The Great Reset
No one asked for a pandemic. But the forced pause in human activity has turned out to be an answer for many, giving them what they rarely get—time for reflection. Some grabbed the chance to transform their lives.
By Hara Estroff Marano published November 2, 2021 - last reviewed on November 12, 2021
The pandemic? There have been more than 7 billion pandemics since COVID emerged. Every person on Earth has had to invent a particular way to cope with the invisible danger, to develop and deploy a private emotional calculus in order to feel safe. Survival, of course, is the most basic command of life, and, for most, survival itself has been an accomplishment, given the massive upheavals in work, socializing, physical activity, and public life, to say nothing of the pervasive uncertainty generated.
For an uncounted few, COVID has actually conferred a sense of safety, that elusive psychological state that allows almost every other human activity. Vukashin Milenkovic, a recovery services expert in Albany, New York, has long suffered from bipolar disorder and OCD. But when fear of germs and public spaces became adaptive for everyone, Milenkovic “felt as if the poles had flipped. I began to feel comfortable in my skin.” That gave him the confidence to do things he'd only dreamed of—start a business, write a book, encourage his wife and daughters to pursue their interests.
The pandemic disruption had that effect. Those accorded the luxury of a time-out could reconsider their dreams. Some summoned the courage to intentionally “flip the poles” of their life. Here are the stories of four who did—wait, make that 11.
A Shock To the Art
David Paul was in Raleigh, four days into rehearsals of Mozart’s Magic Flute for the North Carolina Opera company, when COVID-19 restrictions dispersed the young director and his cast. “Suddenly, we were all flying home. It was a big shock after three years of planning,” Paul recalls. Returning to New York, where he was on the faculty of the renowned Juilliard School and the Metropolitan Opera, “I was jolted into thinking about how essential what I was doing is if it can be closed down so quickly. There is a lot to be said for why art is important. But people were much more upset about other things than not being able to go to the opera.”
Despite Paul’s success directing productions around the country and around the world and developing young artists at the Met and at Juilliard, dissatisfactions had nibbled at him. “I went into the arts not just because I love them but also because I feel them as a way to make people’s lives better.” He was frustrated with the failure of opera companies to reach beyond their core audience and expand interest in the art form.
At the same time, he was paying attention to the national stage. “I was struck by how hard it had become to discern the truth in public conversation and hold people accountable. The thing that kept us on track was the law. Much as people use the law for destructive means, there were others who had a higher fidelity to principles of justice and fairness and honesty. I found that inspiring.”
What followed were many conversations with himself and others. “Am I, at 38, too old? Is it crazy to throw away a successful career and an exciting teaching position?” The answer that emerged: Let me try. The more he explored the process of application to law school, the more “I got excited about all the possibilities I can have even at my age—maybe even especially with my background. I deal with a lot of difficult and passionate people”—they’re not called divas for nothing—“and I see that as a helpful skill as a lawyer.”
If he hadn’t gotten into a top school, he might have reconsidered the whole restart idea. “I know I will have a shorter runway, and I want to be able to start out really doing something,” he says. Not , however, in the arts. “I’m very interested in working in government, whether as a prosecutor or regulator, in a setting that doesn’t require a lot of glamour or personal acclaim—the opposite of what I’ve had so far. People don’t really know who’s doing government work, but it has the power to make lives better immediately.”
Paul acknowledges some sadness about leaving the arts: “I’m losing my community, and I know that in order to succeed in my new field, I really need to go all in.” Because of a brief reprieve from the pandemic last summer, Paul was able to wrap his theatrical career on a high note, conceiving and directing a film for the San Francisco Opera about what it takes to mount a production. “The last day in San Francisco was very emotional. Responses have been interesting. Some people are incredibly excited for me. I’m finding a fair amount of envy in male friends my age; they’re in good jobs, but they haven’t quite broken through to where they want to be. They wish they, too, could do it all over again.”
The idea of moving—his wife, a pianist, will remain mostly in New York, completing training as a music therapist—does not faze him. In a way, he’s long been rehearsing for it. “ I feel that every two months I've woken up in a new place and had to settle in. It doesn’t feel strange at all.”
