2020 in Review

02 January 2021

2020, the Plague Year, is over.

But I live in the United States, so 2020 was

Despite that, I learned valuable things. Here’s the top 10.

1. We Grow When We’re Vulnerable

“Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all” – Helen Keller

Early this year, I spent a month in Brazil, playing music during Carnaval. It was one of the great adventures of my life.

I spoke little Portuguese, attended music classes I wasn’t ready for, and experienced a new culture. I came back with an important lesson: we grow when we’re vulnerable.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

2. Adapt and Overcome

“The only constant is change” - Heraclitus.

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic forced dramatic change. I have worked from home since March. I go to indoor public spaces only for groceries or take out. Travel, dinner parties, and musical performances are a distant memory.

Compared to others, I have it easy. All I did was:

I used a great tool: experiments!

At the start of every month, I created experiments. At month’s end, I evaluated whether the results were desirable. 50-60% of my experiments didn’t work. I failed fast. Failures are temporary, success enduring.

Some examples:

Imagination is a superpower: the ability to guess what may happen without doing it. It’s easy, fast, and often accurate.

Hindsight is a superpower: the ability to look back at events, learning why something happened.

Imagination, experiments, and hindsight are how I adapt. I had the luxury of time to do so.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

3. Habits, Habits, Habits

Willpower is a finite resource, so habits are how we do almost everything. We all can develop habits: low-effort ways of getting things done.

To develop a habit, I made daily tasks. I was often pitting one desire against another: “I’m feeling hungry and lazy, so I’m going to go home and eat my curry, rather than get takeout”.

4. F.I.R.E., Cooking, and Health are the Same Thing

I have been doing health experiments since 2018. This was after years of eating a typical American diet and having an office job.

I found a simple path to health: make curry and eat it.

I find healthy recipes, cook, and optimize my grocery costs. I make all my meals for a week in a few hours by batch cooking. Luckily my childhood comfort food is healthy.

Also, I have been adopting FIRE practices. I want to retire before ageism kicks me out of the tech industry. I’m not alone; many others are saving more during the lockdowns.

Eating intensely flavored, mostly vegetarian food is healthy, affordable, and delicious.

5. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

I have maintained my sanity during the COVID-19 pandemic for one reason: I have amazing people in my life.

I am lucky to have a strong, loving partner, and several close friends. At the start of the lockdown there were several weeks of transition. I spent time maintaining those relationships, despite seeing people outside/remotely. Awkwardness ensued. Awkwardness is fleeting. One tip: say the quiet part out loud. Tell people you care for them.

After it was clear that being outside is safer than inside, I spent lots of time outside. A walk in the park was my de-facto way to see friends. My samba group started meeting in small groups, outside, staying 6 feet apart, with everyone wearing masks.

Moving, sunlight, and playing with dirt are great ways to reduce depression and anxiety.

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” - Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development

6. Optimizing for Productivity is Powerful. And a Trap

I’ve written about getting things done: taming email, using to-do tasks, using a personal knowledgebase.

This year, I relied on those methods. The result? I was able to do a lot on a good week. More often, though, I was able to do what I needed while adjusting to the unexpected.

This had a cost. I spent my waking hours checking items off a to-do list. It’s not a great way to live.

I learned a powerful lesson: There is never enough time. When everything is important, nothing is.

7. Fog

Humans are social. We’ve evolved to survive in groups. Covid-19 took that fundamentally healthy need and made it dangerous. Absolutes don’t help. Very few of us can hermitize for months.

Tragically, there is a fog of missing and incorrect information. There is no central, extensive, accepted source of information about harm reduction approaches. This is a preventable tragedy.

Here are some questions I’ve had to guess the answer to:

Everyone has had to make their own safety calculations (or not). We had different information sources. Many of us are making the best choices we can, which can be uninformed mistakes.

8. Appearance Over Reality

Individuals, organizations, and institutions value appearances over reality.

hypocrisy: a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not : behavior that contradicts what one claims to believe or feel

My society is losing integrity. It is as if we have become averse to uncomfortable truths. Is some bit of health advice, economic news, or message uncomfortable? Ignore it.

Do you want to do something unethical, malicious, or greedy? Spin it, change the rules, or hide the evidence.

Societies, states, and groups need integrity to survive. There are now pervasive, perverse social incentives to being dishonest. This is dangerous.

I rarely hear about the social contract, “treat others as you wish to be treated”, “collective sacrifice for the common good”

People argue about wearing masks, when doing so can stop suffering and death. It’s only a piece of cloth!

9. Privilege

I’m a privileged minority that can work remotely from home.

I did not earn that safety. I’m lucky that I can do so, in a country riven by inequality. No one in my immediate family must be at a high-risk job to make ends meet. My immediate family and close friends are all alive. I am grateful for the latter, every day.

It is impossible for most people to keep themselves and their loved ones safe during this pandemic.

I hear politicians speak, and it is obvious they don’t know about going hungry, scrambling to make rent, or working two jobs while parenting. They say they represent the people, and yet by their own (in)actions let people suffer and die. I hear corporate executives whine about needing bailouts after buying back stocks. They lay off workers and give themselves bonuses.

10. Help Others

COVID-19 has caused unimaginable suffering: hunger, homelessness, lingering illness, death, illiteracy, loneliness. I’ve read thousands of articles and anecdotes; the horror is impossible to grasp.

Doomscrolling isn’t helpful. Instead, I implore you to help others. It is the right thing to do, hastens the end of this calamity, and is good for your mental health. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re one of the lucky ones.

Be safe, Be healthy, and take care of each other.