The Uncounted Casualty of 2020

Before I go into this post, I realize that I’m blessed. My job has continued uninterrupted throughout, my family has been healthy, and – while many friends have struggled – it has been painful but not catastrophic. Overall, I have few legitimate complaints.

Since COVID-19 spread outside China, the world has been flipped upside down and changed in uncountable ways for everyone. In the absolute best situations, “disruptive” is an understatement. In the worst situations, it’s led to sickness, unemployment, depression, destruction, and death.

While those are the terrible, obvious first-order effects, digging in to understand the second and third order effects are key. For example, frustration, fear, oppression, and the destruction of social norms and support creates a situation ripe for chaos that just needs a spark. Discovering and understanding those second and third order effects is hard to predict and challenging to measure but capture the underlying trends and psychology that may shape the economy and society as a whole for years to come.

In my immediate circles, life has gotten pretty much the same day in, day out. We have Zoom calls among the same colleagues (coworkers, partners, customers), friends, and family. We buy from our favorite restaurants and shops whenever possible. Conferences, meetups, and trainings are all online if they even exist. There’s no travel, church, parties, happy hours, meeting for coffee, camping out in coffee shops, lunch out with colleagues, or anything in between. There’s no dating, few weddings, and funerals are in worse shape than ever.

Pondering this over the summer showed me the long term problem: This is the Death of Serendipity.

Serendipity is “the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for” or more simply “dumb luck.”

No matter how much we study, prepare, train, or practice, our lives are defined by big chunk of dumb luck. It’s the person we sat next to in class. It’s the conversation we overhear at the office or in the coffee shop. It’s the amazing person you meet and fall in love with. It’s the great mentor who helps you see and understand things that are a level above your thinking. It’s the cousin you haven’t seen in years and realize you should be closer to. We can prepare, hope, pray, plan, and desire but those chance occurrences become fundamental to our lives and relationships.

Right now, all of that is gone.

Yes, we’re still buying from restaurants but it’s the ones we know.

Yes, we’re still attending watching conferences and meetups but not having side conversations over coffee, beer, and food.

Yes, we talk with colleagues over Zoom but mostly the ones we knew before this started.

If you’ve started a new job, you know your immediate team and peers but not the people from that other department.. you may not even know they exist right now.

If you’ve lost your job, you see even less people as there are few places to go and even less things to do.

What does this mean?

At an individual level, our relationships are suffering. Between major unrest and with an election coming, odds are your network has shrunk even more, your relationships are tenser, and your perspective has calcified.

At a personal level, we have fewer new relationships than any point in the last 20+ years. How many new people have you met in 2020? Have you dated? Have you seen your favorite aunt, cousin, or best friend lately?

At a civic level, the bonds are breaking (broken?). People are fed up with local, state, and national leadership for [reasons], some legitimate, some absurd. Regardless, the social contract is being renegotiated in real time.

At a career level, your prospects are shrinking. You’re meeting less people above and below you at your company, in your industry, and in your area. How many people have you added on LinkedIn in 2020?

At a company level, your relationships are suffering. You’re probably talking with your immediate team more but what about that other department? If you’re new to the company, you don’t even know who you don’t know.

At an economic level, the collapse isn’t done. Some industries – hospitality, travel, and movies – are crippled while others are struggling through. The next layer will likely be the support layer for those companies. That includes lenders who invested, landlords who rented to them, vendors who supplied them, and adjacent complementary businesses.

So what’s next?

Some people believe that once a vaccine or effective treatment becomes available, we’ll go back to normal or some new normal that looks similar to what we had before. I think that’s radically wrong.

Even if a 100% effective, zero side effect vaccine is released tomorrow, there’s already catastrophic damage done.

In talking with a friend who’s a trauma counselor (out of curiosity, not treatment), we discussed the idea of “generational trauma” where something catastrophic shifts peoples’ thinking for years to come. The Great Depression is a good example because it was ever-present and persistent for a decade and shaped a generation.

Covid-19 is well on its way to a similar effect.

Earlier this month, President Trump said in part “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life” which lacked the eloquence of FDR’s 1933 Inaugural Address during the depths of the Great Depression but was much the same message:

This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

We have healthy people who were previously happy and well-adjusted living in deep, visceral fear and won’t leave their homes.

Personally, professionally, romantically, economically, politically, and societally we need to resuscitate Serendipity.

It’s what makes people succeed, relationships bloom, and everything work.

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