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Three life lessons for 2022

A new year is a good time to take stock. What’s been happening, what have we learned, what should we change? What should end, and what should commence?

These past two years have been highly unusual for pretty much everyone. We have all lived through a global pandemic, a first for most of us. We have experienced radical, forced adjustments; we have protected our families as best we could; sadly, many of us have lost loved ones. And just when we think we are done with this bug, it has a nasty tendency to bite us again.

If months like these don’t make us pause to reflect, perhaps nothing will.

Let me share three abiding lessons from my own experience, to begin this year.

The first has to be about humility. I didn’t see this monumental life event coming, and so I was caught napping. I like to think of myself as someone who tracks trends and patterns, who makes educated guesses about the future, who thinks in scenarios and consequences. Yeah, right. I was as banjaxed by the coronavirus as anyone else. I was sent scrambling to make sense of utterly perplexing events, and to formulate workable responses for my family, my team, my clients.

And yet. In these setbacks lies rapid learning. Suddenly knowing what we don’t know is revelatory; those revelations can be the beginning of a deeper wisdom. If disruption doesn’t break you, and if you can learn to ride its violent waves, you can emerge stronger.

A second lesson, then, is about adaptability. Throughout the turmoil I have marvelled at how quickly and profoundly the human can adapt to setbacks and adversity. We all whine and moan a great deal when forced to change, no doubt; but when the writing is clearly on the wall, and we have run out of options—we adapt.

I saw this with many of my friends and clients, but also with my own team. We were shell-shocked for a few days, but we hauled ourselves out of our stupor and got cracking. We took our flagship leadership programme virtual within a matter of weeks—and made it work to a high standard. We taught ourselves best practice on Zoom and Teams; we turned our homes into workspaces; we learned how to lead, teach and advise from a distance.

Indeed, 2020 led to a burst of innovation and new achievements. My team used its newly acquired virtual delivery skills to introduce our first-ever open professional education programmes in 2021. We created digital briefings for busy leaders. We allowed our clients to meet and share learnings from anywhere. And I used this time of rapid rejigging to start and finish writing a new book. None of that was part of the plan in February 2020; but it all became mission-critical by the middle of that year. Those were not temporary adjustments; the new stuff is now part of the new normal, the new business as usual.

Many of you have engaged in similar pivots and accelerations; many of you have left me marvelling at the mental nimbleness and physical litheness you have demonstrated. Those organizations who have come out of this experience intact are probably safer and more agile forevermore. And that’s good.

The last lesson, though, is different. It’s about inconsequentiality. We cannot come out of the past two years doubting our sheer smallness. We think we are this planet’s overlords, but tiny germs can waylay us and shut us down. We humans do great harm to our fellow inhabitants on mother earth, and now mama has reminded us who’s really in charge. As I say often, we are specks on this globe, itself a speck. We spend so much time and effort planning our personal advancements, yet our individual lives are short and uncertain.

Should that not make us think deeper, and bigger? We only matter as part of a broader sweep, not as individual data points. Yet each speck, each bit of data, every human, imagines that he is vital, or that she is irreplaceable. We are all momentary, transient and dispensable. We mislead ourselves when we think we are anything more than that. The trick is to find meaning despite our insignificance, not in denial of it.

Humility, adaptability, and inconsequentiality. My three lessons from recent times. What are yours? What did you learn about yourself, about your world, about what really matters to you? I wish you fruitful reflection, and look forward to your company on this page as a New Year unfolds.

(Sunday Nation, 2 January 2022)

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