Resilience Isn’t Who You Are, It’s What You Do

Rethinking resilience as not a trait but a set of interlocking skills

Illustration by Natasha Remarchuk from Icons8

After living in San Francisco for many years, my friend and her husband decided to relocate to New York City. Jessica (not her real name) is an Asian American woman in her early 30s. She began her first shift as a nurse practitioner at the psychiatric ward of an NYC hospital in March of 2020, just as the COVID-19 crisis was intensifying.

It was a rocky start: During her occupational health clearance the week before her first official day, Jessica was rattled to see that no one was wearing personal protective equipment. In fact, the chief of psychiatry explicitly told her not to wear a mask—and shortly thereafter became infected with COVID-19 himself. In her first 10 days, both of the other psychiatric providers in Jessica’s unit were out sick. Many of the patients Jessica treated had clearly been struggling for a long time, and she could see how their mental illnesses had been exacerbated by racism and institutional neglect.

“It was scary on a couple levels,” she told me. “Professionally, I wasn’t getting any orientation, and the people who were supposed to help were gone. And from a safety perspective, it took a long time for us to get enough masks and receive training on how to wear them properly. For weeks, people would touch their face without sanitizing and reuse the same mask all week.” Jessica returned home each night drained, wondering if she had made the right decision.

Like Jessica, many of us have been thrown off balance by the pandemic, burdened with new demands and asked to work through situations we never would have imagined. Many of the coping mechanisms and support structures we’ve relied on—daycare, in-person gatherings, recreational travel—are gone or diminished. Any sort of future planning feels fraught with risk and uncertainty.

What does resilience look like in these turbulent times? Jessica’s story offers us some clues. At a precarious and unsettling moment in her life—new city, new job, pandemic—Jessica found her stride. Not by relying on a preternatural store of courage and resolve, but by taking a thoughtful and practical approach that anyone can learn from. In other words, she practiced the art of resilience.

The term resilience first emerged in the public consciousness in the 1970s and ’80s as a trait possessed by certain children living in adverse environments. Pioneering work by developmental psychologists such as Norman Garmezy and Emmy Werner found that most children who grew up with ongoing or acute stress such as poverty or domestic violence experienced learning, mental health, or behavioral problems as teenagers and adults. But around a third of them were still able to succeed in school, work, and domestic life. Further study on these “resilient” children found external factors such as a supportive connection with a parent or caregiver and internal character traits such as independence, optimism, and taking ownership over their lives.

This early work on children led many people to think of resilience as an innate quality: You’re either born resilient or you’re not. When you’re going through something difficult, that’s not a helpful thing to hear. What if instead of seeing resilience as only a trait, we saw it as a skill to be developed? How do we practice resilience? What are the behaviors and habits that allow us to adapt to difficult events?

As a serial tech founder and former elite gymnast, I’ve faced a number of bad breaks, whether it be a season-ending injury or a crucial financing that fell through. These setbacks were often quite painful and demoralizing, and they were a struggle to resolve. As I’ve encountered more and more of them over my career, I’ve developed a personal toolkit of resilience strategies that I take pride in and have come to rely on. Part of me almost relishes the challenge of hardship—though I also recognize that pursuing entrepreneurship or athletics is a choice, while dealing with a pandemic is not.

I believe that everyone, from CEO’s, to community leaders, to recent grads, needs to learn how to develop greater resilience to face challenges ahead

It’s clear that the public health crisis, economic turmoil, and social unrest that blindsided Americans this year will continue through the end of 2020 and beyond. I believe that everyone, from CEOs, to community leaders, to recent grads, needs to learn how to develop greater resilience to face challenges ahead. In looking at my own experience, speaking with people such as Jessica who have endured difficult trials, and poring through the latest social science research on resilience and post-traumatic growth, I’ve come to see the act of resilience as being composed of three distinct skills. In handling her own moment of adversity as a new psychiatric nurse, Jessica demonstrated all three:

Respond

Jessica faced the challenge directly, taking decisive action to prevent further harm. When the hospital gave Jessica PPE and peers weren’t taking precautions seriously, Jessica dipped into her own stash of leftover N95 masks acquired while traveling in Asia before her move.

Restore

Jessica gave herself space to heal and recover physically, mentally, and emotionally while seeking to grow from the experience. Every day, she reminded herself not to take negative patient reactions (insults, screaming) as personal affronts. She saw a therapist once, sometimes twice, a week and prioritized getting to bed early enough to feel rested the next morning.

Rebuild

Jessica accepted that her move was not what she had hoped and adapted her mindset and outlook as she pursued new goals. While unable to access many of NYC’s cultural offerings such as Broadway shows or museums, she tried to seek pleasure in small joys, such as taking trips to the beach or people watching while dining outdoors.

I’ve found these three skills valuable when facing not just personal challenges, but organizational ones. When my startup’s product metrics tanked in the spring, I had to respond quickly, rallying our team onto a user research effort around a potential pivot. I was transparent with our financial position and created new rituals such as weekly gaming sessions to restore a sense of normalcy and optimism. After our user research revealed promising new market opportunities, we soon began rebuilding business, taking the product in a new direction.

I don’t want to overly emphasize resilience as a cure-all. Doing so runs the risk of making it “indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic” as New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal argued, “placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character.”

Many of the struggles Americans now face are due to leaders who downplayed or directly exacerbated the problem through neglect, misinformation, and poor policy. The fallout has impacted people differently across the lines of race, industry, and socioeconomic status, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. That context can’t be ignored, because practicing resilience doesn’t magically bring back a loved one, regenerate customer demand, or erase an expensive medical bill.

That said, developing the skills of resilience—pragmatic response, wholehearted restoration, purposeful rebuilding—will prove useful now and in the future. You might already be quite capable in at least one of them. But there’s probably also room to grow.

While we may yearn for a time when the coronavirus is a distant memory, it’s reshaping of our economy and society cannot be undone. We will still encounter setbacks and hardship. Rather than feel daunted that your fixed store of resilience might not be up to the task, remember that you’ve worked through tough challenges before and have valuable experience to draw upon.

In reflecting on the last few months, Jessica felt one of the most “psychologically taxing” things about the pandemic was its interminable nature: “A lot of my patients were barely keeping their heads above water before the crisis and don’t know how long they’re going to have to white-knuckle it,” she said.

Despite wanting to take care of everyone, she’s learning the importance of also letting go. “I can pour my heart into the work but I still can’t control patient outcomes. At some point I owe it to myself and my loved ones to turn off my ‘work brain’ and find joy in my own life.”


This article first appeared in Fast Company

Two Feelings You Need Before Starting a Startup

It helps to be a little angry and a little cocky

First published in 2013, republished in 2020 with minor tweaks

I was talking to some folks about applying to Y Combinator and preparing themselves to found a startup more generally. One point that I found myself talking about, especially in terms of timing, was the two distinct emotions that I that many founders seem to possess, especially in the early days. [1]

They have an intense dissatisfaction with something in the world and an irrationally large sense of confidence about themselves.

