Hindsight is 20/20 in 2020 ... Maybe
A common practice at the conclusion of our traditional Fall semester and the calendar year's end is to take some time to reflect. During this most challenging and unique time, we probably should all take some time to reflect. Taking time for reflection can be a healthy, resilience-building activity. And who during this year couldn’t use an extra dose of resiliency?
As we reflect on our successes and failures in 2020, let us try to be kind to ourselves and one another. The phrase “hindsight is 20/20” is particularly true this year. A year ago today, very few could have predicted what would lie ahead during this year of COVID-19. Specifically, we made decisions at work, at school and in our personal lives, often with little information, utilizing constantly changing or conflicting data. Many decisions we make in life require a binary choice: yes or no. In-person or remote learning, to travel for the holidays or not, and soon, to be vaccinated or not to be vaccinated. Choices often need to be made without the benefit of knowing what’s ahead. Had one known how this year would play out, one surely would have bought as much stock as possible in Zoom and Pfizer.
Sometimes those most confident of the correct answer, even during reflection, need to be cautious. The great newspaperman and political commentator, H. L. Mencken, once said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” It seems to me this quotation describes much of what is misguided about our political, cultural and even educational experiences: We accept clear, simple, yet often wrong answers to the very complex problems facing our society.
The choices made in 2020 were undoubtedly complex. None of us had lived through the pandemic of 1918, so we did not have the benefit of prior history or experience. So now, as 2020 comes to an end, and we hopefully can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we reflect and contemplate the decisions we have made.
I have always been a big believer in the value of reflection, both on a regular and annual basis. A year or so ago, I had the privilege of spending some time with Harry Kraemer. Mr. Kraemer is a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and a former CEO of Baxter International. He shared how each night, he asks himself a series of questions:
- What did I say I was going to do today, in all dimensions of my life?
- What did I actually do today, and how did I spend my time?
- What would I do differently if I could live today over again?
- Knowing what I know now, how will I act tomorrow?
Those great questions not only prompt reflection but also help direct our next day’s activities.
While I cannot say I follow Mr. Kraemer’s daily practice, we share another commonality, with each of us annually taking time for a silent retreat. A time for reflection. This year, due to COVID, the site of my yearly annual retreat shutdown to visitors. However, since this winter break will be the first in my life where there will be no travel or visiting of a multitude of family and friends, I have decided to it might offer some quiet time for a bit of reflection.
If you choose to do the same, I offer this advice as you reflect on the choices made by yourself or others: do not judge too harshly. Was a particular decision right or wrong? Was this person correct or incorrect? Often, both yes and no is not the best answer. To illustrate, let me share two stories shared with me over the years.
A Royal “Maybe”
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there lived a young, particularly lazy king who did not like to study and did not like to read books.
Nonetheless, he assembled the wisest men and women in his kingdom and asked them to condense all of human knowledge into one book he could easily read. These wise scholars worked 10 long years. When they finished their work and presented their book, the king looked at it and said, “This book is far too long. I’ll never be able to read it.” The king – who loved to use Twitter – said, “Go back to work and summarize all human knowledge into a single Tweet – just 140 characters or less.”
So back to work they went — this time for 20 years. When they reappeared before the king, he asked, “Do you have my Tweet?” And their spokesperson replied, “Yes your majesty. The Tweet is, ‘Things change … this too shall pass.’” A pretty clever message, but not the end of the story.
The king did like the message. Now being in middle age, he recognized when sometimes things seem really bad, one needs to be resilient and struggle through, and when things are really good, one needs to cherish those times, for likely they will not last.
However, due to the hustle and bustle of his modern world, he feared with significantly reduced attention spans, even a short Tweet might not get the message across. Hence, the king was still not satisfied. He told them to reduce all human knowledge into a single word. The wise men and women worked another 20 years. When they returned to the now elderly king, he asked them for a single word to represent all human knowledge. The spokesman, by this time a very old and very feeble sage, simply smiled, nodded yes, and said… “Maybe.”
And you know what? That wise man may be right. In this day and age, particularly as we try to judge both our own decisions and those of others, whether they were right or wrong in the decisions made, “maybe” probably is a smart word. When we hear someone declare absolutely that a particular choice was right or wrong, it might be wise to take a moment and say “maybe.” We would be well served if more of us, when we hear a simple answer to a complex question or problem would say, “Well, maybe,” and ask hard questions to delve further into the issue.
An Ice Cream “Maybe”
A friend shared with me a few years ago, a story concerning an auto defect at General Motors. The story goes how the president of GM received a letter from a Pontiac owner, which said:
“This is the second time I have written you, and I don’t blame you for not answering me, because I sound kind of crazy. We have a tradition in our family of eating ice cream for dessert after dinner each night.
But the kind of ice cream varies; so, every night, after we’ve eaten, the whole family votes on which kind of ice cream we should have and I drive down to the store to get it.
It’s also a fact I recently purchased a new Pontiac and since then, my trips to the store have created a problem. You see, every time I buy vanilla ice cream, when I leave the store, my car won’t start. If I get any other kind of ice cream, the car starts just fine. I want you to know I’m serious about this question, no matter how silly it sounds: What about a Pontiac makes it not start when I get vanilla ice cream and easy to start whenever I get any other kind?”
The president of GM could have assumed he was dealing with a nut and just tore up the letter. Instead, he thought …. Maybe? …. And he decided to send a young engineer out into the field to meet the man and analyze the issue. Sure enough, after following the man to the store to get ice cream several times, he learned the man was right. Every time he purchased vanilla ice cream, the car would not start; any other flavor, everything was just fine.
The engineer took notes … time of day, weather, type of gas, etc. He researched the issue and then he discovered the problem. Since vanilla ice cream was the most popular flavor, it was in front of the store in a freezer near the counter. All other varieties were kept near the back of the store. Consequently, when the man bought vanilla ice cream, he more quickly returned to his car, and the car had not had time to cool down; hence the discovery of “vapor lock,” which has since been eliminated as an issue by all auto companies.
I hope these stories allow you to reflect on the choices of others or even of yourself during the Pandemic of 2020. Do not judge yourself or others too harshly. Take time to say “maybe,” admitting we, or they, were right or wrong. It may be years before we can definitively write the history on COVID-19. And even if some poor decisions were made, we can assume good intent and know practicing empathy, grace and forgiveness of ourselves and others is always, at minimum, a noble pursuit.
Remember, collectively, none of us in 2020 processed this year with 20/20 hindsight. In this trying time, we need more reflection and empathy in the world — whether we are talking about car repair, educating children, solving the complex issues related to stem cell research, figuring out how to protect personal privacy in an era of rapidly growing technology or in trying to navigate a pandemic. Rather than stating we or others were right or wrong, it might be wise to sit with "maybe" for a period of time.
So, as we go into winter break, at the end of one of the most complicated years most have ever experienced, find some quiet time to reflect. In this wonderful season, let those reflections help guide us into (at some point) a COVID-free 2021. And please let's all be helpers by continuing to care for each other and doing all we can to stay safe.
I hope you all have a wonderful holiday …. and that is no maybe.
Dr. Tom Leonard