Everybody experienced 2020 in a different way.
I offer one perspective.
I limped into January from 2019. It was a tough year in that it was tougher than 2018 and 2017. Tough for a few reasons. It was a stretch year. Technology was causing discomfort but not change. Social systems struggled.
It was a stretch year for leadership development. After testing dozens of heuristics (rules of thumb), I was in the process of adopting a half dozen. They’d serve me well in 2020.
January was to be a month of consolidating the learning and incorporating the learnings deep into the heart and mind.
I chose to dream in Hawaii.
And it worked. I experienced sleep that was deep and delicious. I changed my mind about a whole set of ideas on long walks through beautiful nature and proud neighbourhoods.
I felt a few sections of my mind restructure. I was able to integrate a fair amount of what I had saw in 2019 and rewrote several modules in my modus operandi. A huge transition from experience to deep learning was crystallized somewhere between Hana and the bamboo forest leading to Waimoku.
We started to hear about Wuhan mid-way through January. I began reading the unpublished material about the virus. I felt alarmed by the very high R-naught scores…some as high as 6. I talked with friends about it. I reckoned that the virus was already well outside the barn door. That it was very contagious. And that it was far more deadly than what official sources were letting on.
We made the decision to really start preparing for the worst while in Honolulu airport. A fortuitous collision between a ramp and the left engine resulted in an extra night in Waikiki. I felt great about that and dreamed about what kind of opportunities awaited me back in Toronto.
We got back home and started preparing. We bought a few masks, as many as we thought we needed, a limited amount of hand sanitizer, and a little bit extra food on each trip.
On February 2 I wrote a friend that I was concerned about the case out of Germany where it spread to patient 4 without any symptoms from the index patient nor patient 2. This virus was a particularly silent little monster. I grew concerned that it was stalking me.
So we set up home office desks. We bought more canned food. We froze meat. We froze outside.
I learn a lot when I come back from vacation. I learn which social systems fall apart. Which ones thrive. I returned to less wreckage than ever before. And I felt very good about that. It felt liberating in several respects. I was so happy. For the first time I felt like I could move on and the trajectory of learning and cultural improvement would continue on without me.
My days followed a standard February cycle. I’d wake up at 5 or 5:30. Do pages. Go to the gym. Shower. Get to the office by 8:45. Do email and have the pop-by’s. Interesting lunch with an interesting person at noon. Do the afternoon sequence of meetings until 4 or 5. Make myself available for pop-by’s. Do any post-meeting meetings and meetups after 5. Eat. Read. Pass out to re-run of Family Guy, The Office, or W1A. Repeat.
I engaged in as many meetups and social events as I could, including a fantastic social on the waterfront (yes, even in February!). I visited Montreal to execute what I believed would be the last alignment summit for awhile. That summit was a success.
The planning was deep and the company was fantastic.
A re-org was formally announced on March 4. The next few days had been planned out weeks in advance. They were dense with valuable technical meetings. I relished those. I learned things. New information caused me to change my mind about something things. More people became aware of more things and decisions were still getting shipped and recorded. It was productive.
I had planned for my last outing to be the Estonia Supper Club. I enjoyed Estonian cuisine with Canadians, Estonians, some who self-identify as Estonian-Canadian. The presentations were fantastic, the food fantastic and the company sparkling.
That was it. That was my last day out.
The next day I went into lockdown. There was no travel, no meetups, no social events and no in-person popby’s on the calendar. I worked from home.
And I never stopped working from home for the rest of the year.
I remember March 11 as the day that it became real for most people.
That was the day that Tom Hanks got COVID-19.
The most likeable man American civilization has ever produced got COVID-19. And that was it. That’s when COVID-19 passed from being something that policy wonks were following closely and talking to each other about, to something that more people were aware of.
I don’t know how it played out on the streets because I never went out. Increasing numbers of people were joining me on hangouts throughout the week until everyone was the following Monday.
Canadians were blistered our products with traffic. All of our infrastructure met the surge. The surges lasted for weeks on end.
By March 13, I was on hangouts all day, and doing Zooms at night. I was meeting up with friends online.
My days changed. I woke up at 6 or 7. Did pages. Sat down at the desk at 7:30 or 8. Sat there until 6 or 7pm. Ate. Banged pots and pans in support of our health care workers. Read. Slept. Repeat.
I didn’t go out.