As any founder will tell you, doing a startup is hard. Being passionate about the market you’re tackling, having a love for building great products —  that’s all well and good. But when push comes to shove, there are few things more motivating than being a little pissed off.

When you’re mad, you work harder, you hold out longer, you move faster. You might be mad at the big players who are screwing over consumers, mad at your old boss who turned down your promotion request, mad at all the investors or media people who don’t get what you’re doing.

And that anger is fuel.

Paired with the anger is thinking you are the shit. To take the plunge and do a startup is to implicitly say:

“Despite the fact that most startups fail, I think I can succeed. And thus I believe I’m smarter, more capable, more persuasive than the majority of founders.”

It takes some cockiness to say that. Think about Steve Jobs, Patrick Collision, Anne Wojcicki [2] In their own way, each had a tremendous belief in themselves: their vision, judgement and abilities.

When I started Ridejoy, I had a chip on my shoulder, in part because the CEO of the startup I worked at once told me I was “a bit junior”. And yet he had dropped out of college to start that company and was the SAME AGE AS ME.

I’ve always had an unreasonably large amount of confidence and I did believe that I was better than other founders. Getting into Y Combinator certainly supported that thesis. [3]

By no means were these qualities “everything you need” to be a success. In fact, you’ll still most likely fail. But if you were thinking about making the leap and asked me if NOW was the time to start your company, I’d ask: “Are you feeling a little angry? And a little cocky?”


Footnotes

[1] Clearly this is anecdotal evidence —  and yet our brain is wired to respond to stories and data of this nature. Take from it what you will.

[2] Same deal as [1] – correlation doesn’t prove causation, but sometimes it can suggest it.

[3] I say that at the risk of sounding like a douche, but I’m just telling the truth. When you’re in the top 7% of thousands of teams who apply to YC, you start to feel a little special.

What I Learned from My First (Blunder-Filled) Marathon

Respect the race or suffer the consequences

This piece was originally published in 2014 on the health and wellness site Greatist but has been lost after the site was acquired in 2019. Republishing it here because it’s a great lesson in humility and resilience.

Entrepreneur and former collegiate gymnastics champion Jason Shen had a less-than-awesome experience running his first marathon. Find out what went wrong and how we can all learn from his rocky road to the finish line. 

After many months of training, I ran my first marathon in the summer of 2012. It was agonizingly hard, and I made a lot of mistakes both in training and in the race—but I made it to the finish line. Did it change my life? No. Did it make me a better runner? Yes. Was it worth the hurt? Definitely.

This is how I prepared for and completed that 26.2 mile race. Hopefully my experience and mistakes can help your own journey to completing that first marathon.

Did it change my life? No. Did it make me a better runner? Yes. Was it worth the hurt? Definitely. 

Deciding to Run

After graduating from college and finishing an NCAA career in men’s gymnastics, I spent a few unsatisfying years lifting weights to stay in shape. On a whim, I tried running in a pair of Vibram Five-Fingers (those minimalist shoes) and loved how they felt. I had hated doing any kind of running as a gymnast, but (despite a past major knee injury that had required numerous surgeries), the minimal footwear made running fun and basically pain-free.

My competitive career as a runner began in July 2011, when I ran in the San Francisco Marathon’s 5K. The adrenaline rush from that first 5K was thrilling, and got me rehooked on being a competitive athlete. In the months following, I ran more 5Ks, a few 10Ks, and even some half marathons.

For whatever reason, I felt that finishing a marathon would officially make me a “real” runner.

Around the winter holidays, I thought to myself, “It’d be pretty awesome if I came back to next year’s SF Marathon and did the full distance. Seven months should be plenty of time to train.” For whatever reason, I felt that finishing a marathon would officially make me a “real” runner. Before I knew it, I had an SF Marathon registration email sitting in my inbox, and there was no going back.

Training for the Race

The marathon distance was daunting, but I knew from my years as a gymnast that with the right training, the seemingly impossible becomes possible. I looked at several well-known marathon training plans, but they generally required running 5 or more times a week, and I wanted a plan with lower mileage in order to protect my knee. I ultimately turned to running blogger and coach Jason Fitzgerald to devise a custom plan for me.

I ran about three times a week: One easy run, one longer run with a few miles at a faster “tempo” pace, and a slow long run on the weekend. I lifted weights, used the elliptical, or performed bodyweight exercises on two other days, and rested the other two days.

 It’s a bit wild to find yourself running more than two hours at a time in training, but that’s what it takes to run 26 miles in a row. 

Every run began with specific warm-up and cool-down exercises to enhance performance and protect against injury. It’s a bit wild to find yourself running more than two hours at a time in training, but that’s what it takes to run 26 miles in a row. I passed the time (and agony) with long electronic dance music mixes or with chatty running partners.

My training plan called for 18-, 19-, and 20- mile long runs in the weeks leading up to the marathon, but, unfortunately, I wasn’t quite able to pull it off. A mix of traveling, New York City heat, and a brief bout with the flu meant my last few long runs were either shorter than expected, split up throughout a day, or missed altogether.

Race Day

Despite these deviations from training, I was still pretty confident that adrenaline, additional sleep, and carb-loading would cover the gap and propel me to the finish line. From the scattered reading I had done on marathon times, I arbitrarily picked the target of running sub-4 hours as my goal, which required me to run just over nine minutes per mile for the whole race. To be perfectly honest, I just wanted the number “3” in front of my time (in retrospect, not a recommended way to pick a goal time).

The day before the race, I chatted with a former coworker who encouraged me to avoid going out too hard, which echoed the advice I’ve read about marathons from other runners and marathon race reports. We agreed that the best strategy would be to start with the 4:10 pace group and around halfway, if I felt good, pick up the pace.

Finally, race day arrived. I headed down to the Embarcadero, the famous waterfront in San Francisco, with my father (who had flown in to see me race). Due to there being thousands of competitors, the race started in waves. I had registered in Wave 3, which only featured a 3:50 pace group. To run with the 4:10 race group, I’d have to move to Wave 4, which was slated to start 10 minutes later.

In an epic lapse in reasoning, I decided it would be better to deviate from my race plan and start with the 3:50 group. “After all,” I figured, “If I get too tired, I can just slow down in the second half and still have a buffer to hit sub four hours. And besides, if I start 10 minutes later, my Dad and my girlfriend will be left waiting at the finish line, wondering where I am.” Like I said, poor judgement.

I should have recognized right away that an 8:50 minute per mile pace was too fast, but, like a total amateur, I hung in there for three miles before recognizing the futility of staying with the pace group.

I should have recognized right away that an 8:50 minute per mile pace was too fast, but like a total amateur, I hung in there for three miles before recognizing the futility of staying with the pace group. I slowed to around a 9:30 minute-per-mile pace and let the rest of the group pull ahead as we neared the ramp toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

Running on the bridge was exciting, despite the crowd, fog, and chill. Watching people’s expressions and outfits from the opposite lane was fun, and I even had a short conversation with a guy asking about the brand of my knee brace.

