March (to October) Madness

By Sumeet Goel

Remember March? Mid-March, to be more specific?

I remember it was the second week of March and I was fired up for what the folks at HPA refer to as “the only four days of the year when you can’t call Sumeet” – namely the first four days of March Madness, which were set to tip off the following week. An annual ritual for me – fly into Vegas on Wednesday night, park in the sportsbook at 9am Thursday morning, watch 16 basketball games in one day. Get up again on Friday morning and do it all again. And then 8 more on Saturday and 8 more on Sunday. 48 games in 96 hours.

Except this year, it didn’t happen.

I flew to Chicago for work meetings on Monday the 9th. I flew back on Wednesday the 11th. And on Thursday the 12th I called the office together and told everyone to go home. Something just wasn’t right. When I flew out on the 9th, LAX was 60% full, but operating at 10% of the normal decibel level. And when I flew back on the 11th on a pretty full Southwest flight, you could hear a pin drop. A pin drop. That doesn’t happen. Not on Southwest!

Over the next several days, March Madness getting cancelled became the least of mine (and everyone else’s) concerns.

Across the country, and eventually across the world, we went into shutdown mode. If you recall, it wasn’t a seamless work from home & distance learning transition. First it was shock, and then figuring out how to connect with folks, and then toilet paper shortages, cursing at distance learning, trying to figure out Google Classroom, Zoom becoming a verb, etc.

And in those early days there were memes. Lots of memes (Lots of memes). And jokes about home schooling, observations about teachers really needing to get paid more, home cooking fails, insta shots of homemade bread, wine o’clock, home haircuts (or lack thereof), and all the pets.

The disaster of a haircut administered by my children in early May

You know what we don’t see these days? Any of those jokes or memes or things that make us chuckle about the state we’re in.

And for good reason. This sh*t is real. And it’s here to stay. It ain’t going away simply because our calendar turns from 2020 to 2021. And probably not when it turns to 2022.

We have to realize that this is a new normal.

Personally, I think we do realize it individually, but I also think we are also internalizing it in a way that’s extremely unhealthy.

One of my good friends made the observation a few months ago that whenever he stops to consider what day it is, he simply tells himself that it’s “Blursday”… and ya know what, he’s right. All of this has blended together into what is now eight months and counting. And no amount of mental health days, or meditation, or Zoom happy hours are going to provide a magical fix.

You still will be making lunch or doing the dishes while on a work call. You will be walking the dog and picking up poop while negotiating a deal. Your son is still going to walk into your video call without his shirt on with an urgent (urgent!) issue that ends up being that the PS4 isn’t booting. And said son will also at different times ask you to move to another room because you’re being too loud and when you reply that you’re on a Zoom call, he’s say, “So am I!”

(Ed. Note: these may or may not be hypotheticals)

The point is, this is our new normal. And it’s incredibly *ab*normal for all of us. And we’ve been expected to make a dramatic shift to this new normal almost overnight.

As a pandemic continues.

With wildfires raging across the West.

Heat waves throughout the country.

Hurricane season landing in the Southeast.

Record unemployment.

Social unrest.

RBG.

Political discord unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetimes.

All of this and we’re supposed to be in our homes, home schooling children, running our businesses, worrying about our elderly parents that we can’t see… it’s crazy.

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The reason for all the rambling context above is that I’ve noticed these impacts on my friends and colleagues around me, and it hasn’t been pretty. We are all operating on short fuses. We don’t have patience with our families, with our friends, with our co-workers. And to a certain degree, that’s understandable. But because we are ALL dealing with it, the domino effects are significant and exponential.

I’m sure you’ve seen it with those around you. But what about yourself?

I have a sticky on my computer monitor that I put up there a month ago as I was feeling more aware of these things in my life. It has three bullets on it:

  • Be Aware
  • Forgive Others
  • Fill the Gaps

What do those mean? To me, they mean:

  • Be Aware – Hey Sumeet, be conscious of the pressures you have and how you’re projecting those – you are juggling running a business out of the home office, a business that has historically relied on in-person connections to grow, with your kids doing home schooling right near you, with an elderly mom you haven’t seen in 6 months, and about a dozen other strains. Ya know what? That’s a lot. And because of those strains, you are more difficult to deal with at work, in relationships, in public, with your friends – heck, I was getting worked up because the door to the local pizza joint was locked until I realized that it was 11:30 and they don’t open until noon and what was I doing trying to get a pizza in the morning, but wait that’s fine because it’s whatever o’clock on a Blursday. Short answer is – we’re all dealing with a lot and that makes it harder for everyone to deal with us. Realize that. Be aware of it. And do what you can to make life easier for those around you. And when you screw up and have your “pizza moment” and realize it immediately afterwards, apologize.
  • Forgive Others – Now flip the Be Aware lens around. Realize that everyone else has their own dozens of strains they’re dealing with. So when they’re rude to you, jump down your throat, or just say something stupid….let it go. We’re in such a state right now that jumping back in to try and “fix” things will only escalate and make it worse. You know that home schooling issue you have? Well the person next to you will see your two home schooled kids and raise you a toddler who can’t go to day care. And the next person will call that bet and raise you a furlough.
  • Fill the Gaps – Finally, realize that because of the two things above, there are a lot of gaps to be filled. I’ve shared this with my colleagues at work – these gaps are created because of two main reasons: (1) (lack of) human interaction: We don’t see each other in person, we’re not problem solving in person, there aren’t the workplace conversations that lead from A to B to C (sorry, Zoom just doesn’t replace that). The real time back & forth, the working side by side on things, the communication that comes from body language in person, all of it. This all creates gaps in expectation and performance; and (2) fatigue: We’re just mentally & emotionally exhausted. I see it in myself and others. None of us are our best selves right now – none of us. If anyone tells you they’re operating just as effectively now as they were in March, they’re either lying or delusional – or both….. So fill the gaps. Do more. Don’t expect others to do what they did before. Lean in. Take on more at work, at home, wherever. It’s not easy, but you must. And this is not just about managers & executives – this applies to everyone. Everyone has personal & professional colleagues, family and friends, co-workers and subordinates and managers. Everyone needs to fill the gaps.

* * *

In NCAA basketball tourney parlance, after 6 months we’ve now reached the mid-point of the 1st half of this thing we’re in. During those March Madness games, at that quarter point is when the coaches make their in-game adjustments. The plan they had when the game started often goes out the window. They’ve seen what the opposition has to offer, they see their own weaknesses, and where they need to focus their attention and energy.

College basketball is also famously a game of runs. One team has a strong run and eventually the momentum swings back the other way and the other team does.

I think the other team (call them the Crystal Lake or Castle Rock COVIDs – take your pick of horror location) has had a pretty strong run at us these past 6 months. But now it’s time for us to make those hard in-game adjustments. If not, we run the risk of getting run out of the gym, as it were. The goal is to get to the end, cut down the nets and hear “One Shining Moment.” Can we do it together? I certainly believe we can.

And finally, some food for thought from legendary hoops guru, teacher, coach, and leader John Wooden, “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

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Sumeet Goel is the Founder of HighPoint Associates, an innovative management consulting firm that delivers results through true partnership with clients. We advise leaders who are open to change and ready to engage at deeper levels in order to transform their organizations.