It’s Okay To Talk About How Terrible 2021 Was -Now We Need to figure out what to do next

Remember when we all gathered in masses to see bands play live?

We’ve all met these types of people before. The random stranger who walks by you after leaving screams, “that band was awesome!” Yeah, dude. We were in there with you just now. You don’t need to tell us something we all just witnessed. We get it.

That’s what the past two weeks have been like for me reading year-end posts from everyone. No shit, it was bad. It was worse than its predecessor. The interesting part has been to read why for each of us, including:

  • Were you planning on things being back to where they were last year?
  • Perhaps you had different expectations for a vaccinated world. T
  • he politicization of everything related to COVID couldn’t have been great no matter what side of the aisle you sit.
  • Many got just enough of a taste of the old world before Delta came busting onto the scene.
  • …you get the picture.

When I rang in the new year with my family in 2021, there was this sense of, “I survived this damn thing!” There was word a few different vaccines were about to be readily available. Different rules for those who got vaccinated were leaking from HR offices. Kids were going to have the option of going back to class in person (the last of our 3 went back in February or March if I’m not mistaken).

My wife, who married me thankfully days before the COVID panic began, asked if we could finally go on a honeymoon once we both got the jab. Can you imagine a different time in history where people had to delay weddings and honeymoons due to being afraid their guests might not make it home healthy? We had also bought our dream home before Thanksgiving 2020, so I was excited to get the home ready for our first pool season (which lasts for most of the year in Texas).

By the way, all that came true. Cancun in May. We didn’t have a full pool a lot of the time, but we did the hell out of our first summer having one. My grill still bears the marks of some amazing times eating out on the deck.

If all that happened, why was it such a shit year?

Two words sum it up: professional atrophy.

I made the decision to move firms at the beginning of 2021. After teaching classes and facilitating all the remote planning sessions virtually, I reached the point where I needed a break from doing all that. Started calling myself a “reformed agile coach.” Told myself I couldn’t do another year like 2020 and happily took a role focused on selling, leadership, and mentorship with a firm I’m still with.

Turns out it wasn’t the work I was tired of. I was just tired of working from home and it took me leaving a decent gig to learn that. I used to dream of WFH days, just like I used to enjoy movie theaters.

The more I spoke to former and current colleagues, we were all feeling that way about our work. The trauma of not being in person with clients was pretty strong if that’s what you made your bread with. The more client time you were used to being in the room with someone, the worse it felt to be on whatever tool you were forced to use. I became more concerned with my lighting and mic situation rather than the material resonating with the audience.

I became this character I had often made fun of in previous professional webinars. With every session, I got better and better at this character who I felt was less and less of who I really was.

The magic of who I used to be in the room faded with every virtual ice breaker game. With every slide of guidance on virtual facilitation, I felt less and less of who I was. If you listened to any of the podcasts I hosted for Agile Uprising, the phrase I kept using to describe how I was with two simple words: professional atrophy.

As a professional whatever-I-tell-people-I-do-for-work, I ended 2021 thinking I was worse at it than I was in March 2020.

Then I was stripped from connection to my community.

The last Meetup I attended was in late 2019. The same could be said for the last conference I attended. I haven’t traveled professionally since a week after my wedding. Like many of you, I haven’t shaken the hand of coworkers. I’ve never even met my boss other than the few Zoom meetings we’ve had. Most of the time when I chat with him it’s over the phone because we are tired of sitting still with my face lit with a ring light.

The agile community I’m thankfully a member of isn’t just people who do the same work and attend the same conferences. A lot of them are family to me. Some lived in the same town and we would go out to eat after a Meetup. Most others didn’t but I knew there were 3-6 times a year I would see them for the conference circuit.

Some of them, I just neglected to text or call until the recent holiday season. That doesn’t mean they didn’t matter to me. Who I am is in part due to them being in my life. When I hear back from them, or they hear back from me, there was always this twinge of, “this sucks, but it is good we are both healthy. How have you been coping?”

What an awful way of catching up with people you care about?

This was after I struggled to deal with the cultural and socio-economic issues of 2020 events where I didn’t even know how to communicate my feelings after George Floyd died. Yes, I was the insensitive person who texted black friends asking if there was anything I could do like a numbskull. Of course, I didn’t know what else to say. We often don’t, and I’ll admit I was one of them.