After reaching the other side of the bridge and coming back, we headed into a downhill where I pushed harder to try to gain some speed. I did catch up to some runners who had passed me, but my quads took a beating as well. After eating my second energy gel, my stomach felt a little queasy (I’ve realized now that certain flavors affect my stomach more than others). Thankfully a port-a-potty emerged to save the day. After a quick stop, I continued onward toward Golden Gate Park.

My time at 13 miles was 2:05, and as the 1st half marathoners peeled off, I saw a friend who was walking toward the 2nd half-marathon starting line. She called out to me, “Jason you look great!” I beamed and felt like maybe there was a chance I could actually hit my goal.

The moment was brief. At mile 14, the distance caught up to me. I realized how much my legs hurt and how badly I wanted to walk. I had been running nearly continuously up until then, minus a few steep hill climbs, and I knew I couldn’t give in right then and there, especially with all the miles left. I promised myself I would get to walk only after crossing mile 16.

 At mile 14, the distance caught up to me.

Those next two miles were awful. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even make it to 16 miles, succumbing to a walk literally 100 yards before the official mile marker. It felt incredible to walk, but after “breaking the seal” as it were, I couldn’t go back to continuous running. It wasn’t due to a lack of energy, but simply the fact that my entire lower body was aching from the repeated pounding.

I spent the next 2.5 hours walking at every mile marker until the pain subsided somewhat, then shuffling into a slow jog until the next mile marker. I sat down at one point for maybe five minutes.

The rule I made for myself was that once I started running, I had to keep going till the next mile—and I repeated this for 10 miles. While dreadful, this system was simple and helped me not give up entirely. Hundreds if not thousands of runners passed me, and in the photos I look completely ragged.

I was able to pick up the pace just a bit in the last mile and, around 10:30am, 4 hours and 53 minutes after I began, I crossed the finish line of the San Francisco Marathon. I was finally a “real” runner.

Recovery and Reflection

The rest of the day was a blur. Someone put a medal around my neck, I found my Dad and girlfriend, sucked down a bunch of Jamba Juice, talked a bit, trudged home, and collapsed in my bed for a mega nap.

In the days and weeks afterward, I felt a strong sense of disappointment in myself, despite the encouragement from friends and family. I kept reviewing all the mistakes I made: I should have trained harder and more consistently. I should have have gotten more sleep. I shouldn’t have gone out so fast and pursued an ill-chosen goal time.

I didn’t run much for a while, partly to let my body take a break, but partly out of a lack of motivation. But eventually, while out in the middle of the Nevada desert at Burning Man, I ran a 5K. It was a blast—and helped me rediscover the joy of running.

Perhaps more than finishing 26.2 miles, this gratitude is what truly marks my passage into the halls of “real runners.

Running, I’ve learned, is such a versatile activity: It keeps you fit, helps you get places, lets you socialize, offers an outlet to blow off steam, and, yes, is a way to channel a competitive nature.

While my first marathon wasn’t everything I’d hoped it to be, I’m still so grateful to have running in my life. And, perhaps more than finishing 26.2 miles, this gratitude is what truly marks my passage into the halls of “real runners.”

I’m definitely eyeing a rematch with the San Francisco Marathon, armed with a better training and racing game plan. And in the meantime, I’ll keep putting on my shoes, plugging in my earbuds, and hitting the road. Because part of being a real runner means running just for the hell of it. 

Fidelity vs Functionality

What Makes for an Effective Demo

A lot has been made about Apple’s hardware product prowess – the click wheel of the iPod, the slimness of the Macbook Air, but just as notable are Apple’s standout software like Safari, Keynote, iOS and many more. In Creative Selection, long-time Apple software engineer Ken Kocienda takes us into the world of software development, and the all important demo, which he gave directly to Steve Jobs on several occasions.

He describes his first experience with a great software demo shortly after joining Apple in 2002 and being tasked with building the Mac OSX’s web browser (which did not yet exist). While Ken and his manager Don tried to wrangle the massive Mozilla Firefox, a new programmer named Richard took an open source browser for Linux, called Konqueror, and made it work for the Mac in a genius demo in just a few days. His demo only really only did 3 things: load web pages (text + images), navigate hyperlinks, and support the back button and was full of hacky code. But it proved the idea was possible and shifted the direction of the project.

Software demos need to be convincing enough to explore an idea, to communicate a step toward making a product, even though the demo is not the product itself. Like the movie, demos should be specifically choreographed, so it’s clear what must be included and what can be left out. Those things that aren’t the main focus of a demo, but are required to create the proper setting, must be realized at the correct level of detail so they contribute to the whole rather than detract from the vision.
– Ken Kocienda

Another way of putting it

A prototype is something you can use to test out a product’s functionality—does it hold up in real-world conditions, does it short-circuit under load, all are trying to answer the question: “does it work right?”

A demo is something you use to convey a product’s fidelity. How it will feel to use the product in its final form. Speed, accuracy, delight are all apart of answering the question: “does it feel right?”

It reminds me of the Bel Air trailer. Morgan Cooper, a passionate fan of Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air retold the story of a rebellious young black man from West Philadelphia forced to live with his wealthy uncle and his family in an elite neighborhood in Los Angeles.

While the original show was a fun sitcom in the 90’s, Cooper’s trailer reimagines the story as a modern drama with real stakes, emotion, and beauty. It only takes on 217 seconds, and each frame, each line of dialogue, every micro-expression, is exquisitely written, shot, and delivered.

One year and six million views later, Cooper is confirmed to be co-writing, directing, and co-executive producing, with Will Smith, this new reboot. The demo was a success.

How Tech Workers are Finding Their Footing in a Pandemic

After a spike in burnout indicators, the industry is experiencing an uneven recovery

This piece first appeared in Fast Company

The start of 2020 should have been an energizing time for me, personally and professionally. I had just returned from a long-awaited holiday honeymoon and closed a new round of funding for my startup. But I found myself lethargic, dreading my inbox, and procrastinating on important tasks—telltale signs of burnout.

In fits and starts, the tech industry has finally begun to talk openly about burnout, mental health, and workplace culture, including toxic leadership and unhealthy work hours.

Recently digital strategist Ella Dawson spoke openly in a personal essay of feeling “a boiling resentment of everything that asked for my energy: my job, my friends, my relationship, even my own body.” As the senior social media editor at TED, she set work boundaries, received promotions, and prioritized self-care but still found herself “treading water” just to get the bare minimum done.

She wasn’t alone: A survey of 11,000 tech workers on Blind found that 57% were currently feeling burned out. While not an evenly distributed sample, Blind’s stat stands in stark contrast to the mere quarter of American adults who say they’re burned out at least some of the time, in a study by the American Psychological Association. It seems even as tech companies work relentlessly to satisfy and delight their customers, many are willing to let a significant portion of their staff operate in a state of deep dissatisfaction.

Then in March, a global pandemic wreaked havoc on the global economy and day-to-day life, introducing a host of new challenges into the equation.