A Glimpse Of The Essential
By Wendy Lustbader, M.S.W.
The global slowing of much human activity—what some have termed "the anthropause"—in which time itself seemed to unfurl differently as people adapted to being halted and confined, disrupted our customary ways of doing and living. There are advantages to having been disrupted. Old patterns have been broken. Reassembling them may not make sense anymore. What had been done previously out of habit or obligation rather than enthusiasm may stand revealed.
Our very identities are complex, formed from many sources. What held us together when so much was taken away? What affirmed our identity when external sources of confidence vanished? Who did we become when we were left to our own devices?
Recognizing what is essential is one of the chief gifts of deprivation. What we have ached for is a keen measure of value. When getting together became arduous, we recognized that some people are worth making the effort for. Pre-pandemic, our priorities and preferences were jumbled in the mix of competing demands and time pressures. In clearing out the superfluous, the slowdown eventually left us face-to-face with the fundamentals.
Do we slide back into customary roles—becoming numb again to the compromises that accompanied them—or do we dare follow the implications of a new perspective? Picking up where we left off can seem like a victory over the COVID upheaval, a return to a place of security or simply a prudent way forward. Only when we thoroughly tally up what mattered and what didn’t in our confinement can we resist the call of the familiar.
This is not the same as making a new year’s resolution, a mental construct that falls apart as soon as it becomes awkward. Post-COVID resolve arises from having actually departed from entrenched routines. The change is visceral rather than theoretical. The challenge is to hold onto this glimpse of what is essential about who we are and what our best life might look like. Then we can make the most of having been brought to a halt.
No One Around To Say No
It started with sweet potatoes and carrots because the shipping lines were possibly shutting down and she needed a steady supply of food. So, early in the pandemic, she taught herself to garden. Soon she ordered a small hydroponics system for the living room of the house she shares with her hanai mother—a term denoting Hawaii’s tradition of informal adoption. Before long she had turned the place into “an edible jungle” and, certain that anyone could do the same, wrote a book explaining how, with photographs. In the isolation of the pandemic, she got it out in three months. Then the book possibilities just kept…growing. Meet Ja-ne (pronounced Ja-knee´) de Abreu, self-described sassy farmer and Hawaii’s newest publisher, with a roster of books that rivals those of the big players.
Born in New Orleans to Brazilian parents, de Abreu moved to Honolulu in 1998 and soon became good friends with, and eventually caretaker of, Moana Tregaskis, now 94, widow of war correspondent Richard Tregaskis, who is best known for the World War II classic Guadalcanal Diary. Pre-pandemic, de Abreu says, she was a burnt-out caregiver. “I’m still a burnt-out caregiver, because it just doesn’t end. But now I’m able to create the energy I need to keep myself going.” Having little contact with others, she explains, allows her “to pay attention to my own thoughts. As I act on my intuitions and have positive results, it becomes easier and quicker to make decisions. Since there is no one to put doubts in my head, I believe I can achieve anything.”
Her first book, Sassy Food: How to Grow and Cook Food with Your Own Farm, Any Size, Anywhere, Any Time of Year, with Any Budget, happened almost by accident. She and a friend, keeping each other going during the pandemic, wanted to create a calendar, with images of themselves playfully hiding behind the produce they were each growing—until they discovered there was nothing whimsical about the cost to print it. Still, she wanted people to have fun growing their own food. “It’s not as if I’m doing something that you can’t do. Even though we don’t really know what we’re doing, we’re doing it and it’s working and we’re eating from the garden every day.” She wrote the book herself in three weeks, designed it and took all the photographs, then published it herself because she felt it had urgency and any standard publisher would have taken at least a year.
When she mentioned her little publishing triumph to her sister, Sandra, a physician in Colorado, the sister immediately proffered another idea. Her husband, Grover Nicodemus Street, was living a real-life thriller as a critical-care nurse jumping from one COVID hotspot to the next acoss the U.S. “He had the story, she had the medical details, and I had the know-how to construct it into a book,” says de Abreu. Four months later, with Street recounting his experiences to his wife, who then fleshed out the stories to her sister, Chasing the Surge was published under the JMFdeA imprint. “When you don’t have people blocking your energy,” says de Abreu, “you can get things done at an extraordinary rate.”
