What you Find Inside a Black Hole: Appreciating the 3 Lost Years of the Pandemic

ML
11 min readDec 31, 2022

As we move into 2023, our first year since early 2020 with almost no restrictions on travel and mask mandates globally, I wanted to take a moment to appreciate what the pandemic has done for me and perhaps broadly for us as a society. It surely has been deeply destructive on many levels, but it has come with some positives.

Here are some things I took away from the pandemic:

  1. Realizing that Motivation is a fire you need to refuel. You can’t take it for granted
  2. Relationships for introverts: one must sip from the cup of connection. Zero connection is for literal robots
  3. Remote work and Zoom meetings: 200 years after industrialization set our work habits, we need a big rethink
  4. The Bachelor(ette), government edition: the pandemic showed us who can do their jobs and who cannot
  5. Re-discovered the value of stories: TV can be a source of inspiration!

First things first: what do I mean by “lost years”? Certainly, many people have been very productive: shipping products, rehauling processes, creating life. So it hardly feels like years “lost” to inaction.

And yet, we couldn’t move our lives forward in ways that we could have without the pandemic hanging over our heads. Single people couldn’t properly date or make lifelong commitments. Couples put off procreation as they could not rely on adequate and accessible care. Switching jobs was ill-advised: how strong of a relationship could you build with a team you’ve never met? Living in new, foreign places was out of the question. Of course, some people YOLO’d and did all that, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

In addition, many of our actions in the past 3 years were about adapting to a temporarily disrupted reality. As things normalize, we are reverting to our old behaviors, like working from offices, socializing in person, and buying stuff in stores.

That is what I mean by the last 3 years being “lost years.” But, as Nietzsche cautioned:

as you stare into the abyss, be careful not to let the abyss eat into you.

That is why I’m writing about the unexpected, positive surprises that the last 3 years served up.

(Before I dig deeper, I want to be upfront about the fact that I am writing as a single, childless person with few serious obligations. I’ve also already had two separate careers in finance and then in tech. So for people with pressing responsibilities or who are earlier in their careers, it may come across as much ado about nothing. Sorry. I hope you get *something* out of it nonetheless.)

Realizing that Motivation is a Fire You Need to Refuel

As things ground to a halt and options closed and opened unpredictably, I realized that I had taken motivation for granted all of my life. I was always one of the hardest-working, most ambitious people in the room. I went from job/industry to job/industry, living by the motto,

“Curiosity killed the cat… but satisfaction brought it back.”Add alt text

From the outside, my resume looks like someone splattered tomato sauce on a board (investing, consulting, healthtech, fintech, crypto). But it is actually a carefully curated series of hops between new domains and roles. (When I came across David Epstein’s book Range, which is about the careers of generalists vs specialists, I thought, “hah! This explains my career!” If you’re interested in the gist of the book, here is a short video.)

At the start of the pandemic, after just leaving my startup job in San Francisco and starting to do freelance consulting and angel investing, I realized that I had lost the drive to “do a lot of things really quickly, whatever those things are.” This drive has been with me since I was a teenager with a heavy academic and extracurricular schedule.

So I had no choice but to embark on a journey to refuel or (cheese alert) “find my purpose.” Purpose is the only thing that sustains motivation, whether the connection is conscious or unconscious. After many books, many blogs, and many frank conversations with friends who had the mettle to engage with existential questions, I have arrived at a definitive answer, and that is 42. (um, nerd wink)

I share this not to share my own answer to the Big Hairy Purpose Question, but to point out that motivation cannot be taken for granted.

I share this not to share my own answer to the Big Hairy Purpose Question but to point out that motivation cannot be taken for granted. If you’ve been making your way through the forest of mimetic desires, what happens when you reach the edge? How do you keep yourself in monkey mode, maintaining frantic motion to avoid getting eaten? Or is forcing yourself to step back into the forest a regressive move? Should you instead try to grow a pair of wings and move along a vertical axis (i.e., do something wildly different than anything you’ve known instead of building on what you know)? Is that crazy behavior? Is that how people end up homeless??? (I might add that Elon Musk feels like Champion Chimp after having bet his fortune several times starting companies he “had no business” starting.)I offer no advice, just analogies that hopefully stir your thoughts.

Relationships for Introverts: Sip from the Cup of Connection

For introverts, the extended lockdowns during the first part of the pandemic were a godsend. We didn’t have to suffer the awkwardness of turning down social invitations. Instead, we could sit at home all day without making excuses for our antisocial behavior.

But after a while, even among the most introverted of us, a complete lack of in-person connections will take a toll (I’m not including work-related interactions). Additionally, the comfort that connection provides is heightened by the crisis environment of the pandemic.

So when lockdown restrictions loosened, I focused on figuring out where my equilibrium lay on the social-alone spectrum. What was my “MVC” — Minimum Viable Connection (a play on the tech concept of the MVP, Minimum Viable Product)? How do I get *just* enough social interaction for basic levels of mental health?

You may have to go through an iterative process to find your answer. Is 3 group dinners a week too much? Is 1 group dinner a month too little? Find your equilibrium — and maintain it. Whatever you do, Introvert, make sure to sip from the cup of connection.

Remote Work and Zoom Meetings: Taking Stock 200 Years After Industrialization

During the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain moved from mainly a farming society to a manufacturing society. The development of factories and city transportation led to a new tradition of masses of people showing up at regular times every day, almost every day of the week, to work on specialized types of work (thank you Adam Smith).

200 years later, factories operate much the same, albeit with more machines and more labor laws. Likewise, the professional class runs on a similar rhythm, though with more forgiving break schedules and regular business travel.