We’re now nearly three months into our new reality, trying to adapt to working from home while educating our children, staving off cabin fever, and being super vigilant whenever we venture outside. Don’t get me wrong: Tech workers should appreciate their immense privilege in being able to keep working with generous wages and strong job security, compared to workers in retail and hospitality, which have been devastated by the shelter-in-place and social distancing policies. But there’s no denying the pandemic has had a measurable impact on tech workers’ mental health.

An Early Wave of Burnout

“I feel like we went through a trough of despair in the first month,” said Alison Rowland, a principal software engineer at Stitch Fix. (Rowland and I are both on the board of a civic tech nonprofit.) Rowland explained over a call that while she had been a remote engineer throughout her time at the online personal shopping company, her husband typically worked from an office outside of the home. To go from working at home by herself to having her husband and her two children, ages 5 and 9, at home with her all the time took an adjustment that was “exhausting.”

Rowland’s experience mirrored broader data indicating that people are working longer and feeling more exhausted than ever. Amplitude, a product intelligence company, found that more users in California appeared to be working through lunch in April (24% versus 22% in January) and working later at night. (Eleven p.m. logins were up to 5% from 3%.)

These findings held up beyond the West Coast. BurnoutIndex.org, a free burnout assessment tool by workplace support platform Yerbo, confirmed these issues across more than 100,000 technology workers globally.

BurnoutIndex.org examined four indicators of burnout: exhaustion and fatigue, cynicism around work, depersonalization (lack of sympathy and emotional harshness), and loss of efficacy and productivity on a scale. While most of us may be familiar with how exhaustion and fatigue lead to burnout, the other three factors align closely to the revised definition of burnout in the WHO’s 11th International Classification of Diseases, as well as the Maslach Burnout Inventory, first defined in 1981 by UC Berkeley psychology professor Christina Maslach.

From February to March, signs of burnout rose among tech workers on all four indicators, with the highest being depersonalization, particularly with regard to the statement “I find myself being harsher emotionally with others,” which rose 17% in just one month.

I saw this in my own life, as I found myself getting angry at my cofounder and he and I began getting into more heated discussions, something that’s happened only a handful of times in our years of working together.

The Impact on Leaders

It turns out I wasn’t the only founder who was struggling. I spoke with Amy Buechler, the former batch director of Y Combinator who offers executive coaching to founders whose companies range from 7 to 800 employees. Her clients, who are typically the CEO or CTO of their companies, all went through “a grieving process” as the pandemic radically transformed the state and future of their business.

“These founders had to mourn the company they had lost so they could see the company they now led,” she told me. “They had to make sense of their loss, make hard decisions, and create new hopes for the future.”

All of Buechler’s clients had to reduce headcount, completely restructure their business, or both. At my company, Midgame, we needed to reinvent our product after usage changed dramatically as locked-down users demanded a new set of social and entertainment experiences. Across the industry, Bloomberg reports that tech companies have shed 40,000 total jobs as of May 28. Meanwhile, Twitter, Shopify, Coinbase, and others have halted new office development and are gearing for a remote-first future.

Even the companies that experienced a bump in demand from the pandemic still face challenges. Bravely is an on-demand coaching platform that employers can offer as a benefit to employees. According to CEO Toby Hervey, the firm has seen both an increase in demand for their services and a 146% increase in usage among existing clients, with the number-one theme of these coaching calls being “stress related to the impact of COVID-19.”

“We’re lucky to have this influx, but things haven’t been easy either,” said Hervey. “We froze hiring for a while, which put a lot more on everyone’s plates while trying to deal with the pandemic and adjust to remote work.”

An Uneven Recovery

The silver lining is that things are starting to stabilize. As early as April, data from BurnoutIndex.org found that worker burnout indicators were starting to decline from their March peak.

“The jump of the burnout phenomenon in March was utterly remarkable,” said Carlos Sponton, who has an MSc in work psychology and is the head of behavioral science at Yerbo, commenting on the impact of COVID-19.  “Then in April, we could see resilience and adaptation appear in reaction to the new purpose.”

But even as overall burnout scores came down, exhaustion fell a mere 1% and had an absolute score of 4.1 out of 6, which made it the highest of the four factors. This suggests that workload still hasn’t landed at a sustainable level, as employees continue to report feeling run-down.

Instead, what’s driving the overall burnout recovery seen in the BurnoutIndex.org figures is an improvement in two other factors: cynicism and depersonalization. Both fell around 12%, with April numbers (2.9 and 2.5, respectively, in terms of absolute scores) reaching well below their February baselines.

This trend is reflected in Rowland’s experience—she saw some of her coworkers struggling to find meaning in their professional lives at the start of the crisis. “You’d see people express things like ‘I’m not even sure why I come to work,’” Rowland said. “But as people got more used to the situations in their home life, it became easier to look to work as an outlet and purpose.”

This recovery is not evenly distributed. For instance, with many camps and summer programs canceled, parents continue to struggle with caring for their kids. And on top of work, Black tech employees must deal with the stress and emotional burden emerging in this moment of national reckoning against racism and police violence, as well as having to educate their coworkers on issues of race and social justice.

Still, the overall trend is encouraging. I’ve written before about how burnout is often more driven by the loss of meaning than too much work. It looks as though work engagement through the pandemic is responding in a similar fashion.

How Leaders Can Help their Teams Fight Burnout

What can corporations do to stave off burnout in this period? Here are some suggestions from our experts:

  • Provide mandatory planned time off. Hervey gave Bravely staff four straight weeks of half-day Fridays. “People feel like there’s no end in sight,” he said. Letting workers know in advance they have chances to rest can help them “ride it out for the long haul.”
  • Acknowledge that things are weird and hard. Both Rowland and Buechler underscored the importance of having managers and executives who spoke openly about the uncertainty of the moment and shared some personal vulnerability.
  • Lean into pulse/culture surveys: It’s both difficult and important to stay on top of your team’s well-being during a pandemic and while working remotely. Products such as CultureAmpKnow Your Team, and Yerbo’s TalkIt can serve this purpose by offering weekly or semi-monthly surveys where employees can share how they feel about their job and their company. The results are often aggregated anonymously so staff members feel comfortable being honest while leaders can spot trends and areas to watch out for.
  • Create a space to discuss difficult topics: Taylor McCaslin, a senior PM at GitLab, shared how the company’s #mental_health_aware Slack channel has been an important place to bond with her coworkers. More than 200 GitLab employees use it to share honest feelings and helpful resources around mental health. “It’s been so eye-opening to see the struggles that other people have and to see that I’m not alone,” McCaslin said. Rowland echoed these sentiments and said that Stitch Fix similarly introduced a new Slack channel where people could be vulnerable about personal challenges or difficult emotions.
  • Empower employees to take mental health days. Many companies offer generous sick leave, but managers should clarify that this can be used for both physical illness and mental well-being. Both my cofounder and one of our engineers took a few mental health days during the months of February and March and came back far more energized and productive, and appreciative of our culture as a result.