There are now 10 more books in the pipeline—11 counting de Abreu’s own novel, finished in 2018. Like everything else in her life right now, the 10 are homegrown—books by Richard Tregaskis that have gone out of print. She’s bringing them back to life as a series with added stories and letters from Moana, who was his assistant; with military commentary she has solicited; and with an afterword by historian Ray Boomhower, the author of a new Tregaskis biography, which, with true publisher savvy, de Abreu expects will renew interest in the entire oeuvre. She is, in a way, putting herself right up there with mega-publisher Random House, which still has the rights to Guadalcanal Diary.
When de Abreu has her doubts, “I just go look at what I’m creating. By the time the pandemic ends, I’m going to be a different person. I’m already a different person.”
By George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D.
For most people, a life reset is the stuff of dreams. But the pandemic has given some a unique opportunity for a second chance.
Often hidden within the angst of adversity resides the possibility of reshaping your life. Great growth arises from great hardship. In developing the field of psychological crisis intervention, I have observed disaster and suffering around the world for the last four decades. I am struck by a constellation of factors that transform people from victims of calamity to survivors, then ultimately to masters of adversity. They develop an increased appreciation for life, attempt things they never thought they could do, and form more meaningful connections with others.
If it’s possible to spring forward from adversity, why don’t more people do so? Most are resistant to change. Family therapist Virginia Satir perhaps said it best when she noted that people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty. It takes bravery to change, courage to take a chance. Further, exposure to misfortune actually increases the negativity bias we all have, making adversity even harder to overcome. Harder—but not impossible.
From what survivors have told me, I see five steps to transformation: attitude, observation, action, habit, and trait. Attitude is the launch pad for transformative change. Masters of adversity believe that they are part of something greater than themselves—spirituality, religion, or simply a belief that there is a grand plan in which failure and suffering have no role.
They also believe deeply in the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy—that the likelihood of an outcome is increased by believing in its possibility and taking actions toward it. They believe they are destined for something better and harness that belief by attempting to change the things over which they have control—primarily their own attitudes and actions—and ignoring those they don’t. Distinguishing the one from the other is key. When confronted with failure, they reframe the experience as a stepping-stone to success.
Through observation, they acquire vicarious role models. They may actually approach others and ask for mentorship. They study people living the life they want. If someone else can spring forward from adversity, so too can they. Sadly, many people look with envy at those who are successful; they fail to see them as potential role models. It takes strength to view others as teachers, not competitors.
They understand the power of a collaborator. Mary Pickford was the most famous film star of the 1910s and 1920s—until the advent of the “talkies.” When work dried up, she formed a coalition with other stars, cofounded the film company United Artists, and became the most powerful woman in the entertainment industry for 40 more years. “You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing that we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down but the staying down,” she once noted.
Masters of adversity understand that lasting change is a marathon, not a sprint. In order to overcome inertia, which resists change, they start small. They change one simple thing about their daily lives. It gives them a taste of success. Success begets success.
No one is stuck with the brain they have at this moment. Neuroplasticity allows us to retrain our brain through repetition. Repetitive practice converts an action into a habit—given about 12 weeks of consistent practice. The key is making the new action part of a daily schedule. Research indicates that through concerted effort, the positive reappraisal of negative events can activate brain regions associated with positivity, not negativity. Repetition then can make optimism a habit. Once positivity or any other action becomes a habit, continued repetition can convert it into a trait, a part of you.
This is it, the chance you’ve been waiting for! The choice is yours. But I believe we have a moral obligation to shape the future—not only for ourselves but for all those who depend upon us.
