Earlier this week, people living in the Northern Hemisphere, experienced the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. It coincided with the Great Conjunction – when Saturn and Jupiter appeared to be touching in the sky. The last time we were able to witness this was in 1623, approximately 400 years ago. For weeks I anticipated what astrologers have acclaimed to be the beginning of a shift to greater focus on others as well as an emphasis on innovation and reform. While I am not an astronomer nor an astrologer, I searched for meaning behind the confluence of these 2 events. “Today, is the day that we will turn from darkness to lightness,” I suggested to my clients.
And then the day happened. My son accompanied me outside (with some prodding) and we searched the sky. Unable to find the planets, I called my neighbors, and they joined me with a star gazing app in hand. Another neighbor pulled into his driveway, and I waved him over to see, too. Success! I took a picture of the tiny bright dot and we returned to our homes. I waited, yet nothing happened. I got in a fight with my teenage daughter, the dog ran away. I felt despondent. “Where is the light?” I sobbed, “We are entering the Age of Aquarius, and I’m an Aquarius!”
Reflecting on it now (a day or two later), I made the classic mistake described by James Stockdale (which Jim Collins in Good to Great calls the “Stockdale Paradox”) and Viktor Frankl highlights in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Both Frankl and Stockdale faced unimaginable darkness (Stockdale as prisoner of war in Vietnam and Frankl in Holocaust concentration camps) and they were both able to find and create light, demonstrating their faith and resilience. And while they both believed that they would survive, they both criticized the diehard optimists, those people who focused on a specific date, e.g., Christmas, that would bring them salvation. Those people lost faith, and according to Frankl “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and become subject to mental and physical decay.” Have faith, they both believed, but confront reality. As Stockdale shared in his infamous quote, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."
Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams wrote an article where they applied the lessons of the Stockdale Paradox to leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. They explained the differences between short and long-term crises and the survival techniques required: focus on purpose, awareness of cognitive biases, mental contrasting, and faith. “We argue that CEOs who are reporting demotivation and depression in themselves or their teams are currently experiencing the shift from short-term to long-term crisis.”
This year has been unprecedented. It has tested us as individuals and as leaders. We have had to learn to be more agile, to live with uncertainty, and to stay balanced facing a constant threat that we cannot see. We have worked harder to nurture relationships, adapted our work styles, changed the ways in which we communicate, and shifted our personal and professional priorities. We have also faced a lot of darkness – the loss of human life and racial and political divisiveness. We are drained and exhausted.
So, with the days still short and COVID still rampant, how can we keep the faith? Frankl states that you can “discover meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; (3) by the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering.” Reflecting on this fated December 21st evening from this perspective, I realize now that it was not devoid of meaning. With the temperatures falling below freezing, most of us stay indoors. When we do go out, we park our cars in our driveways and dash into our heated homes. Standing outside with the neighbors, masked and cold, we connected. Perhaps the Great Conjunction was happening after all. I had been disappointed by the tiny dot in the sky, expecting to see something miraculous, when in fact, that was not the goal. For those 20 minutes, I stopped yelling at my son to go to bed. I stopped thinking about the work that was piling up on my plate. I was forced to just be present and connect with others. Recognizing that life is tough – whether it is keeping our masks on, not celebrating important life milestones with our family, or the death of loved ones – we still must have courage and know that life will get better and in the meantime, continue to connect and focus on the people and things that matter most. I feel blessed to be able to do meaningful work that I love and have the support of my family. For 2021, I will remind myself that the light is always there, and it is up to me to make it glow brighter every day.