As in every industry, tech has taken some hits during the pandemic, but we’re starting to pick ourselves back up. But a second wave of infections appears all but inevitable, and it remains to be seen if tech employees can stay engaged with our work even as COVID-19 continues to transform our society.

Image created by Croods via Vijay Verma

On Protests and Movements

Thoughts on the fight for racial justice in 2020

This is an attempt to integrate a series of shorter, related writings that I’ve published in my newsletter over the last few weeks. Much of it touches on the Black Lives Matter movement, which I wrote about back in 2016, but much of it also applies for any kind of movement or social change.

💫 The Arc of Social Progress

There have been 14 days and nights of protests calling for racial justice and police/criminal justice reform in over 400 cities across the United States, and in dozens more across the world. Curfews have been set and defied, thousands have been arrested including journalists, and hundreds of acts of police brutality have been documented on video.

People are angry at seeing yet another black man murdered in broad daylight while begging to for air and his life by a uniformed officer. They’re angry seeing a white woman threaten black man’s life through a false 911 call. Angry at an incompetent and heartless government response to a global pandemic.

Responding to an infection

When you are infected with a disease like the flu, your body raises its temperature and triggers a fever. It feels awful. Fevers force you to rest, allowing your body to fight the infection and heal.

For a society, protests and riots are the fever. Racism and xenophobia are the disease. Any damage or harm to person and property is awful. But the civil unrest we’re experiencing is important and will continue until we take meaningful actions to address the disease.

How movements work

My friend Tony shared this paper with me: the Movement Action Plan. Originally published in 1986 and updated in the mid 90’s by Bill Moyer, an organizer who worked on MLK’s staff, the ideas hold up very well today.

One key insight is that social movements actually require 3 key stages:

  1. Public awareness of the problem passing 80%
  2. Public opposition to the policies and power structures that are causing the problem passes 50%
  3. Public support for the movements alternate solutions passes 50%

With the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I think we’ve probably reached 1, but we’re not yet at 2. Moyer explicitly points out that it’s easy for activists to get demoralized at their perceived “failure” to achieve results, when really it’s because the process has multiple steps and it can be hard to see where you are.

None of that brings back the lives of those killed or unjustly incarcerated but hopefully it is food for thought as we continue on in this time of pain and anger. We’re starting to fully recognize the problem, but which policies and power structures are we prepared to oppose?

🔨 The Law of the Instrument

For the last few decades, most politicians have wanted to seem “tough on crime” and one of the most concrete ways to do that was to hire more cops and increase funding for police departments and jails. Police have increasingly obtained military caliber weapons like armored convoys, tear gas, targeted sound emitters, riot gear, etc. We’re now experiencing the results of that long standing effort.

You’ve probably heard some version of the law of the instrument. Apparently it was first recorded by American philosopher Abraham Kaplan:

“I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”

Given the violence we’ve seen and read about, it’s not hard to see cops as small boys and hammers as guns and violence. The harassment and violence is a natural manifestation of our overemphasis on policing as a strategy for dealing with any societal issue.

💥 When Aggressive Tactics Backfire

One of the common complaints of any conflict is about who started it and who escalated it. In general, escalation into violence almost never engenders sympathy from the other side and often hurts credibility with “the middle”. That doesn’t mean those tactics aren’t needed in some situations, but their drawbacks should be well understood.

Based on a 5 year study of all 8,000 SWAT deployment in the state of Maryland (which is required to make that data public) one researcher found such deployments actually increase violent crime by 6.5%.

National debates over heavy-handed police tactics, including so-called “militarized” policing, are often framed as a trade-off between civil liberties and public safety … I show that militarized “special weapons and tactics” (SWAT) teams are more often deployed in communities of color, and—contrary to claims by police administrators—provide no detectable benefits in terms of officer safety or violent crime reduction, on average. However, survey experiments suggest that seeing militarized police in news reports erodes opinion toward law enforcement. Taken together, these findings suggest that curtailing militarized policing may be in the interest of both police and citizens.

Full article in PNAS (full article)

The same principle is true on the other side though. After MLK was assassinated, there were 10 days of peaceful protests and violent protests (riots) across the country. A study looked at the 1968 election and found that areas that had violent protest (ie riots) were more likely to vote for Nixon (the conservative and “law and order” candidate.

Groups that are the object of state violence are able to get particularly sympathetic press—and a large amount of media coverage. But that is a very hard strategy to maintain, and what we often see is that, when protesters engage in violence, often in a very understandable response to state repression, that tends to work against their cause and interests, and mobilizes or becomes fodder for the opposition to grow its coalition.

How Violent Protest Change Politics (NewYorker.com)

💵 How Much Money is Enough?

Here’s the Baltimore City General Fund budget breakdown. Notice anything?

The Los Angeles PD annual budget is $1.8 billion. The NYPD’s budget is even bigger: $5.5B (!!) Meanwhile, fines, fees, and asset foreiture by police are meaningful revenue sources, and often lead police to target black neighborhoods and people.

A thin safety net, an expansive security state: This is the American way. At all levels of government, the country spends roughly double on police, prisons, and courts what it spends on food stamps, welfare, and income supplements. At the federal level, it spends twice as much on the Pentagon as on assistance programs, and eight times as much on defense as on education.

If these figures from The Atlantic seem disproportionate to you, then you probably would agree that police departments need to have their funding reduced.

Some people have called for the wholesale elimination of police departments, which I read as an effort to expand the Overton Window and make larger scale cuts seem more reasonable. But there are fully articulated arguments for how policing could be replaced with other, more humane methods of crime prevention and social protection.

The more mainstream concept here is to redirect funding towards programs that actually eliminate poverty, homelessness, and crime by helping people rather than criminalizing them. What those programs are and how they work is a longer conversation and that’s ok.

DTP is short and sweet as a slogan, and lines up with what we discussed in MC#003 around the Movement Action Plan and how the public first needs to start opposing the current policies (overpolicing) before it can start to support the new alternatives.

👁 Who will watch the watchers?

We’re in a very weird situation where normally protests are about something like Gay Rights, Climate Change, Worker’s Strike, etc and the cops are there to ensure the protesters can exercise their First Amendment Rights. But in this case, the protest is literally about the police and the calls to defund the institution that pays their salaries. Anyone see where this can go wrong?

In The Atlantic (again): The use of force by police cant pacify protests responding to the use of force by police.

This isn’t a case where the cops can present themselves as a disinterested third party simply keeping the peace between the protesters and their targets. They are the targets, not only because police violence is what sparked the protests, but also because the reforms the protesters demand, from ending qualified immunity to abolishing police altogether, will affect those officers.

When the police are criticized for enacting violence on angry or aggressive protesters, a common response is “Well what do you expect someone to do if they’re in your face like that?”

The correct response is “de-escalate” something that teachers, nurses, and mental health professionals do all the time.

But whether it’s a combination of lack of training, a culture of testosterone and aggression, a million Law and Order-style cop shows and movies where a rogue cop takes justice into his own hands, we seem to accept that using force to get the “bad guys” is appropriate.

