Catch 2020: Lessons of a Ruthlessly Instructive Year

Catch 2020: Lessons of a Ruthlessly Instructive Year

It’s the time when we start making plans for the coming year, but the hope and resolve so normally seen are missing.

I suppose it’s hard to look forward when you’re crouching behind a rock.

It’s like Edison said: there are no failures; we learn from every result. That’s how it was in 2020 – relentless from the start, and the smoke has yet to clear. Schooling has its limits, and I’ve had enough of lessons. All I want is to get on a plane, hit the beach, eat spicy crab. It’s too much to ask, as yet; the learning grinds on.

These terrible days are not the ‘new normal’ – they’re part of the eternal. Time keeps on ticking, life keeps on kicking; what matters is thinking, training the mind, toughening to take body blows, as if Ali had us on the ropes. Yep, that’s 2020 for you.

What should we think of our ongoing bruising? Let’s go back for perspective: Moscow 1996. Our cleaning lady – we all had them, stop judging; it got money into unemployed hands – thought I was nuts, a starry-eyed Yank. How could I think things could ever go well in Russia?

You’ve got it all wrong, said the optimist, all-American. Think positive, and there’s a chance; stew in negativity, and you’re cooked. How she laughed – that rasping Slavic chuckle – like the crows cavorting in the leaden sky. “We know what we know,” Tanya intoned. Yet as I came to see, she was hardly a negative Nancy.

Tanya and her husband were clever, flexible: five-year planners with brains. Sergey was working, but his employer wasn’t paying – bare coffers, they said. “He’s working for an idea,” Tanya would drawl, selling a stock Soviet joke, deadpan as a party functionary. So she sweated for hard dollars. Serge fixed up his car and moonlighted as a gypsy cab driver – a cash racket, so now he’s in business. Tanya did laundry for her customers. She bought three new washers, even a drier – luxury. More machines – more clients, and that’s more dollars under the mattress. Banks were for suckers, she warned; so were rubles. She and Sergey had seen it before. Should ‘a listened.

They fixed up their dacha – that’s a country cottage – bought chickens, a new roof. When, not if, things went sour, they could eat, have a hideout, wait it out. They took it with a mock pinch of salt: “It’s not like ‘Fritz’ is coming again – he’s already here,” and laugh a touch bitterly, ‘kha-kha’ in Russian, though their appliances were reliably German, I note.

Tanya was right: that ‘98 crash was a doozy. They got by. I was right, too: good times did come, though it took a decade for them to set in.

My exemplary Muscovites knew history and made ready. Russian-style thinking runs so: good times are soporific – don’t let them lull you. ‘Wildness’ is coming, yet it won’t stay forever. You need to outlast it, live for the brightness. And so life runs on; rinse and repeat. Our couple, comrades turned entrepreneurs, maybe missed a calling in ‘thought leadership’ – there’s a better buck in it than in bucket ‘n mop. I’m not sure they could do it with straight faces, though.

This year-beyond-doozy has taught skills we didn’t want and hated to learn, yet clearly we’re harder and sharper, ready for a century slated for the history books. It’s like Catch 2020, darn it to heck. But at least we have something to show for our trials.

So what do we do? Let’s attend a course at the Billy Martin Academy of Grand Strategy. Billy was a fine infielder for the super-duper NY Yankees of the 1950s. In the 1970s, he returned as manager, led them stop-start for a while. I can’t recall how often he was canned for drinking, brawling and insubordination of the object-throwing kind, but he was a winner – as unpleasant, if incontrovertible, a truth as a Bostonian ever gandered.

Martin’s strategy: informed paranoia. Deep in his shakes, he would imagine devilish opponents, stirring cauldrons thick with cunning stratagems to beat and humiliate him, drive him to drink deeper. This inner crazy inspired Billy to concoct endless ‘ruses de guerre’ that made the Yanks unpredictable, even inscrutable, to their foes. Did it ever work… the pain lingers.

Our lesson: in 2021, strategy will be king. Get on it: ruthlessly expose your vulnerabilities. If you were your own competitor, how would you exploit? Examine your strengths: are you finding those laurels comfortable? Martin famously never rested – baseball, booze, brawl; repeat and win.

Amat victoria coram, the Latin lovers say: victory loves preparation. There’s an excellent model to follow. If you’re interested, search “Directive to Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force” – that’s the order given to General, later President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, tasked with liberating occupied Europe in WW2. It is a masterpiece. All is included: allies and enemy, politics and logistics, firm guidance and leeway of command. Life and death, freedom or slavery were the bottom line: nothing could be missed or get left to chance. Ike’s order fits on one page, in eight numbered points; masterful brevity. You’ll profit by reading it, I’m sure.

Stand above the fray, question assumptions. Listen to the Fool. I’d heard about pandemics for years, thought, “ah, we’ll deal with that ‘if’ when it comes.” I might not have the makings of a Major League manager, but maybe you’ll make the cut.

Next up, the ‘social media revolution’ spawned by the pandemic. In this suddenly new era, opinionmakers counsel ‘all-in’: scintillating content, rapid-fire tweeting, emails and offers, courses and videos – fresh, fast, rolling thunder into their inboxes. I’m not so sure. People, and I’m a specialist here, like to be treated as humans. The more we’re condensed into big data, the more we resent it. Relentless marketing makes us sad, then mad, and those popups put me on the warpath.

Advisors, insurers and financial planners, immersed in algorithm and model, are in the people business, as the archaic pamphlets said. Freshen up your social media content, sure, but resolve to boost personal contacts. Technology facilitates relationship building that spans continents – you may never meet your best clients – or it can reduce us to ciphers. Working remotely is OK, but sometimes we miss company, the sharing of courtesies and ideas. Ruminate on your experiences, streamline that e-offering for practicality and smooth usage, but first and finally, have more time for human contact next year.

There’s a new factor for planning 2021. Last year was colossally stressful. This is a concession. My usual response to steam-blowing colleagues is: “You’re not stressed – you’re busy! Eat some chocolate and call a few clients!” This year, if not unprecedented historically, was heavily damaging to psyches, a phenomenon I know about and don’t normally share.

The 2009 financial crisis cost me: financially, personally, even health-wise. When the ground stopped quaking – I mean literally: an earthquake hit Portugal when I lived there – I needed a tune-up. No counselors for me: I demanded opinions, medication if necessary (I settled for self-hypnosis, a fine pharma-free stressbuster). I needed to take stock, talk with a cool-headed German, PhD, and I wanted it private – I’m not into ear-chewing friends. My insurance covered it, so luckily my cheapness was trumped.

I’m outing myself now because readers may need it, and I hope they aren’t wary about taking it up. “You’re not crazy – indeed, this is normal,” said Dr. Fritz – his real name – reviewing my discombobulation. “Normal?” I’ve been called a lot of things. What about you?

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