clearly, none of us want it repeated. Yet can we build on the challenges to gain new clarity and insight about what’s important moving forward? Can we use the experiences of 2020 to make 2021 and beyond better?

This is a personal decision each one of us will make. The decision will largely determine whether 2021 is better or not. While there’s often a strong human drive towards the “comfort and stability” of the past, the past is gone and not to be restored. We have only the future to work with, and it is up to each one of us to decide what that future will look like.

Will that be a future of growth towards more balance, sanity, and compassion? Or will that be a future of clinging towards the old ways of being, which weren’t very sustainable even before 2020 came along?

That is what freedom is all about. We each get to choose what experience and memory of 2020 we carry into creating our next year.

From that perspective, I wish you a great New Year, where you parlay any personal challenges you’ve had into something much better for yourself as you move into 2021!

Note: Overcoming the difficulty of turning challenges into wins

It can be hard to slow down and take the time for the introspection necessary to parley bad experiences into growth and wins moving forward. In my own case, it was an unusual and curmudgeonly mentor that helped me to recognize how I had created my negative grant experiences so that I could leverage those into subsequent wins.

Unfortunately, such mentors are rare… which is why we created the Research Success Alliance. It is designed to help you get the kind of mentoring, training, and support needed to transcend your challenges and create a great (and fun) example of how a research career can be. We support you both in the grant writing efforts, but also in deeper aspects such as how you manage challenges and how you lead a team.

Have a look here for more information on joining us in the Research Success Alliance.

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