It made me think of the line “Who will watch the watcher”, from Roman poet Juvenal. Ultimately, some combination of the journalists, citizens clamoring for change, and new political leaders has to take that role.

A member of George HW Bush’s campaign and Justice Dept says that (contrary to the research from earlier in “When Aggressive Tactics Backfire”) the riots were part of Bush’s downfall and perhaps this will hold true for Trump.

🌊 Reaching a Tipping Point

Welp, things are happening. 7 years after the movement began, Black Lives Matter hit a tipping point – driven by a pandemic, the network-effects of social media, long term organizing, and pent up range.

According to Twitter (via NYTimes), there were only 146,000 tweets with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Dec 4, 2014. But on May 28th, more than 8,000,000 BLM tweets were posted. Twitter’s MAU only grew 15% in that same time period.

Over the last two weeks, support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm. By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began. (NYTimes)

And here’s a partial excerpt of a great list of actions that have taken place in the last few weeks from The Atlantic:

  • The city council of Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, has vowed to disband the city’s police department.
  • The mayors of New York and Los Angeles—America’s two biggest cities by population—announced plans to cut funding for their police forces.
  • Various cities are set to ban choke holds by police, make all local police shootings subject to review by independent agencies, or reduce police presence at schools.
  • For the first time, Harper’s Bazaar hired a woman of color—Samira Nasr—as its editor in chief.
  • Ella Jones was elected mayor of Ferguson, Missouri; she will be the first black mayor and the first female mayor of the city, which was incorporated in 1894.
  • The commissioner of the National Football League apologized for ignoring the complaints of African American players for years, and said he recognizes their right to protest peacefully
  • NASCAR plans to ban displays of the Confederate flag at its races.
  • U.S. Soccer, the organization overseeing the country’s national soccer teams, repealed a rule that banned players from kneeling during the national anthem.

And we’ve got the NYTime’s Bestseller list for the past week:

It looks like a lot of folks are trying to educate themselves (and others) or at least wanting to signal that they are.

These protests have been costly: people have been hurt, mostly protestors, journalists and bystanders. Businesses have been looted and burned, and police buildings and vehicles have been damaged. Lots of new COVID-19 cases have emerged as well. But despite all this, I’m still ultimately encouraged by the human spirit and the willingness to act, especially given how decentralized the movement has been in terms of singular leaders.

There’s still a great deal of work to be done, but my hope is that we are living up to Churchill’s saying about Americans (which was never officially documented):

Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.

Photo Credit: Doug Turetsky

Jackbox-Head-Cover-Image

The Product Genius Behind Jackbox Games

How you can learn from the resurgence of an offbeat trivia game series

This article first appeared on TechCrunch

During this period of shelter-in-place, people have had to seek out new forms of entertainment and social interaction. Many have turned to a niche party series made by a company best known for an irreverent trivia game in the ’90s called “You Don’t Know Jack.”

Since 2014, the annual release of the Jackbox Party Pack has delivered 4-5 casual party games that run on desktop, mobile and consoles that can be played in groups as small as two and as large as 10. In a clever twist, players use smartphones as controllers, which is perfect for typing in prompts, selecting options, making drawings, etc.

The games are tons of fun and perfect for playing with friends over video conference, and their popularity has skyrocketed, as indicated by Google Trends. I polled my own Twitter following and found that nearly half of folks had played in the last month, though a full third hadn’t heard of Jackbox at all.

How do these games work?

There are over 20 unique games across the Jackbox Party Packs 1-6, too many to explain them all but here are three of the most popular ones.

  • Fibbage: a twist on the traditional trivia game, players are asked to invent an answer to a question of obscure knowledge (e.g ” A Swedish man who works as a dishwasher receives disability benefits due to his unusual addiction to ____.”) Then all the invented answers are mixed in with the truth and players have to select the real answer while avoiding fakes. You earn points for guessing correctly and for tricking other players. (Btw, the answer is “heavy metal”)
  • Quiplash: Similar to Cards Against Humanity, but with more creativity. Players respond to pre-written prompts “What the boogeyman is afraid of?” and the group votes on head-to-head answers. Later versions allowed you to write custom questions (which could work well for a birthday party or bridal shower)
  • Drawful: A twist on Pictionary, players draw a visual depiction of strange prompts like “Milkshakes from the milkshake tree” or “Low-speed chase”. Similar to Fibbage, players have a chance to give prompts to all the drawings and then try to select the real prompt while avoiding the fakes.

Almost all the games stick to a formula combining funny prompts, trivia, drawing, clever responses, betting and voting on answers, yet new entries continue to keep it fresh.

What makes them so fun?

While Jackbox clearly owes a great deal of its current popularity to shelter- in-place policies, it’s also been honing their craft for years, with each party pack improving upon the last. It’s worth looking at what makes them work:

  • Easy to pick up: While some games are a bit more complex, most can be explained in less than 30 seconds or simply intuited as you play. I’ve hosted games with my family, co-workers and friends who otherwise never play video games, and getting started has not been an issue. Compare that to many board games that take 30 minutes or more to simply explain and set up.
  • Surprising: Jackbox packs a ton of novelty into its games. The facts they pull up for Fibbage are very weird but oddly fascinating (e.g. a man in Tennessee was arrested after committing 11 felonies in nine hours). The Drawful prompts are very bizarre and the Quiplash prompts are similarly varied and funny.
  • Well-paced: The games are quick to play, taking between 15-20 minutes per session, and scale well between smaller and larger groups. Players have time pressure to complete their responses, so you’re never stuck waiting for one person to finish. That means that there’s always time for a quick game, and, if you’re having fun, a chance to do “just one more round.”
  • Comeback mechanics – Party games are less about evaluating who’s truly the best at knowing trivia / drawing abstract concepts / being funny and more about having a good time. So Jackbox implements a number of comeback mechanics, which allows players who are behind in points to catch up. Sometimes that just means increasing the point value of guessing correctly as the game progresses to close an early lead, and other times it means actually penalizing the current leader with a more difficult challenge. This means people are engaged through the end of the game.
  • Screw opportunities – Games are a great way to burn your friends—with Jackbox, it’s usually with inside jokes as answers to prompts. But the games also often feature ways to screw other players, often with a literal “screw” item which can be used to force another player to do something, or makes responding harder (you have to type in a password before choosing a prompt)

Lessons for product creators

Games are obviously an entertainment product, and while gamification was a hot topic in certain circles, most companies don’t look to games for inspiration when designing their products and services. But Jackbox isn’t a traditional game, and because it relies so much on group dynamics, there’s a lot to be learned, especially for products that facilitate collaboration or social interaction.

Personality – Jackbox’s zaniness is a refreshing change to the bland voice and tone of most products these days. It feels like most companies just want to play it safe and hold back in this area. Apps like Discord, with delightful little animations and clever copy and Google Assistant’s 30+ person team of comedians, filmmakers, and artists show you can have personality without sacrificing reach.

