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With challenge and uncertainty comes an opportunity for creativity and inventive thinking —

if you push through your fear and frustration and take action!

Happy New Year! At the end of 2020, I took a hiatus from writing as I focused on my final, successful transition of FastBridge to Illuminate Education. Now I’m happy to kick off the next phase of my career with a return to blogging and to share my reflections and intentions, as one is apt to do with a fresh calendar year. 

We can agree that 2020 was a year no one could have dreamed or predicted. I can only imagine the future tomes to be written to chronicle it. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, I’ve often wondered whether this has been a force of nature delivering humankind a swift kick in the keister, a lightning strike that demands we take a hard, long look around, and reconsider how we live on this Earth. That may be too existential, but regardless of the catalysts, the disruption and meta-lessons of this wicked storm are far from complete. We learn lessons from each crisis we face. If the start of 2021 is the equivalent of a midterm exam, what lessons have we learned? 

While I cannot speak for anyone but myself, I can share the discoveries that have come to me. To put my own experiences in context, I’ve asked many in my personal and professional network about their 2020 experiences, what they’ve learned, and if and how they’ve found gratitude. 

I spoke with an entrepreneur whose place of business, located not far from the social unrest in Minneapolis following the George Floyd murder, was looted and vandalized three times. I spoke with a C-level executive who resigned from a fast-growth tech company to support her school-aged kids who continued with distance learning this school year. I spoke with a founder who was forced to furlough 80% of her employees just to have a chance at salvaging her company. I spoke with those who were among the furloughed and permanently laid off. I participated with a group of business leaders who were voluntarily and proactively working to recognize bias and applying antiracism in their homes and businesses. I spoke with school leaders who were distraught over the unwinnable decisions about school closures and learning loss, as well as exhausted educators and parents who were unhappy regardless of the decisions made. And, I spoke with dozens of people who were grappling with the frustration and loneliness of being separated from family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. 

These folks and countless people you know, shared a sense of sadness, loss, anger, disappointment, disbelief, and hardship that 2020 delivered through a pandemic, social and racial inequity and unrest, heated political rhetoric and deep divisions, and significant economic, leadership, and business challenges. Their personal stories are theirs to share. Yet, on balance I am personally heartened by the positive takeaways and gratitude that I heard and felt myself, as well as the hope, optimism, and opportunities for a better future. 

I’ve witnessed and heard stories about finding new, creative ways to get through to the other side of the business challenges – to sweep up the broken glass, roll up the sleeves, communicate and work differently, pivot to new ways of interacting with customers and building revenue, to connect and engage with students, to celebrate successes, to learn new things, to cook and eat together with families. With nearly every conversation, the counterbalance to the stories of challenges were those of appreciation, revelation, and gratitude for the acts of kindness and compassion witnessed, renewed curiosity and creativity, founts of patience, the gentleness of grace for ourselves and others, and an overwhelming sense of bravery, strength, and resiliency — an opportunity to be better.

One example of this came from the founder I mentioned who furloughed 80% of her team. In doing so, she was left to wear many hats, ruthlessly prioritize, and let go of assumed “must haves” and “must dos”. She took bolts and bolts of fabric on hand that would go temporarily unused for usual inventory and pivoted her remaining small team to face mask production. She donated this protective equipment to local hospitals and long-term care facilities and started selling them through her e-commerce site, too. She ended the year exhausted but shared how proud she was of herself and her team. She accomplished things she didn’t imagine possible at the start of the pandemic, learned that there was needless cost in her business that could be eliminated without impact, and her creative energy felt vibrant. Her company not only survived but is thriving. Understandably, many businesses haven’t thrived or survived, but the lesson here is that with challenge and uncertainty comes an opportunity for creativity and inventive thinking — if you push through your fear and frustration and take action!

Personally, the pandemic gave me the opportunity to slow down, which after seven years and two startups was sorely needed without realizing how much so. I am beyond fortunate to have been in a position where working remotely was not only possible but productive. Yes, I grew tired of my home office. I’m blessed to have a home office. Yes, I missed traveling and eating wonderful meals in fabulous restaurants. I’m fortunate to have those experiences. I’m even more fortunate to have had an opportunity this year to spend precious time with my husband who has graciously shared me along with my passion for my work and my team for many years. I watched in horror as Kenosha, Wisconsin, my birthplace, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, my home of the past 20 years were wrought with the pain of racial injustice and unrest. I am grateful for the reminder that I have had undeniable privilege and a role in making my business, relationships, and community more equitable and inclusive. And, I absolutely have a role to play in keeping myself, my family, and my neighbors safe and healthy from this disease by following guidance, masking up, and staying home. 

For me, this midterm reflection settles into this: I/we have an occasion like no other time in history to reflect, discover, and act upon opportunities to be better. This is not a condemnation of what is or was but rather recognizing challenges as opportunities in disguise that call us to adapt, make pivots and reconsider models, strategies, actions, and routines of belief and behaviors to do better. I am reminded of a personal favorite quote by Victor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

While we are mutually exhausted from the “crisis of the day” mode, in my mind, the meta-lesson thus far is that we have opportunities to listen, watch, and learn through a new or different lens, to create new plans and make new choices with a goal to do and be better. Better partners. Better parents. Better neighbors. Better family members. Better friends. Better employers. Better leaders. Better citizens. Better humans. 

Cheers to 2021! Wear a mask, wash your hands, and be kind to yourself and others. Here’s to personal and professional growth, to choosing hope, optimism, and creative, compassionate responses to the challenges we continue to face which open us up to surprising opportunities to improve ourselves, our businesses, and our communities.