Our year of radical change

Rethinking work, life, and meaning in a digital age

Earlier this week, I attended a day-long conference on Zoom (yes, seriously, during a vacation, and on purpose). This was the virtual version of a physical event my wife and I have attended for seven years--a multi-day retreat that we often describe as an adult summer camp for nerdy extroverts. Quite by accident, I landed in a session called “Now is the time for radical change in my life.” I say “by accident” because I’m really not looking for radical change, but hey, I clicked the wrong Zoom link and by the time I’d realized this, it seemed impolite to leave. Zoom rooms don’t allow for a casual glance through the doorway to see who is gathering before you commit. 

The room was populated with about a dozen change-curious people, most of whom shared my position on change: not planning any, thank you. As folks introduced themselves, they began to share their 2020 stories: people had moved to new cities, left jobs, started new jobs. They’d dropped big projects, picked up new ones, weathered divorces, learned to teach reading. It wasn’t until we’d made it around the room that someone remarked on the fact that everything everyone had articulated WAS radical change. 

We may not like it and we may not choose it, but yes, now is the time for radical change in our lives.

Reflecting on this, I began to catalogue the changes in my own life this year. The most obvious of these were immediate, external and initially uncomfortable. With two days’ preparations, my family moved to Mississippi for three months. I learned to stop, drop and work no matter where I was. (I have recorded Hello Monday this year from my bedroom closet, the Brooklyn basement, my in-law’s den, Jude’s nursery, and my dining room table.) The specter of illness and of loss became a daily fear and reality. We went in with two families, one of which we hardly knew, to create a communal childcare/office set-up. We began splitting our time more deliberately between Tupelo and Brooklyn, enabled by our new work—my office won’t return to in-person gathering until July 2021 and Frances has been laid off. And then in November, our dog died. 

Every single one of these changes would have seemed inconceivable just one year ago. What’s more, the idea of change was something that I felt I enabled, for the most part. This is the definition of privilege—to feel safe enough against the backdrop of the uncertainties of the world that you believe you are mostly in control of the things that happen to you in the future. 2020 destroyed this myth for me, and I’m the better for it.

I learned that I need three weeks to integrate almost any large change: one week to rail against it, one week to experiment with new routines to start to make it manageable, and one week to practice those routines. 

I learned, too, that this barrage of external changes has served as a catalyst for an internal change that can no longer go unacknowledged. I suspect some version of this is true for many people, and that this is the radical element in “radical change.” Sure, you can live in a different place or work in a different way and it will be uncomfortable, but you will figure it out. There is now a question you must now answer: who are you now as a result of this?

For most of my professional life, I’ve been a tech writer. I’ve loved this—it’s not an exaggeration to say that it is in line with my true purpose. But the stillness and isolation of this year deepened my creative well and removed the artificial barriers that kept me from pursuing deeper ambitions. With my podcast and with my writing, I stopped following external agendas of any sort and began leaning into my natural curiosities. As for Hello Monday, it has become more personal. It’s a show about the future of work, and 2020 has been one long exercise in creating that future IRT. So the show has blossomed into a community of listeners and guests-turned-listeners who are all leaning into this future together, with a shared understanding that the relationships we build in this process (with others and with ourselves) will matter more than the courses we take or the jobs we land. 

And in my writing, I’ve stopped worrying about whether I’m good enough (a legit worry that I’ve held since I learned to write my name), and started focusing on whether I’m expressing my most important thoughts. Earlier this year, I sold a memoir.  Entitled A Family Outing, it will look deeply at the notion of “coming out”—something that all five members of my nuclear family have done in multiple powerful ways—as a path to knowing ourselves and connecting with others. It was Liz Gilbert who told me in a very early Hello Monday episode that writers simply need to devote the best hour of every day to the work and it will get done.  Each morning I rise an hour before Jude and Frances, pour a cup of coffee, and write.

The year we have just completed was all kinds of hard. The year ahead is all kinds of unknown. At least where we are now, in Tupelo, COVID feels like it’s always one chance encounter away. But in the process of weathering the hard and letting go of the old, it’s my hope for everyone who reads this letter that a deeper sense of knowing is beginning to emerge—that you care less about the things that don’t matter, that you understand and have compassion for yourself against the backdrop of a world in flux, and that you step more fully into yourself in 2021.

🎙Things I’ve made: We’ve published a lot of Hello Monday episodes since I last wrote. Check out the archives. I’ll highlight three stand-out episodes: 

  • When Facebook’s Deb Liu began a career in product management in the late 1990s, the field was diverse—equally male and female. By 2008 or so, the women had disappeared. She set out to figure out why, and discovered the profound, accidental impact of one company.

Listen here.

  • Tristan Walker left Silicon Valley and the startup life to raise his kids—and build his company—in Atlanta. In the process, he broadened his perspective on what it means to have a meaningful life. Especially if you’ve followed his career for years, this is a rich episode. Listen here.

Listen here.

  • This year, so many of us dealt with burnout for months on end—and for many of us, the holidays aren’t proving enough of a reprieve to mitigate it. Twin sisters Amelia and Emily Nagoski wrote a book on burnout, and this episode sheds light on why burnout manifests differently in men and women and how to address it. Listen here.

Listen here.

  • Also, our COVID series is an energizing listen. In March, I interviewed four listeners—in China, Italy, North Dakota and California—about the impact of COVID on their lives. In December, Michaela Greer called everyone back for an update. This pair of episodes bookends the year and fills me up.

    COVID part one

    COVID part two

📚Things I’m reading: I continue to double down on books this year, and have finished Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a book written for our time. Read it! Of the half-dozen memoirs I’ve read this month, I’d point you toThe Yellow Houseby Sarah Broom. Sarah’s book won last year’s National Book Award for Nonfiction. The book is bigger than anything I could use to describe it, so trust me and read it.

Additionally, I’ve read so many thoughtful stories recently:

Li Jin on building a path to a creator middle class

Alexandra Tanner opted into a Mormon moms’ Instagram community for 2020, and learned a lot about the way misinformation works.

Zhang Wanqing on the AI girlfriend seducing China’s lonely men

The New Yorker’s Cal Newport reports on the rise and fall of getting things done.

Jesmyn Ward on loss after loss.

How two British orthodontists became celebrities to incels, by William Brennen

Ed Yong on how the pandemic will end, a story published in The Atlantic last March. (“It’s likely, then, that the new coronavirus will be a lingering part of American life for at least a year, if not much longer.”)

***So maybe you’re asking, what’s this about again? You're my brain trust. I don't write for thousands. I write to exchange ideas with the small group of people I've met and who matter to me, in hopes that together we can figure out something more about where humanity is going and how it gets there. This is a team sport.