I have just finished a personal challenge in 2020 to read Ulysses by James Joyce, a famously long and difficult modernist novel. With UK government & media comparisons of the pandemic with wartime* I was reminded of this line from Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties;
What did you do in the Great War, Mr. Joyce?
I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?
Joyce spent the duration of the first world war in self-imposed exile, escaping from Trieste to Zurich, during which he started writing his most famous novel (completed in 1921).
So, in answer to the question, ‘What did you do during the pandemic?’, even if only an internal dialogue, I am able to say, ‘I read Ulysses!’
(*Ed. the author is not suggesting that the Covid-19 pandemic is ‘like’ a war, nor does it in any way seek to minimise personal circumstances)
This short end-of-year post is in 2 parts; (1) good things that can happen in times of crisis, and; (2) the value of our own personal challenges and behaviours as a way to manage stressful situations.
List 1: Positives to take from the Covid-19 pandemic (or any other global crisis)
- Technology and innovation advances rapidly – not just weapons. For example the horrors of the 1st world war improved cosmetic surgery, prosthetics, and the psychology of various traumas. And closer to home in 2020 big pharma has responded to the task of creating new vaccines in record time.
- The human spirit rises to the common collective challenge; individuals, organisations and whole nations adapt, sometimes more quickly and radically than ever imagined in ‘peace-time’. New national heroes emerge and lead by example, sometimes to fill the void left by our elected leaders?
- New organisations flourish, innovative start-ups and whole new industries may blossom. Not least in 2020 the rapid increase in home-/remote-working and video-conferencing, examples of new ways of doing and being, enabled by information technologies. To quote David Mitchell, from Ghostwritten, “Technology is not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, just ‘here’ or ‘not here’, what are you going to do about it?”
- In times where we may feel out of control (see below list), individuals and local communities become the focus of self-help and support; I am reminded of a film that I enjoyed this Christmas, ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’. In times of great shifts in global politics and macro-movements (such as equality, diversity & climate change), our own personal actions and behaviours do matter more than ever.
Given all the above, what can we hope to achieve in the maelstrom of external difficulties, and events that threaten to overwhelm us emotionally and physically?
List 2: Reframing what we do and how we do it
At this risk of drifting into cliche and platitudes, here are my top-8 (actually 7) lifestyle and work tips. There are not ‘hacks’, just common sense and good practice.
- Be kind to yourself and others, and if you can’t be kind, be constructive (or be quiet)!
- Nothing useful or transformative ever happened without taking responsibility and facing up to some risk. Bigger things involve bigger risks, and doing nothing may be the biggest risk of all.
- Task-switching can be a productivity killer, which can give a false-positive (and an unhelpful chemical-high) because of the energy and action/momentum. But is it really the best way to achieve results in a collaborative, healthy & sustainable way? The most likely outcome of ‘spinning plates’ is broken plates! OK so it may be entertaining to watch in the hands of a professional, but we don’t live our lives for the entertainment of others.
- Celebrate every success, however small; a victory is a victory. Writing another ‘to do’ list may feel cathartic, but the real benefits are in completion of tasks and ticking things off, and then throwing away the list!
- Focus on achievable things, which doesn’t mean trivial things with instant gratification (vis-a-vis 900+ pages of dense prose), but a line, a paragraph, a chapter, as way-points on a longer journey. My readers know that I am a big advocate of Agile Software Development (and related philosophy and mindset). My wider interpretation of 2 of the principles of the Agile manifesto are the value of breaking things down into smaller chunks and delivering measurable benefit as a quickly as possible.
- To paraphrase a certain TV ‘sleb dancing competition, ’Keep Learning’. Of course, this is the IT elementary school so I would say that, wouldn’t I? But bear with me, the ‘keep dancing’ catchphrase is partly about the enjoyment of <dancing> (insert hobby, activity or endeavour of your choice here), but it is also a secret code which really means, ‘keep learning’, ‘keep practicing’, and also, probably, taking the rough (challenges) with the smooth (successes).
- I am borrowing the title of a Christmas present book about writing, and other stuff, ‘First You Write a Sentence’ … and then write another (Joe Moran, via Lewis Carrol). From personal experience and issues with focus and procrastination, the discipline to take the first step, followed by another step, and repeat, is a good habit to get into.
- And back to the tip (1), i’m not saying that all sentences are perfect first time, or even that every step is necessarily taking you in the right direction, they don’t have to be. Don’t be too hard on yourself, focus on the endgame (the end of the book?), and be kind to yourself.
I hope you found these tips useful? I’d like to hear any comments or suggestions of your own.
Further reading from the IT elementary school:
And finally, let me be the first to wish you a better (safer, healthier, more joyful) 2021.
(c) 2020 IT elementary school