Wagering – some Jackbox games that are about choosing the right answer (often trivia related) allow you to “double down” for extra points. There’s something fun about not just being right, but being extra right. How can product creators leverage this? One idea is with any product that does A/B testing. If I’m sending an email in Convertkit, maybe I can guess which subject line will do better and be recognized for guessing correctly. Even better if my whole team can guess along with me.

Visually distinct – the growth of design systems have largely been a boon as designers could now make changes in a single place, changing the secondary font for instance, and having it deploy across the site or app. But this has also led to a feeling of sameness when browsing a large platform – and it makes it harder to experiment or make changes overall. Jackbox games all look and feel very distinct from each other. Fibbage 3 has a 70’s vibe to it while Push The Button takes place in a spaceship. I want to see more companies do what Facebook and Foursquare did by actually splitting their product into standalone apps. Or you can at least make them more visually distinct like Amazon Prime Video’s darker theme over the bright shopping section.

Experimentation – most product teams brainstorm tons of ideas and eventually just just a tiny handful with actual users. Jackbox takes a broader approach. According to their chief creative officer Allard Laban in 2017:

We will spend a few months dedicating a day each week to prototyping and paper-and-pencil testing gameplay.

For the unreleased Jackbox Party Pack 4, we created over 50 play-tested concepts.

They even shelved several game ideas and brought them back in later party pack. That commitment to breadth and iteration has unleashed a tremendous amount of creativity

Better avatars – Jackbox has great avatars and as more products lean into collaboration, they’ll require avatars too. Of course most people end up making their avatar a photo of their face, but I think we should be raising the bar on the default avatar. Many are just your first initial in a circle or maybe an arbitrary animal for fully anonymous users (looking at you Google Docs). Jackbox proves we can do and should do better.

At the end of the day, most product companies don’t make fun games, they build productivity tools, or design services, or physical devices. But even still, the success and appeal of Jackbox Games gives every product creator some inspiration on how to make something simple, fun, and memorable.

How to Become More Adaptable

When a global pandemic turns the world upside down

It’s no secret that adaptability has become a critical trait for knowledge workers. To stay on top of a rapidly evolving world, we must assess new situations, make intelligent decisions and implement them effectively.

A 2014 research report by Barclays indicated that 60% of employers say adaptability has become more important during the last decade, and BBC called adaptability the “X factor” for career success in an era of technological change.

But even the most intrepid executive, entrepreneur or freelancer would be forgiven for struggling to adapt to a global pandemic. The impact of coronavirus has been unrelenting: hospitals at capacity, students sent home, conference cancellations, sold out inventory, markets in free fall and cities under lockdown.

Whatever you thought 2020 was going to look like, you were dead wrong. Box CEO Aaron Levie  and Stanford professor Bob Sutton’s  recent Twitter exchange said it all:

This moment requires us to learn new skills, develop new habits and let go of old ways of working. In the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, there’s a chapter about “dropping familiar tools” that details how experienced professionals will overlearn specific behavior and then fail to adapt to a new circumstance. This mentality affected everyone from firefighters to aviation crews to NASA engineers, often with deadly results, and underscores how hard it can be to adapt to change.

To help us cultivate adaptability in this unprecedented moment, I sought answers in unexpected places. Here’s what I learned.

Let go of your attachments

Adaptability is required first and foremost when circumstances change. It’s easy to get attached to certain outcomes, especially when they’ve been planned long in advance or have significant emotional weight.

Due to the coronavirus, a couple I know is postponing their wedding originally set for April. Having tied the knot only a year ago myself, I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be for them. But it was the right decision; demanding that the show go on would have been dangerous for their families, friends and the public at large.

I recently spoke with my friend Belinda Ju, an executive coach with a longstanding meditation practice. Non-attachment is a core concept of Buddhism, the spiritual path she’s followed for many years, and I wanted her thoughts on how that idea might help us adapt to unforeseen circumstances.

“Attachment doesn’t work because certainty doesn’t work. You can’t predict the future,” she explained. Being attached to something means “seeing the world through a false lens. Nothing is fixed.” For Ju and her clients, non-attachment doesn’t mean giving up on goals — it means focusing on what you can control.

“You might have a fixed goal of needing to raise X million dollars to keep your team afloat,” she said. “But in the age of coronavirus, investors might be slower to respond. So what are the levers in your control? What are the options you have and the pros and cons to each one?”

Her points hit home for me. As a NYC-based startup founder, I was preparing to make several trips to the West Coast to raise the next round for my company, Midgame, a digital party host for gamers.

I like pitching in person, but that’s obviously not going to happen, so I need to embrace video calls as my new reality. By doing that, I can get to stocking up on coffee, cleaning up my work space and setting up a microphone so when I do pitch over video, I’m bringing my A game.

Be present

Another way to think about adaptability is that it’s the ability to improvise. In theater, improv performers can’t rely on prewritten lines, and have to react in real time to suggestions from the audience or the words and actions of their scene partners.

“’Playing the scene you’re in’ is a principle from improv which means to be present to the situation you’re in.”

That’s what Mary Lemmer told me. As an entrepreneur and VC who spent a stint at The Second City improv theater in Chicago, Lemmer knows a thing or two about having to adapt. Today, she brings her insights to corporations through training and workshops.

She explained that as an improv performer, you may start a scene with a certain idea in mind of how it will go, but that can quickly change. “If you’re not present,” she said, “then you’re not actively listening and because there’s no script, you’ll miss details. That’s when scenes fall apart.”

When I was a PM at Etsy and we had a major launch, we’d get engineering, dev ops, product, marketing and customer support together in a room to talk through the final event sequencing. These weren’t always the most exciting meetings and it was easy to get distracted by email or chat. One time engineering announced a significant last-minute issue that almost slipped through the cracks. Luckily, someone piped up with a clarifying question and we were all able to work together to minimize the issue.

Lemmer argues that in improv, like in business, you can’t make assumptions about people or situations. “We see this a lot in board meetings. People start to assume ‘Sally’ will always be the proactive one or ‘Jim’ will always be the naysayer and tune out.”

This is kind of attitude is problematic in a stable environment, but downright dangerous in an unstable situation where new data and events can quickly open up a new set of challenges and opportunities.

Early on, some experts thought the coronavirus crisis would stabilize globally by April. In early February, S&P Global stated that in the “worst-case scenario,” the virus would be contained by late May. A month later, that prediction already looked wildly optimistic.

Build mental toughness

Experts are saying now that cases may peak in May or June, which means everyone should be hunkering down for eight or more weeks of social distancing and isolation. A COVID-19 vaccine just started human trials, but testing in large enough sample sizes to identify side effects and then ramping up large-scale production still might not be fully available for more than a year.

In other words, dealing with this virus is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. A marathon no one signed up for.

Someone who knows a lot about this topic is Jason Fitzgerald. A 2:39 marathoner, Fitzgerald now helps people run faster and healthier as an author and coach.

When we spoke over the phone, he pointed out that running, unlike say basketball or gymnastics, is a sport where “you have to voluntarily want to experience more and more discomfort.”

