“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
I’m sure that many people may recognize the Serenity Prayer. I have been thinking about it quite a bit over the past year as we have navigated our way through the global pandemic with COVID-19. When I wrote a blog a year ago about managing our reactions to COVID-19, I had no idea how important it would be in working to achieve serenity during this challenging time.
When the pandemic lockdowns hit their full stride at the end of March 2020, I remember being at home (since we could not go anywhere else) and watching the news every day to get the latest status on what was happening with the pandemic. My expectations for what would happen were strongly shaped by significant negative news events that I had experienced previously, such as 9/11, the space shuttle Challenger explosion, etc. They were all horrible point-in-time events that were reported on continuously for a while, but the danger disappeared quickly, and the news associated with them eventually faded from the front of everyone’s consciousness.
The pandemic of 2020 was different. It never got better. The deaths/infections seemed to climb continually, and the predictions of dire impacts only seemed to increase every day. Sitting at home while listening to the increasingly negative news updates, it was easy to feel completely powerless and at the mercy of things outside of my control.
It was easy to feel completely powerless and at the mercy of things outside of my control.
Serenity to accept the things I cannot change
I was living the first part of the serenity prayer every day. I was surrounded by something that I could not change. I had learned to accept it, but I hadn’t moved to a place of tranquility or serenity – it dominated every aspect of my life and most of my thoughts. To achieve a state of serenity in the face of something so all-consuming, I had to figure out how to prevent it from monopolizing so much of my thoughts. I found myself yearning for a simpler time when we didn’t have so much information bombarding us 24 hours per day. How great would it be to once again spend 15 to 30 minutes every morning reading the daily newspaper to learn about all the things in the world that I can’t control, but about which I need to be informed; and, then spending the rest of my day blissfully unaware of the things that I couldn’t control and focusing on those that I could?! I found that I had to institute the modern-day equivalent of this practice. I limited my phone notifications. I would only allow myself to watch the news or read articles at certain times and only for a limited amount of time. I also allowed myself grace, space, and time to recover. Instead of always rushing to whatever was next, I would sometimes allow myself to relax, play a game, or even take a nap.
Courage to change the things I can
One of the “gifts” of this pandemic is time and not being over-scheduled. Prior to the pandemic, our kids were involved in so many activities that we really didn’t get to spend much quality time with all of them together. Once all activities and sports were cancelled and school was moved to remote, we found ourselves with so much more time with them. We decided to have a family lunch together every day. We would all stop school and work activities and take an hour and a half to make and eat lunch and watch a television series together, then clean the kitchen while we talked about the latest episode. It was a magical time with them that we never experienced before and will likely never experience again. It was fun to watch the neighborhood light up with activity like it never has before – kids biking around the neighborhood and playing together outdoors, neighborhood happy hours, so many people walking through the neighborhood and visiting together. I will always remember it fondly.
From a company perspective, we explored and pushed the limits of what can be done via remote video meetings, and we also started having business meetings and happy hours in our backyard. The latter were so productive, intimate, and enjoyable – and, yet nothing that we would have ever considered doing previously. We instituted weekly firm-wide communications and set a guiding principle of being as transparent as possible. We cut our operational costs to the bone. When dozens of consultants “hit the bench” due to their clients having to suspend projects, we challenged them to work on internal projects related to our annual goals and ended up achieving and even exceeding many of our targets because of it. We set the goal of surviving intact without layoffs and prepared everyone for possible across-the-board pay cuts that might be necessary to achieve it. Thanks to the dedication and quality work of the consultants supporting clients less impacted by the pandemic, we were able to rebuild quickly enough that only the Managing Directors had to take a temporary pay cut. Through it all, we looked for ways to connect virtually – trivia happy hours, on-line games, video coffee chats, and more. While we didn’t have control of the pandemic, we were able to change many things in response to it.
Wisdom to know the difference
The pandemic has brought new meaning to this portion of the prayer. The determination of what I can and can not control seemed very binary at one time, but this crisis has really demonstrated how control operates more on a continuum. Most of us have no control over the development and creation of vaccines to battle the pandemic, nor do we have control over the regulations that were put in place to deal with it. But, we do have control over how we respond, how we act, and how we invest our time. As individuals, we decide if we want to use the “found” time to explore new hobbies, strengthen relationships, and broaden horizons, or succumb to fear and feel like a victim. As business leaders, we can either rise to the challenge and see change as an opportunity quickly adapting to survive or even thrive, or throw up our hands in despair.
March of 2021 looks so much different than what we were facing in March of 2020. As we look ahead to the potential return to some semblance of normalcy, it will be tempting to change back to the way things were previously. For so many years prior to the pandemic, we have all been operating according to a specific set of rules and guidelines, but the pandemic allowed us the space, time, and freedom to explore alternate ways of working, playing, and spending our time. The challenge for us is to not default back to exactly the way things were previously, but to figure out how to weave together the best things from each era into a new normal that is better than both. We just need to mount the courage to do it.