[Editor’s Note: This was initially published on December 31, 2020, as part of a letter to Dan’s Leadership Wyoming Class of 2021.]
It’s the last day of 2020, and I’m not going to beat around the bush: 2020 was rough.
But also, it’s the last day of 2020, so I’m aware the last thing we all need is to rehash everything that conspired to make this year so…unprecedented. (Groan away! It’s basically the law to somehow work in this year’s #1 buzzword.)
With this email, I’d love to turn our collective attention to three simple points. Not because I think high school essay requirements are brilliant or because our societal attention spans have shrunk (they really are, and they really have) — but because I think a great thing to do, as leaders, at the end of a year that’s generated so much chaos and disillusionment, is to refocus on a few really simple things that can empower and revitalize us.
As we look to turn the page into a fresh year, I want to suggest that these are three ways that we’ll succeed in 2021, because they’re ways that we’ve always succeeded — even in 2020. (Especially in 2020.)
First: focus on resilience over resentment.
Of all the changes wrought by this first true pandemic of our lifetimes, the most inspiring was watching all corners of the globe adapt.
Whether it was the ubiquitous production of creative signage; rapid adoption of new technologies for businesses from mom-and-pop restaurants to media conglomerates; the reformatting of events, classes, ceremonies, and conferences; or even, ahem, learning in public parks — we were surrounded this year by constant resourcefulness in the face of tremendous odds. In many instances, the changes were long overdue, even improvements on former ways.
It is normal, even often right, to feel a degree of anger and frustration at the appearance of sudden obstacles. That degree is magnified according to how much we believe those obstacles are unjust. Nevertheless, it’s not by simply railing against their presence that we most effectively move forward. At best, resenting our circumstances merely creates a stalemate. At worst, it engages our lowest natures and causes unnecessary destruction.
We triumph when we find ways to tap into our innovative natures. We win if we navigate our setbacks and find solutions through tenacious ingenuity.
If we’re willing to surrender our resentments, we may find new heights to our resilience.
Second: let more things matter less.
This was a year of clarifying priorities, redefining our values, and considering what brought us the most meaning and satisfaction. In the absence of so many of our usual routines, we were forced to take stock of our own well-worn trails, and discover if there were newer, shorter ones to blaze.
The concept of “pick your battles” has never been more true: the classic notion that, because we can choose a myriad of conflicts every day, the most consequential ones should command our focus. And as leaders, the need to protect and preserve that focus is only becoming more vital as the world evolves in ever noisier, more distracting spirals. When 2021 cracks the door to the post-pandemic world, it’s certainly not letting in a less turbulent one.
So many of our relationships, preferences, opinions, habits, and diversions simply do not warrant our attention or obsession. Be willing to let go of more; it’ll save your strength for holding on to the important things.
If we’re going to win the right battles, we’ll have to surrender the many, many wrong ones.
Third: celebrate smaller victories on the path to greater change.
The right response to a year marred by tragedy, chaos, confusion, and pain is not to pretend it hurt any less, or felt any easier. But it’s vital that we don’t lose sight of those courageous, creative accomplishments that also marked our way through.
It’s not naive to give special focus to the good things in times of significant hardship. If anything, the stubborn existence of bright moments makes them all the more worth studying: how did something good manage to break through all the difficulty? And how do we harness that power moving forward?
The same is true in the overall story of our lives. Many of you at, say, fifteen years old could never have imagined the kind of successes you’ve seen to date. The process of building one small win upon another, year over year — studying here, networking there, putting in the time — has resulted in what would otherwise appear an impossibly daunting leap from high school to where you are today. It’s a testament to your perseverance, your resolute progress through the world. Something that you had every opportunity to abandon, but somehow never did.
Your own history is worth mining for insights and reminders of your abilities. (Perhaps you’ll recall achievements that you’ve never celebrated before. Perhaps it’ll remind you that you can achieve similar things again.)
Intentional celebration cements the little wins like stepping stones for our journey forward. It provides an extra jolt of encouragement and evidence that we are, in fact, capable — that we can, in fact, progress.
The world offers so many reasons to quit, to lose sight of the path toward our goals and greater things, reminding us of our actual failures and tempting our anxieties with false narratives. The practice of celebrating the small victories will counter that sense of discouragement, and provide the momentum that propels us on to the bigger wins.
In closing (to quote those high school essay conclusions), I’d like to echo Anne Frank, who famously encouraged her readers to “look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”
My hope is that, in adopting some form of the three resolutions above, each of us resolves to be that single candle this year. Burn with unwavering resolve, fulfill your simplest vital purpose, and illuminate the successes that will pave the trail ahead — for yourself, and for everyone following behind you.
I’m pretty sure that’s how we win.