So I wasn’t enjoying the professional jolt from my work anymore. In that aspect of life, I have felt loneliness on a level I’ve never experienced.

What does “normal life” mean any more?

The phrase we all spent too much time listening to was, “a return to normal life” in 2021.

Maybe you got to work in an office with colleagues around you again. The travel and vacations you used to love returned. Taking masks off in certain, or all, situations started happening. People were so ready for a fresh start that would be more “normal” that we saw more resignations than ever before as we all leveled up professionally.

None of you can tell me how you spent 2021 as normal last year.

Even if you went to the office, it wasn’t full and there were tons of precautions to make that happen. If you took your mask off (or kept it on), you were met with tons of side eyes and comments regarding that choice. The Great Resignation should have been called the Great Grass Is Greener because many former colleagues told me the new gig wasn’t necessarily any better than the former.

Do you still think the old way of living life is coming back? Some firms are currently trying out VR headsets to facilitate training exercises and workshops. Clients are being given the option of travel expenses being included in SOWs, and most aren’t taking us upon it. In-office work plans revolve around staggered schedules and “only for certain meetings.” Masks are never fully going away, doesn’t matter if they help keep omicron away or not. At this moment, I’m not sure when I’ll be asked to fly and see a client again.

In speaking with a former colleague, he asked very thoughtfully what I felt like was missing from the work I used to love. It was fun describing how I could hold a room and use my personality and intellect to get the meeting from point A to B. To have that impactful one-on-one coaching session where the other party could work through something with me. That while all of that was possible in a remote working scenario, it just didn’t feel the same to me as it did in person.

Which led to a month or so of me wondering if the problem was really me accepting the world around me.

2021 was a terrible year mostly because of my inability to see the world for what it is.

Last year I thought it wouldn’t be this way, and the slow realization it was going to be more of the same has been my biggest challenge. The cognitive dissonance between those two realities was so much greater than I expected.

There is admittedly a lot of privilege in that paragraph. Neither of us lost our job or struggled to pay our bills in the past 2 years. Our kids regressed in ways most primary school children did, but their grades didn’t suffer much. I did manage to get a honeymoon in before the delta variant kicked in. I managed to see my brother twice, and nobody I am close with died. Even when the crazy Texas freeze happened, I never lost a second of electricity because we live a few blocks from a police station.

See? Very few complaints. They still came though, and I struggled to comprehend why that never changed.

Even after writing and podcasting on the topic of what the new “normal” was going to be like, I spent very little time reshaping myself around this normal. Or even getting that stupid word out of my mouth.

I have to get more face time with people in a way that doesn’t disrupt the work of both my clients and teammates. It’s important that I don’t fill up my calendar just for the sake of feeling important. But I should get more on there with people who want time with me. There’s one.

The need to find yet another podcast or meaningless time-filler due to my lack of activity needs to die a horrible death. The minute I feel the pull to escape this horrible reality of my professional time, I am going to start inserting healthy activities like reaching out to one of you or journaling more. Now we are getting somewhere.

More learning is needed on new and unique topics. I don’t have training dollars falling out of my pocket, but there’s more professional development I should be investing in. Would love some suggestions from you all. Number three is a doozy.

Most of all, I’m going to find something different to do with my thoughts than wishing for days that are long gone. There might be aspects of my old work that return, but that’s it. I can appreciate those moments but I need to find the next surge of professional electricity. Not chase old ones like a junkie on withdrawal. I think we’ve done it.

That’s a great list of ideas. What about you?

It’s easy here to wish I had written this a year ago. Clearly, I hadn’t lived enough of this yet to truly comprehend. Maybe these feelings were coming eventually, and COVID forced me to deal with this in my 40s instead of much later.

I know who I am still. Chris Murman is still who you once knew or just now getting to know. I am not a different person, and I’m thankful for that. I’m just trying to navigate things I wasn’t prepared to, which makes COVID no different than my divorce. Or being fired. Or being rejected personally or professionally. It just happened to all of us at once.

I think 2022 is going to be so much better. Will you come with me?

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