Lessons Learned from 2020

In a few days, most of us will sigh with relief that 2020 has passed. In early spring, we were introduced to COVID-19, changing the ways we work, play, learn, shop, worship, and celebrate holidays and milestone events. Many are suffering from the economic impact, not to mention the health consequences and loss of life.

If the pandemic was not enough, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd illuminated the problematic intersections of race and power in the United States. And, though more than a month has passed, the results of the November presidential election continue to be questioned. Oh, and don’t forget the masks. People have come to blows because they disagree about the wearing of masks to inhibit the transmission of the coronavirus.

Given what 2020 has laid at our collective doorsteps, along with any personal challenges you may have, few would blame you for taking to your bed and dreaming about a brighter 2021. One problem with that scenario is that most of the troubles of 2020 are going to spill over into 2021, which will bring its own issues. Another problem with going to sleep in hopes of awakening to a brighter world, is the loss of time that could be spent planning and conditioning for the future, as well as, engaging in the pleasures of the present. Yes, the pleasures of the present. For me, it’s been the joy of a new puppy – a Westie with just enough Westitude to keep me on my toes. I’ve also found joy in renewed relationships with a group of women from my class at Williams. Our fun-filled virtual get-togethers would not have happened if the pandemic had not corralled us.

Reconnecting with friends and raising a puppy were intentional on my part. The same intentionality is proving useful with my professional life. With a plan to retire from my full-time position with a government agency in two years, I was exploring ways to supplement my retirement income when COVID-19 struck. The time seemed right to hone my writing skills and to establish a business that could operate virtually. I’ve learned from 2020 that my professional growth is a process to be nurtured at every stage. Here are some other lessons that may prove helpful in your work life as you move forward from 2020:

  • Establish priorities and set related goals. Whatever stage you are in your career, ask yourself why you do what you do. Why are you in a particular profession and on a particular career path? Are you in your current job because it allows you to pay off student loan debt, or to help your children pay theirs? Are you working because there are family members that you need to support? Is it important that your work provide a sense of personal, spiritual, or altruistic satisfaction? Maybe you want to buy a bigger house. Answer these questions without judgment. Not what your priorities should be, but what they actually are. Priorities are a function of values – what’s important to you. Once you determine your priorities, then you can establish work-related goals that align with them.
  • Develop Plans B and C. Just because something is one way today, doesn’t mean that it will be that way tomorrow. Have alternative plans in place. If something happens to your spouse or partner, how will the loss of their income affect your priorities and quality of life? Perhaps, you’re in an industry that’s hanging by a thread due to COVID-19. Don’t wait until you’re furloughed or terminated to figure out how you’re going to make it. Use your resources and networks to develop contingency plans. 
  • Read without judgment. The trend on social media is of people echoing those whose opinions confirm their own beliefs and values. Network and cable news sources are fraught with opinions that, frankly, discourage independent thought. Review primary sources. If there is information circulating in the news or on social media that impacts your work life, e.g., the coronavirus infection rate, go to the CDC website, look at the statistics, and formulate your own opinion. If a blogger references the U.S. Constitution, read it yourself. If a journalist expresses an opinion about a public figure, read without judgment that person’s biography or memoir. These practices will increase your insight into people who differ from you and encourage independent thinking – a valuable tool for those in positions of leadership. 
  • Monitor your well-being. If it’s difficult for you to get out of bed in the morning, you’re not likely to have the motivation and energy to review work-related priorities and establish goals. Perhaps you were struggling emotionally before COVID-19 struck, and now it’s worse. Maybe the death of George Floyd triggered memories of a personal trauma. If this sounds like you, seek professional help. Your primary care provider can refer you to a mental health professional.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ve gleaned from 2020. My hope is that we all remain healthy, hopeful, and receptive. Pandemics and hard times don’t last forever.

Katherine Sharpe ’79 is a staff psychologist with the Atlanta VA Health Care System and the CEO of Sharpe Behavioral Consulting, LLC. From 2004 to 2005, she served in Iraq as a team leader with an Army Combat Stress Control Detachment. A member of the Executive Committee of the Society of Alumni, she is the mother of two amazing young adults and one Westie. Once the coronavirus is under control, she’s looking forward to resuming her quest to visit all of the 50 states, and maybe all seven continents.