King Street changed on Friday and Saturday nights. Gone were the obnoxiously loud engines and street fighting. Without 905’ers to gawk at pricey vehicles leased by peacocking men peacocking, there was no need to peacock down King Street. Without men to fight over, women stopped fighting. Without women to fight over, men stopped fighting. The street got quiet.
Days started to blur.
At first meetings were largely in 1 hour increments, as they were pre-Covid. There was expansion of one kind of meeting inflated to 90 minutes, then 120 minutes, and later, 150 minutes. Then I began to get double booked into 1 hour increments. 1 hour increments changed to half hour increments because that’s what people felt like they could get. The half hour meetings became increasingly productive because they featured a dilemma and either an advice point or a decision point. The hour meetings degenerated.
My Garmin exercise band that I wear around my wrist will vibrate if it detects my body’s stress level spiking. I paid attention it. It would go off before my consciousness was even aware that an irritant had entered my subconscious.
By late March I had had enough of evening Zoom chats. It was too much video.
I didn’t have a whiteboard. I still don’t. Prior to March, I communicated relations among things through drawings. The relationships between multiple concepts could be seen and people could draw them for themselves. Whiteboards are participatory mediums. People can jam with you. Without whiteboards, all you had was words.
Thankfully, getting better with words was a major focus of the 2019 work, so I was better prepared.
It was still a struggle to go entirely verbal.
Because people were living in distractionful environments, I had to reduce the complexity considerably. Simple if-then statements became the most valuable tool to muddle through.
I knew one person who had contracted COVID. They appeared miserable.
It was also clear by late March that people were absolutely crazy to not take the virus seriously. Strange beliefs were spreading rapidly. There was a belief that COVID wasn’t real. That it was just a common cold. That it had escaped from a lab. Sometimes the same speaker was making all three arguments simultaneously. It disturbed me – to the point that I wrote a post about it and gave what I was seeing and feeling a name: Airlocking.
It felt that mad. Collective irrationality was something that transitioned from being funny to something that was significantly more scary. The consequences of irrationality were real.
It didn’t get any better in April. This was the view from my desk for much of the month.
The park across the street was taped up and children were prohibited from using the playground. It seemed logical at the time. We didn’t know any better.
There were very hard conversations. The economy felt as though it was collapsing. Previously, I had experienced the Maritime recession of the 1980’s and the catastrophic Moncton Depression of the early 1990’s (Moncton: We’re OK!). I had experienced, as an adult, the 1997 recession, the 2000 recession and the Great Recession. I remember the Great Recession well. This felt like the Moncton Depression with a massive hole blown right through the fabric of the economy. It was bad. The stress was high. Budgets were cut. Carefully laid plans got pushed back or canned.
I missed getting my heart rate up above 180. It used to be an important part of my day, and now it couldn’t be. I had been exercising on an elliptical and weights first thing in the morning. I needed a substitute. So I bought a Bowflex max trainer, a hybrid that’s in between an elliptical and a stair master. It was harder on the knees. As a result, I had to pace myself upwards – doing a fraction of the time I normally did. My heart and lungs felt great. They could last for much longer. But my knees disagreed. Gradually I adjusted to the new equipment. It wasn’t pleasant.
The way I saw the world outside my door changed. I am very careful around raw meat in general, and raw chicken in particular. I treat raw chicken as though it’s the most dangerous thing I handle. It touches very few surfaces and anything that it touches is washed thoroughly. I wash my hands thoroughly. I treated the outside world as though it was covered in raw chicken. Everything was covered in COVID. I didn’t venture out.
I had this idea that during a plague year, there were tens of thousands of Isaac Newton’s out there sitting under trees and using their surplus time wisely. I felt this kind of hunger to learn a lot more. Of course, I had more than a full time job to do, but I felt a fear that I needed to push hard to learn more. It was a time to grow and stretch as hard as I could. So I started searching and reading for longer periods of time.
There was more sun in May. We opened up the patio. I worked from that patio desk a few days a week, with succulents, aloe, and a ficus that Hamel gifted for my 30th all keeping me company. It was a highlight.
I became fascinated by mandate levels in early May and made it a focus of study. It helped me to understand why different groups of people seemed to be curiously afraid of different types of outcomes. And, while I didn’t feel the same way, it helped me to understand how they were feeling.
Crowds began to form in parks. People wanted out. And people generally self regulated, with a few exceptions. For the first time Toronto started to feel a bit more like Amsterdam or Paris. I welcomed it. It was nice to see so many happy people celebrating each other.
