From Freak Out to Fill Out

development May 21, 2020

Written by Ed Cook

If ever there was a time for introspection, it has got to be now. A pandemic that is devastating the world economically and psychically. A lock-down that has driven so many of us to isolation both physically and emotionally. An uncertain future as to when this will ease up and what it will mean once it does. 

The first step is to handle this is to get past the freak out stage. Here are some very personal thoughts about how not to freak out in a global pandemic. The next step is to do something practical. Something that strengthens you for the future. If you are a leader of others, then something that strengthens your team and the humans themselves that make up your team. The trick is to fill out. Fill out yourself. Fill out your team. Look for the places where your energy or knowledge or skills are less than you would like and then work to fill out the ones that make the most sense to you.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails.” — T.H. White, The Once and Future King

I read this book in high school. So many things from high school have managed to slip away…but not this. This has stuck, and occasionally, when I’m in a sad mood, I listen to these words and try to learn something. This is a sad time. A time for all of us to invest in ourselves and in our teams. The world will likely be different on the backside of this pandemic. Perhaps we need to be different to handle it.

For myself, I’m investing in two things, one emotion-based and one knowledge-based. Both of them with virtual interaction at the core, not an add-on but built into how I think about it. My emotional investment has come from a vivid memory. In my first career, I was a Naval Aviator flying off aircraft carriers. The nature of such work is family separation and limited to friends who are in uniform like you. It may sound strange to feel isolated on a ship of 5000 sailors, but that was often true for me. I was at sea in the pre-mobile phone, pre-internet era. There were primarily two ways to communicate either through letters or through videotapes (that’s right this also before digital). It was amazing to get videos of my infant daughter! I felt as if I was with her and not missing all that happens in these amazing months of her early life.

Personal Fill Out

Remembering that reminded me of all the technology that is available for me to do exactly the same thing. Share video. Sometimes that is live, like Facetime and Zoom. Sometimes it is recorded, like Marco Polo or texts. I rarely used those for connecting to friends and family before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

My knowledge-focused learning is on how to make these tools my connection for the now and the future. It takes investment. An investment of time and energy and even point of view. The point of view is about how to employ these tools. It is more than just turning them on. There are new rules to workout, like how do you have a conversation if you get twelve friends together.

Pro Tip: Have someone gently lead the conversation. Often this is the organizer but not necessarily so. 

There is even the point of view of the temporal nature of this interaction. Is it temporary or permanent? I have connected to people more frequently in recent weeks than I was doing before. It would seem to be harder to make the connection and yet I do it more frequently! Perhaps this is a benefit of the future normal. Perhaps it is a way for me to fill out my emotional relationships.

Team Fill Out

I’m also investing in my teams. Here too I’m making emotion-based and knowledge-based investments. The knowledge-based investment is about collaboration that is excellent with virtual as its core. Much of what I’m doing is around teaching. Certainly, in my teaching with the University of Richmond, this is true. I’ve gotten past the hurried rewrite of classes that had to move virtually and started thinking about “What if my classes were virtual forever?” If they were, “What would make my classes amazing on a virtual platform?” Even more provocative, “What would make the in-class experience more amazing than the virtual?”

For the consulting work that we do at The Change Decision, the same questions pop up. “What if we had to offer everything through virtual means?” Further, “ What would make that amazing, and what would then make our in-person experience even more amazing?” These have turned out to be very provocative questions. If we are to imagine a world better than the one we have today, then these are the sort of questions that can push our thinking to the new horizon.

Time to Invest

For all of us, this is a time to invest. Seek out a new skill for yourself and new skills for your team. There are so many places to go to learn, often for free. The trick is getting your head emotionally ready for the time and focus needed to learn. But that is a small investment against the future gains in knowledge and satisfaction that come from learning.

Also seek out a new perspective. Rethinking all of my work as needing to be virtual at its core has been an amazing emotional shift. Instead of being saddened by the future, I am energized to take on my work in a new way. Instead of dreading the reduction in what I can do and deliver, I now think creatively about the abundance of possibilities. Merlin was right! To beat sadness, learning is the only thing that never fails.

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