2020 → 2021: 4 key learnings from the year everyone wants to write off

31 December, 2020 5 minutes read

2020 was a lot of things but most of all, it was a year of learnings. Coming out of the 2019 yearly takeaways post, I thought my 2020 will be structured and straightforward: Set yearly goals, break them into monthly goals and piecemeal those into weekly goals - small chucks of effort that will get me to the place I wanted to be, great success!

And then COVID hit and everything spiraled and I had to make some interesting decisions, more on that below.

One of the consistent activities I kept doing in 2020 is reading. It's interesting to look back at 2020 based on the books I read since I don't follow a reading list and usually pick up books that spark my interest depending on context and day to day life. Coming off 2019 which revolved around leadership and productivity, 2020 started with 'start with why' and as the year went by I focused mostly on introspection, understanding motivation and change management.

Below are some of my key learnings from the passing year. I chose to review learnings by month since the timeline for 2020 was special - a year that started off with euphoria, continued into chaos and ended with resilience and experience. Here goes.

January & December - Start with 'Why', ask better questions

It's interesting how the first and the last learnings both deal with the art questioning from different angles: Living in a world where answers are abundant and accessible (seriously, one of the items Amazon suggested I buy this holiday season is glasses frame with Alexa embedded in them), one of the major skills I'd like to work on is asking better questions.

My favorite is probably 'Why': Why are doing what we are doing? why our customers are our customers? why things are done the way they are? Most of all, what makes questioning amazing is that by formulating a question a person draws from their perception, philosophy and belief system and let it out into the world to echo off other people's mental models. In that sense, questioning is one of the most inclusive frameworks I know.

2020 was a year of existential questions: Am I essential? What is my role as a leader within all this? In what business are we really in right now? Thinking through all of those, I cannot wait to see what questions 2021 bring.

stayed home a lot in 2020

above: the amount of creative images encourgaing people to stay home in 2020 was really impressive (Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash)

March & April- Build for impact, be willing to adapt

One of my favorite quotes that I heard PR professionals say is 'never waste a good crisis'. I definitely didn't had those thoughts in mind during the hectic first weeks of COVID but thinking back on it, it was the perfect opportunity to shift culture towards building for impact (or as I described it back in April 'building for what's essintial').

March and April of 2020 was also a time of disillusion and plan-changing. Coming off the heels of the high level strategic thinking of January through February, the following months were all about prioritization and execution. In a very short timespan we had to change the way we deliver software and understand our customers, all while living in the uncertainty of a changing workplace culture and market.

Looking back at the goals I had set for 2020, they seem so out of touch and distant with what I ended up with. I'm really happy I had the courage to take a hard look at my plan for 2020 so early in the year and think 'I'm going into uncharted territory here and need to adapt'. Adaptability became one of my most important learnings of the past year that will definitely carry on to 2021: Looking at situations in the context of how they contribute to the greater goal over looking through the prism of how things were done historically.

May & June - investing in consistency so I don't exhaust my willpower

One side effect of our team being adaptive and changing almost every aspect of how we work and think was burnout. Burnout was hard for me to recognize at first since I'm used to working in 'crunch mode' but this one felt different since I couldn't plow through it using willpower alone.

So just like every time I face something difficult - I got curious. Just like non-functional requirements for software, sustainability and consistency are key components for doing optimal work. Willpower is finite and have diminishing returns (kind of like technical debt when you think about it), developing habits around the same activities make them effortless and more importantly - consistent.

It's interesting to think about how I managed to work in both adaptability and consistency into my work and personal life at the same time. Looking back at major decisions I made a lot of it had to do with handling them as an experiment: Having a hypothesis in mind on how certain actions would instigate change, committing and building towards it, understanding the impact and prioritizing the next set of actions.

August & September - The importance of identity

Whether it's professionally or in personal life, I believe that identities that define us can drive us towards positive, impactful action. The summer-fall of 2020 was the time I had my mid-year reflection, I usually try and have my mid-year reflection around June but with COVID and all the craziness I gracefully dropped the ball and picked it up in August - here's to being adaptive!

During the mid-year review I made a list of all the identities that define me (product manager, writer, runner etc) and looked at how my goals and actions in the past eight months reflected on each identity. What I ended up discovering is that some identities pull me more towards my mission statement while others, while important, are distracting me from it.

closing thoughts

There is this notion of throwing 2020 into the abyss and writing it off as a terrible year that no one would like to remember; but thinking about it retroactively 2020 was a year of learning, change and adaptation while dealing with various levels of adversity - if anything I'd like to encapsulate how I felt and acted during these moments and build a more resilient, empathetic 2021 on top of it.

Happy new year! 🍻