Fitzgerald calls this ability to endure “mental toughness,” and it’s a skill we all can build. For runners, it requires doing workouts that scare them, putting in mileage that’s higher than they have in the past and racing regularly. It’s also about accepting and even embracing the pain of running hard.

The same is true for adaptation. We can train ourselves to respond better to change (we’re all getting lots of practice right now!), but developing new habits and working in new ways is always uncomfortable. As decorated cyclist Greg LeMond once said, “it doesn’t get easier, you just get faster.”

We also have to recognize that we won’t get it right every time. “The more that we get comfortable with poor performances, the more we can learn from them,” Fitzgerald said, noting that he’s had his share of bad races, including failing to finish an ultramarathon in 2015. “Sometimes you dwell on a bad race for a couple days, but then you have to just forget about it and move on with your training.”

Many of us are reeling from more cancellations, suspensions and complete one-eighties in the last month than in the last five years. But we can’t let ourselves stay bogged down by our feelings of frustration or disappointment. We accept our new reality, learn what we can from it, and keep going.

It’s clear that the people who can let go of their past plans and embrace the new environment ahead will thrive. Already we’re seeing companies pivot from live events to online webinars, and remote-first workplaces becoming the new normal. Shares of Zoom  have risen even as the stock market has taken a beating and I’m sure other winners will emerge in the coming weeks and months.

But adaptability doesn’t just matter for individuals or even companies, it matters for governments. For China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, thanks to aggressive testing and quarantining efforts, life is returning, somewhat, to normal. New cases are on the decline and there’s hope of life returning to normalcy in the near future. Countries that bungled their response to the disease progression, including Italy, Spain, the U.K. and the United States, are now facing increasingly dire consequences.

Whether you want to survive a global pandemic, reach the next phase in your career or be selected on a mission to Mars, it’s hard to overstate the importance of adaptability in getting there.

The article was originally published on TechCrunch

What’s Going to Change

It’s April 4, 2020. I stopped going to the office on March 13, and according my Captain’s Log, we’re on Day 24 of this self-isolation. I don’t have any symptoms, but I’m assuming I have it and wear a mask whenever I go to grocery shopping (about 1x a week). This either is your reality now and or will be soon.

Coronavirus is the biggest global crisis we’ve had since at least WWII. Possibly ever. 

The natural question is “when are things going to get back to normal?”

The problem with this question is that it assume there is a “normal life” that we can all go back to. Even under non-pandemic circumstances, the future is always going to differ from the past in unexpected ways. Under these conditions, we can multiply that by 100x.

  1. Handshakes and hugs as greetings
  2. Elevator etiquette
  3. B2B sales tactics
  4. Concerts and tours
  5. Group fitness classes
  6. Public touchscreens
  7. Health surveillance
  8. Nightlife
  9. Support for universal basic income
  10. Video calls
  11. Masks as fashion pieces
  12. Cooking vs eating out
  13. The Asian diaspora
  14. Meeting other singles
  15. Virtual reality
  16. International travel
  17. Urban vs suburban demographics
  18. Homeschooling
  19. Hand lotion
  20. Live action films/TV

This by no means a complete list.

Everyone of these things are affected by or emerging from Coronavirus. At least 50% of those things will look totally different in in 2022 vs 2019.

Which ones? Hell if I know. You shouldn’t believe anyone who says they do.

What I do know is that our resourcefulness, resilience, and willingness to get uncomfortable, is going to see us through it.

This is a wild time to be alive. Like most of us, I am experiencing elevated levels of worry and existential dread. It’s normal. It’s ok.

Change is the only constant. And if human beings are good at anything, we’re good at adapting. That’s how we took over the planet, and if we get through this pandemic, it’s how we’ll find our way through to the new normal.

What’s going to change? The better question is, what isn’t?

Captain’s Log

A dictated journal for an unprecedented moment

I’ve journaled on and off in various formats throughout my life.

I kept a paper diary, shifted to a “4 lines a day” style daily journal, moved to Day One’s electronic journal, and also do a personal review and quarterly updates to friends. Plus I write a monthly update for my investors for my business.

I’m trying something new that I wanted to share — a digital journal powered by voice.

Think of it like a captain’s log. The original term (sometimes ship log or logbook) was used to document a ship’s position, wind speed & direction, and anything unusual that happens to the ship itself (cargo, crew).

They were often dry, CYA-esque narratives, though one major exception is the Captain Walther Schwieger, whose U-boat sank a steamboat and killed over one thousand passengers and crew. His detailed narrative of witnessing the carnage wrought by his torpedo is covered more in This American Life.

The term became popularized in Star Trek, where it was used as a way to deliver exposition on a situation or fast forward through a storyline.

It’s also can be used to deliver humor when the log entry does not match up with actual events and has become a bit of a trope.

The Need for a Captain’s Log

At the time of this writing, our planet is facing an unprecedented pandemic (COVID-19) that will have a lasting impact on the global economy, trade, migration, and public health for years to come.

It can be a bit overwhelming as new information comes in daily on the rate of infection, new policies or restrictions, and how the disease is affecting society. Plus all the microdecisions about whether it’s safe to do something or go somewhere.

Part of how I’m handling all this is by returning to journaling.

My plan is to carefully document the next 100 days, which I think will be a critical period for the US and the rest of the world. It also happens to be a crucial period for my company as well.

Point of View

The idea of a captain’s log appeals to me because captains are not just observers: they make decisions and take action. This pandemic is not one we can watch from our living rooms, it’s something we all have to deal with every day.

Keeping this journal is a reminder to be proactive about my sphere of influence. It’s also a way to hold myself accountable to the person I want to be in a crisis situation (which I believe we are moving into).

Voice Dictation

If you have a smartphone, you have a pretty good microphone and powerful software for turning your spoken words into text. Both Apple and Google have done a great job on this.

While saying “comma” and “period” can be a little awkward at first, you can get used to it pretty quickly and it’s easy to start adding notes as the day goes on.

This technique is particularly useful now that many of us are working from home. This kind of documentation might be disruptive or feel too personal to share in an office environment, but should feel easier to do at home.

I’m keeping mine in Evernote, but might switch over to Day One. There are tons of journaling options so if you want to try it, just figure what works for you. Just like the best camera is the one you have on you, the best journal is the one you use.


This idea is not original by any means.

In his seminal Harvard Business Review article Managing Oneself, Peter Drucker talks about how keeping a decision journal is a way to better understand yourself.

The only way to discover your strengths is through feedback analysis. Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the actual results with your expectations. I have been practicing this method for 15 to 20 years now, and every time I do it, I am surprised.

Peter Drucker (Managing Oneself)

Tony Stubblebine, of Better Humans and Coach.me, uses a similar method called interstitial journaling that helps him stay focused throughout the day.

Studied have found that even mundane moments that one documents are more valuable later on than we believe in the present. Which suggests that more interesting times would be even treasured.

So if you’re looking for a way to capture the insanity of this coming COVID-19 crisis, consider using voice dictation to capture your thoughts, decisions, and life changes as this historic moment progresses.

This is Captain Shen, signing off.