But the inability to travel and the shift to work-from-home arrangements meant we could finally shine a light on the pros and cons of location-specific and time-bound work practices.

By examining the pandemic-adapted work habits of my circle of friends (predominantly computer-work people), it became incontrovertible that long commute times could be more productively employed. Not into more work but into more rest and play, leading to better concentration, greater creativity, or simply better moods.

In addition, for my friends who work in intense professional services jobs, working at home often meant being better and more present parents to infants and toddlers — *without* being more distracted from work. They often work very long and odd hours, but hours with pockets of “dead time” between calls or waiting for responses. This zero-productivity “face time” they would have put in at work, they could now repurpose towards the home, which means not coming home at midnight only to slog for another 2 hours on home chores. Instead, they can play Tetris with their time!

Some might be skeptical about the above reality. I don’t entirely disagree. Physical work-life separation is important for productivity, in general. The above setup is win-win (not win-lose) only when jobs are outcomes-driven, competition is fierce (read: getting fired for underperformance is a real threat), and people are self-motivated. This may not apply to most situations.

On a separate note, eliminating a large percentage of work travel has also forced people to be more economical with the time they spend achieving a specific goal. While some industries and roles are inherently more relationship-based, in general, we have over-indexed on in-person meetings. That’s because we have yet to figure out a better way to run them virtually (and because people think needing to travel makes them more important than their coworkers).

During the pandemic, tech companies like Google and Zoom developed tools and services to help us run remote meetings better than before. Recall the grand old “conference call” pre-pandemic — how many audio-only calls do you do today? How much more productive are we when we can share our screens, watch for facial reactions, and sometimes even in VR? Plus… how much carbon did we not put in the atmosphere??

All in all, I am grateful to the pandemic for exposing how a work culture designed in the age of industrialization and before the age of the internet needs an extensive rethink. In a time when [OpenAI](https://openai.com/) is building machines to do our work and communications are increasingly asynchronous, we should be rethinking a work model that is 200 years.

If we don’t take this opportunity to reimagine Work, we’re no better than robots programmed by outdated algorithms.

The Bachelor(ette), Government Edition

I’ll keep this section short because the point is obvious.

In managing the pandemic, some governments did well, and others fell on their faces. People died because of their incompetence or were saved because of their competence. Most governments dipped into piggy banks, but only a few have concrete plans to fill them up again. Some expertly balanced health with livelihoods, and some didn’t do any balancing at all.

If you’re still relatively early in your career, this gives you a chance to review the quality of government in each of these places. Where will your children be safe? Where will they be free? Who can take care of you when you retire?

Vote with your feet.

Re-discovering the Value of Stories

I read voraciously as a kid. When I was 17, I discovered business nonfiction in the form of Jack Welch’s Straight from the Gut, from a time with he was the equivalent of Elon today: iconoclastic, wildly effective, stock market darling (on that last point, let’s ignore 2022 and just focus on the meteoric rise of Tesla since it was listed in 2010). For almost 20 years after that I was only interested in reading nonfiction, despite several attempts to get back into novels.

Then, the pandemic gifted way too many hours of alone time. Novels had to be read to pass the time. Based on my interest in gender studies, a good friend recommended Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, about a faraway world where gender is not persistent: once a month, someone turns into male or female form. This means anyone is as likely to bear a child, and therefore there is no reason to discriminate against half the population (and it led to entertaining pronouncements like “The King is pregnant!”).

I had been thinking a lot about gender inequality, using my and my friends’ lived experiences. But sometimes I felt like I was going around in circles. This book, with its “what-ifs” and “why-nots,” was the perfect hook into using stories to probe and refine my thinking. Fiction was suddenly compelling again.

(Aside: this was the start of my late-in-life sci-fi obsession. Together with the Raspberry Pi’s I started to play around with, I was living the pandemic like a teenage boy.)

Another powerful, newly discovered source of purposeful storytelling: television. Like most people, I watched more TV than I would have if I could go outside. But, as much of a waste of time as that sounds, I found inspiration in some, inspiration I am not sure I could have found otherwise.

One example is from the Australian TV series, Glitch, which is about 7 people who came back to life. One of these is Charlie, a soldier in World War I who fell in love with a man but couldn’t express that love due to the conventions of the time. He ultimately shot himself. When he came back to life, he said,

“I had been living as if I had two lives to live. In my second life, I would love freely. But that second life never came… until now” (wildly paraphrased)

Obviously, this is flawed logic. Nobody has two lives (except in television). But I instantly related to the idea that Y-O-L-O, and it shook me. That’s when I embarked on a long journey to find the answer “42” (I jest, but you get the idea).

Thanks for reading. As post-pandemic life engulfs us in its new concerns, I am curious about how we repurpose what we got out of the pandemic into useful ends.

Also, I’d love to hear what you got out of the pandemic that you didn’t expect — leave a comment!

I’d like to thank some of my favorite storytellers, whose writings have served as guides. Some recommendations below:

  • Morgan Housel at Collaborative Fund. He often writes about the overlap between life and investing (blog)
  • Tim Urban at Wait But Why. Many great pieces, but this long one about choosing a career will dig deep
  • Aeon and its sister magazine Psyche are reliable sources of well-researched, poetically-phrased investigations on living in the modern world. Here’s a good one about how to have productive arguments
  • Kursegagt and Pursuit of Wonder are philosophy channels on Youtube with bite-sized content
  • A Replacement for Religion, a wonderful book by contemporary philosopher Alain de Boton’s School of Life. The book was especially meaningful in the pandemic as it broke down “community” into its component parts. If you don’t go to church/temple/mosque regularly, how do you create community?

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ML

I do business things and nerd things. Also crypto things. Twitter: @michlai007