One evening around May 26, maybe May 27, I was eating some maple salmon, sitting on the couch and watching YouTube. I put on some raw video of police officers killing a man. I shouted at the screen a few times. Watching George Floyd’s murder was horrific. I remember how angry I felt. And the anger lasted.
On May 28 I ordered Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations and finished it the next evening. It was a fantastic book. It put me on course for an extremely busy summer.
I remember evening after evening of live footage of violence. Journalists were getting attacked. Citizens were getting attacked. They even assaulted an older gentleman, that lifelong activist kind of man that every community has at least one of, got knocked right over and hit his head. There were a lot of simplistic arguments for why the violence was justified. I saw a lot of stuff flash across my screen that just didn’t make any sense to me. Lots of fear. Lots of anger. Lots of irrationality.
I doom-scrolled through Twitter and the usual places to understand how different groups were creating their own stories. From where I sat, on my sofa in downtown Toronto, it was a question of collective security. It didn’t make sense to me why policy was the way that it was, and why electoral coalitions were the way they were.
I changed up my routine.
I started waking up at 6. I’d go for a long walk through Exhibition and Ontario Place. Exercise. Shower. Go to work at around 8 or 9. Sit there all day in back to back meetings. Then went for a long walk at 5 or 6. Shower. Ate. Read. Then passed out to a rerun of Family Guy, The Office, Avenue5 or Bob’s Burgers. Repeat.
On those walks I’d sometimes see Canada Goose XA05. I’d tweet about them whenever I saw’em.
There was a day when I was out for a morning walk when I saw a tent on a hill between Garrison Common and The Bentway. A woman was living there. She had several assets all neatly organized and ordered next to her tent. She appeared organized and industrious. It didn’t sit well with me.
Toronto has a few people who can’t organize themselves well enough to retain shelter without assistance. There are all sorts of reasons why they aren’t enabled. Some of them are related to neuro-chemical entropy that were acquired because the cholesterol sack that sits inside your skull is a seriously complex piece of evolutionary engineering, and it’s easy to shatter. It truly is quite remarkable that it’s able to do what it does. But it can go awry because it’s so fragile.
Sometimes it’s related to opportunity. Canada’s social safety net is a lot more like a bottle than it is a net. You can fall into the bottle and become safer, but the escape route is very narrow.
She didn’t appear to be suffering from the common pattern. She was organized. There was another reason why she was living in a tent. It was none of my business. It bothered me.
And, there are some people in Toronto who simply opt-out of participating in the way the economy is organized. They don’t suffer from a neuro-chemical imbalance. They aren’t trapped in the bottle. They just choose a high-liberty lifestyle. They create fewer real externalities than the way I choose to live. A few people are threatened by their lifestyle because they’re afraid of it. They’re afraid that it’s contagious. They’re always there. They’ve always been there. They’re just better concealed when there are a lot of people around.
There weren’t as many people around, so these people were more obvious.
Quite a few more tents started to appear in all sorts of parks all along my walking routes. Some of them looked organized. Some of them appeared entirely disorganized. This was a difficult distinction for municipal officials to make. Public opinion was challenged and challenging. NIMBYTEs were more brutally publicly shamed than ever before.
I attended my favourite conference, remotely – the ISMS Marketing Science, from June 11 to 13. It was excellent. As part of getting better at words, I had just read Jonah Berger’s book on persuasion science. It was such a treat to hear the latest research on the subject. It was a conference I wouldn’t have been able to travel to anyway this year, so it was something that went right.
Inspired by Laloux, I ran a search for any teal leaders I could think of. And I reached out to them. It was the beginning of a long round of consultations that started in June and continued throughout the year. Where were the teal leaders? Why was leadership capability distributed the way that it was? I learned so much and became so happy and so sad. Happy that they existed. Sad that there were so few. I started to feel more alone in it all and accepted that outcome as a function of learning to see more things.
A brilliant data engineer on the A&S team recommended Discord as a substitute for Google Hangouts for our socials. I loved Discord because I could look out the window at the sky while listening. There wasn’t a social expectation that I look at the screen and engage with my eyes and face. We had several very good game nights on discord.
Days were still blurring.
Construction on Bathurst Street had taken off. They were not only replacing a water main, they were also making long planned repairs to the Bathurst Bridge. Both the truss and the roadbed needed to be fully repaired. It changed the nature of the street. Traffic slowed. There were fewer blaring sirens. It was substituted for jackhammering.