A Change Of Course
If there’s a better way of learning and practicing math than by figuring out exchange rates, it hasn’t been invented. That was a calculation Debra and Kip Stolberg made when, not long into the pandemic, they traded life in Los Angeles for traveling the world with their kids, all six of them: Kaden (15), Zoe (13), Alejandro (12), and the triplets Finley, Paxton, and Ellery (8). They call themselves the EmigrEight, and there’s something about the family that suggests a call to the casting director of the next Wes Anderson film would not be out of place. In the freedom that has turned the entire world into their schoolroom, the kids are elaborating distinctive personalities and talents: Kaden, an introvert with the best Spanish language skills among them, is blossoming as a frequent family translator on their travels through Central America. Alejandro, generally known as AJ, has become the family zoologist, displaying a flair for spotting and identifying the wildlife around them. Yet they constantly collaborate on ways to entertain themselves. At Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, Debra reports, “the kids had a competition to make a raft that could carry them on the lake. It was great to see them create and execute a design using whatever was at hand.”
Debra and Kip, both in their fifties, had “always dreamed of traveling and having our children see the world. We wanted them to be able to understand how we are all connected to one another.” Then the pandemic hit. “Our business was running a preschool, so that essentially ended. The children weren’t in school [physically] and weren’t able to do their typical after-school activities, so they were more excited about the idea than they might have been at another time. Trying to handle virtual pandemic schooling for six children was nearly impossible.” It was the perfect time to change course.
Once they made the decision, it took “four months of planning and purging and more purging” to sell their house and ready themselves for the road. They headed first to Merida, in the Yucatán. Their long-dreamed-of plan of enrolling the kids in local schools was precluded by the pandemic, and keeping them tethered virtually to their L.A. schools was unworkable, given iffy internet connectivity and the time difference.
Debra the teacher stepped in, setting up schedules to make sure the children are on track with the curriculum for their grade. In the spirit of worldschooling, the Stolbergs add in special projects related to their itinerary. The kids learned about the asteroid that ended the dinosaurs and created the Chicxulub crater when they were actually living in Chicxulub, Mexico. They study the history of each location, visit historical sites and museums, learn about food and local customs. Mayan culture, thermal vents, volcanic geology—all are first-hand experiences. In Guatemala, they learned about endangered sea turtles and helped release baby ones into the ocean. They learned how to make pupusas with a girl from El Salvador, went to the store on their own to buy all the ingredients (cue the exchange-rate math), and cooked an entire dinner for the family. The Stolbergs are ecstatic that their kids “have more freedom to explore and be independent in a way we didn’t feel they could in the U.S.”
For all the learning experiences, the memories the kids are accruing center around the people they meet. “Just hanging out with friends at the beach made more of an impact than an expensive ziplining tour,” the Stolbergs report. “Our son suddenly is playing guitar every day because a friend we made in Nicaragua liked to play and taught him some songs. Being able to meet and make connections with people from all over the world has been their favorite part of this adventure.”
Renewal By Subtraction
By Carin Eriksson Lindvall, Ph.D.
It is an indelible fact of human life that we prefer to add rather than subtract. Change isn’t easy. Human instinct is to solve problems by adding to what already exists, making things more complicated. In our personal lives, work lives, and organizations, we introduce new routines and policies on top of existing ones, until we are bound in a web of complexity.
Inertia inclines us to continue doing things we’ve done before; so does having invested money, time, or effort in them. On top of that, we squeeze in meetings and other commitments even though we have neither the time nor the desire to do them. What is true of individuals is true of organizations. As organizational research shows, upper-level managers, on assuming a new role, introduce programs of change by adding solutions, routines, and policies to the formal organizational structure. A proposal to eliminate a practice or task could even have negative consequences if it is seen as not creative, positive, forthcoming, or appreciative of co-workers. We may also believe that existing routines are there for a reason.
By definition, routines are solutions to yesterday’s problems, and they are freeing. They relieve us of having to think through every step we take. The brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic procedure, and the more internalized it is, the less brain power is needed. We rely on good regimens so that we can use our brains for better or more demanding things. And therein lies the problem. When we are doing them, we leave our routines unquestioned.