I got a kick out of this billboard in front Bathurst street. I wondered about the imaginative soul that had been crushed into creating that tagline.
We started visiting parks and patios. There was a flat refusal to go inside anywhere. I expanded my bubble to just 3 people. The walks were fantastic. It was great to see people again.
I had a few Standards Council Canada meetings that were so remarkably interesting. I was learning a lot from so many different experts, and getting to understand the standards creation process that much better.
August was brutal.
Several people I knew had come down with COVID. There were several COVID scares. Friends were losing people. Many of the parents I was working with were just stretched beyond belief and exhausted.
I had ratified a new heuristic in Hawaii labelled: Don’t take it personally – it is never about you – you aren’t even there. The heuristic is predicated on the idea that people are generally inside their own head, looking through a dense fog. If they’re acting in a way that is unusual, just don’t take it personally. That heuristic came in handy. My lack of reactivity could have been interpreted as aloofness and arrogance, but in the end, it wasn’t really about me.
My Garmin indicated that my body and subconscious were in a different state when I was exposed to absurdities. It was strange. Even though my mind didn’t feel alarmed or exhausted, my body was feeling that way. I was burning through my body battery rapidly. So, I took the cue. I’d breathe. I’d look for something funny to laugh at. I’d resort to cancelling meetings if I didn’t reckon I could show up in a decent state of mind.
There was live jazz at Ontario place on a regular basis. The music and the company was great. The weather agreed on most days. It was a good feature of the summer. I enjoyed it. I continue to thank Ontario Place and the curator and the bands for their passion and support. It was meaningful.
It was around this time that the fear of a second wave of COVID started to nibble at me. The little ones were heading off to school in a few weeks, and that would surely increase transmission.
Normally, around this time, I start to plan and fantasize about the January vacation. Those dreams were replaced with the prospect of a very dark December, January and February. I felt like there was no end in sight. Because there was no end in sight.
The pressure of August didn’t relent. It intensified in September.
It was a gnarly.
It was a gnarly month.
Complexity ramped but the tools to deal with it didn’t. There was a bumbling.
It wasn’t all bad though.
My favourite Indian take out place had been bought from the owner and re-opened by its chef. It came back as Roti Mahal. It was fantastic and the roti is absolutely delicious. I wanted them to thrive.
ACM RecSys was set to take place in Rio this year. It was another conference I would not have been able to attend in person. But, I was able to attend it virtually. And it was a great conference. The socials were wonderful and the content was intense. I learned a lot.
Most of the water main work wrapped up and Bathurst returned to a quieter state. It was nice to finally have some more peace.
The days really got blurry in October as headed into the hardest part of the turn.
When I see a major problem that I reckon that I can do something about, even if there is a low probability of success, I’ll take a shot. Sometimes it works out. Most of the time it fails. One of the keys in Canadian society is to appear as consistent as possible. Canadians don’t like uncertainty. It’s why they pay for so much insurance. So, if you’re going to make it a habit of taking long shots, you do it quietly. I’m not saying that this is a good feature about life in Canada, or that my response to ignore it and do what I judge right is perfect, I’m just labelling the belief and the corresponding behaviour.
I took several shots at a major problem and failed silently.
It wasn’t all bad.
The Partership on AI All Partners Meetings were fantastic because I met such fantastic people and the socials were great. I learned a new perspective on the construction of fairness metrics that I was anxious to bring back. The meetings happened at the same time as the re-org, so I was finding myself weaving between the two in the gaps.
The JTC 1/SC 42 Standards Council meetings were also fantastic and intense. I learned a huge amount about the standards production process and a whole bunch of new procedural rules. Important progress was made, even if I can’t talk about it in this space. These were all time shifted well into the early evening, early morning, and sometimes, in the dead of night.
I found myself holding onto summer as long as I could. I would still sit outside for brunch when it was 5c out. Many Torontonians held out as long as they could.
It was a common sight to see people on makeshift patios out in the street all along Queen Street. The King Street pilot suddenly didn’t seem like it was such a terrible thing for local businesses.
COVID cases were taking off but things weren’t locked down again. I was quite happy to eat nachos on a patio under heatlamps, even if it was 5c outside. But I knew that it would all come to a crashing halt and we’d end up back in lockdown.