Once the pandemic hit, however, many existing practices had little relevence to new problems. Commuting did not stop viral spread. People were forced to subtract old procedures, meetings, and all kinds of social events from their calendars and to-do lists. After the shock of disruption, many found it rewarding to have done so.
People discovered not only that change by subtraction was possible but that deletion and simplification can make life more fulfilling. Subtraction leaves room for renewal. It’s also in keeping with much ancient wisdom. Aristotle’s observation that we become what we repeatedly do advises us to be selective about the habits and routines we adopt. The Stoics found virtue in simplification.
We now have an unprecedented opportunity to choose how to resume our lives. The world is too complex to be navigated just with routines, but without them we become lost and inefficient. We need to return only to the ones that match current problems and make life more rewarding.
Janice Lintz had battled cancer, flood damage to her home, and a litigious ex-husband before she began living her own dream—and pretty much everybody else’s—of visiting every country in the world. Better yet, she was getting paid to do it, chronicling her travels for Forbes, the Huffington Post, and others. And while travel writing isn’t the highest-paying gig in the world, Lintz had so mastered the art of travel deals through points, mileage, and card bonuses that she had earned a spot in the Points Guy’s hall of fame. In late winter 2020, she was island hopping through the Pacific, planning her moves as she went, when options suddenly dried up. “I felt the pandemic at my back,” Lintz recalls. Denied boarding on a flight to Calcutta because of a sudden embargo on passengers who had been to Japan—Lintz had spent a day touring Nagoya castle—she quickly engineered a trip home through Singapore and Germany, medically sophisticated countries, just in case. She arrived in New York March 13, as it was shutting down.
In the sustained stillness that followed, Lintz took to organizing and evaluating her possessions. “I like taking snapshots for my own memories,” she says, “but not composing photos that are worthy of publication or micromanaging my photos.” Writing about her travels, she came to see, was sucking the pleasure out of them—turning her into an observer of, not a participant in, the joy of discovery. The practiced traveler was losing enthusiasm for the organizing principle of her life. As it ran its course, the pandemic revealed a new one.
For more than two decades, Lintz had crusaded for access for the deaf to mainstream institutions. Her daughter was born with a profound hearing impairment, and when Lintz was advised to send her to specialized schools, she chose instead to change the world, advocating for the installation of audio induction loops, which enhance sound for hearing-aid users, wherever she discovered they weren't available—one transportation system, one museum, one national park at a time. It took great patience to push locations to change, but Lintz had kept at it even while traveling,
In a stroke of timing that casts doubt on coincidence, Lintz learned, in a far-flung conversation group that materialized online during the pandemic, that a bank account she had opened came with a bonus even she didn’t know about—executive coaching. Not one to say no to an offer, Lintz found herself answering tough questions, recalibrating her interests, and seeing her advocacy skills in a new light. “Though self-taught, I was effective. I had the ability to get things done,” she realized. “I felt I deserved to be paid for all I’d accomplished, but it had been hard to distill my advocacy work into a job description.” Besides, there were big gaps in her skill set.
Just around that time, her daughter, now grown and working in London, announced that she was gearing up for graduate school, aiming for Yale. “Why don’t you apply to Harvard?” Lintz asked one time too many. “If you like it
so much, why don’t you apply,” her daughter countered dismissively.
Really, it was just a joke. But it sure would punch up her skills. And, hey, hadn’t a 77-year-old guy just won a major election and, at 78, would start the job he'd always wanted—president of the United States? “Suddenly you realize a career doesn’t end at 58. It just begins.” She discovered that Harvard's Kennedy School offered a midcareer master’s in public administration, no GREs needed. By the time she finished getting information about it, all that was left were a few essays to write.
It never dawned on her that she’d actually get in. Immediately she “saw a difference in the way people take me. They know I’m committed,” no longer just a mom on a mission. And so, at 58, Lintz has inscribed every memento and document of her life, including her divorce, on a portable hard drive, stored some possessions, and with no fixed place to call home, is heading to Cambridge, Massachusetts, certain only that she will get some marketable skills and, likely, some options. “I can’t wait,” she says, “to find out what the ending is.”
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