Election night didn’t deliver on election night. There was a red mirage but it didn’t seem completely real. The margin seemed very tight. I was surprised that turnout for Trump was as high as it was.
November 5 was my last patio night out. It was cool out. I enjoyed myself that evening.
There was a sequence of confusing restrictions placed on Toronto. First indoor dining was restricted, then patios were forced to close. Then big box stores could remain open, but small shops couldn’t. Toronto was locked down, but people just to the north of the city could still go to malls. It felt uneven. It felt unfair. And for Canadians to be safe together, for there to be collective security, there has to be fairness.
I watched more businesses on King and Queen streets close.
The Causal Data Science Meetings on November 11 and 12 were very enjoyable and a talk by Sean Taylor was absolutely spectacular. I was reminded of the joys of transportation policy. This set of meetings were very well facilitated, orderly, and just very well curated.
I was out getting some Hong-Kong Cantonese take out when I encountered an anti-mask protest on Spadina on November 14, 2020. It was confusing. There were several signs disputing the existence of COVID. I didn’t know what to make of it. I slipped away quietly.
I was just tired of it.
The emNLP conference was another opportunity to see a new community that I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to see. It ran from November 16 to 20. Most of the events I took in were very late into the evening. Much of the content was pre-recorded so I watched it in the evenings and took meetings during the day. Even though I was marked as out of the office for this conference, I was on the critical path for a number of decisions and took those meetings. I felt a lot happier with the quality of the week coming out of it – even if I was absolutely exhausted. I picked up a few vital projections for how industry is going to get disrupted.
The volume of input started to fall right after emNLP. I got very tired. I wasn’t reading as much. I was writing a lot more.
I invested in a leadership assessment test. It is one of those tests that takes a lot of deliberation. Or at least, I felt like it deserved a lot of attention and careful consideration. I spent a lot of time thinking about my answers and revising parts of them. In one instance, I over-wrote by nearly 3000 words. If I had more time, I would have written less.
The days got a lot shorter. If I was lucky enough to not have a 4pm meeting on a clear enough day, I could go out and enjoy the sunset. It happened a few times. Chasing sunsets came at the opportunity cost of foregoing interesting 5pm and 6pm talks. It was worth the tradeoff. I was just tired.
I completed what I thought was the last of the re-org on December 14. I had fulfilled all the promises I had made along the way and felt numb about it. I had been dealt some very bad cards and had made the most of the material I received, and the luck I generated. I made a lot of luck.
And then my boss of several years, who I enjoy immensely, resigned on December 17.
The vaccines started to roll out sometime in late December. I don’t know the exact dates. I remember a full court publicity effort to convince people that the vaccine was safe to get. I don’t feel any sort of impatience to get one – the front line healthcare workers need to get the vaccine first. Then the elderly. Then the most at risk. I don’t feel skeptical about the virus.
The mutation of the virus in the UK worries me. It can mutate and sometimes it isn’t to our advantage. I’d prefer for that version of COVID to become extinct over there. I’d sincerely prefer for COVID to go extinct.
To my knowledge I didn’t contract COVID. Many did. I didn’t lose anybody to COVID. Many did. I didn’t lose my job. Many did.
Many people lost everything to COVID.
This type of event affected the service sector so intensely. It could have been some other form of variance. It could have been a solar flare that took down the Internet and the power grid. Then what?
I didn’t lose everything to COVID in 2020.
On balance, I was lucky.
A lot of my friends were lucky.
I accepted the bad cards I was dealt and played the good cards as best I could.
I was occupied with trying to realize outcomes under the constraints imposed from without and from within. I was busy as hell. I didn’t have too much time to spend in fear.
It feels like several years have gone by in just one. The intensity of the year has been something else.
For instance, George Floyd happened just a few months ago, and yet it feels like it was a different time. The US Election ended just a few weeks ago, but it feels like another era.
The summer respite feels like it was a different time.
A lot happened.
There are a lot of things I’d wish for in 2021. I want our healthcare system to survive January and February. Seeing pictures of how many people cheated the lockdown doesn’t give me a lot of hope.
I want a rapid vaccination wave and for the infection rate, and death rates, to crush down to zero. That’s what I’d really prefer.
I’d really like for the world come roaring back in 2021. Just for the 2020’s to roar. I really hope that we can use our experience from this crisis to inform solutions about the next set of crises we’re facing together.
These were just my experiences.
I don’t think they’re remarkable or unusual.
Happy new year!