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The ‘black swan’ of 2020: Will the pandemic change your family forever?

A black swan event is a rare and disruptive occurrence that leaves lasting change in its wake.

Illustration by Michelle Budge

SALT LAKE CITY — Even before COVID-19 had claimed the first life in the U.S., some analysts were calling the pandemic a “black swan” event.

In business, the term commonly denotes a rare and disruptive occurrence that leaves lasting change in its wake. They are, wrote economist Enric Fernández, “events that are difficult to predict but which, when they do happen, have an enormous impact.”

There is debate over whether the novel coronavirus is a true black swan because it wasn’t unforeseen in public health circles. (In fact, the 2011 film “Contagion” now seems prescient.) Some argue it’s more of a “gray rhino,” an obvious threat that Michele Wucker wrote about in her 2016 book by the same name.

The average American, however, began 2020 with no reason to suspect that a life-altering pandemic was on the horizon. For most families, the coronavirus is, in fact, a black swan — startling and impactful, even if no one we know has gotten sick or lost a job. When the virus retreats, analysts say, we will be changed. And some of the changes could be positive.

Seen through her window, Laura Lawless home-schools her daughter, 11-year-old Emma Robertson, while her 3-year-old son Connor Robertson plays on the computer in her lap in their Chandler, Arizona, home on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Lawless is an employment defense attorney and has to work from home while taking care of her kids as a single mother during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Seen through her window, Laura Lawless home-schools her daughter, 11-year-old Emma Robertson, while her 3-year-old son Connor Robertson plays on the computer in her lap in their Chandler, Arizona, home on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Lawless is an employment defense attorney and has to work from home while taking care of her kids as a single mother during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Eli Imadali, for the Deseret News

Author and business strategist Greg McKeown says we might come to see this time, not as the start of another great depression or recession, but as “the Great Reset” — a time in which Americans took stock of their lives, identified the deficiencies and changed course.

“I think there may be, for anyone who pays attention, an opportunity for an upgrade in our sense of what matters,” said McKeown, author of the 2014 book “Essentialism.” He sees what is happening as profound, whole societies being sent to their homes, compelled by their governments to spend time with their families for the sake of a greater good.

With the number of deaths in the U.S. still climbing, and stay-at-home orders remaining widespread, the end of the pandemic seems discouragingly distant. But it’s not too early to start thinking about what the black swan of the coronavirus could leave our families and how it could change our culture.

‘What did it matter?’

For Laura Lawless, an attorney and single mother of two in Chandler, Arizona, the changes brought about by the pandemic are visible every time she looks in the mirror.

A few weeks ago, realizing that she wouldn’t be able to get her hair done for some time, Lawless used an electric razor and shaved her head. It was both a practical gesture and one indicative of a larger shift in her priorities. She previously had standing appointments to get her nails and hair done by professionals; those seem insignificant in a time when more than 50,000 Americans have been lost to COVID-19.

“I think there was a lot of time in my schedule that went into maintaining appearances, but I don’t know what I was maintaining them for. Really, what did it matter in the end? I would like to spend that time more wisely,” she said from her home near Phoenix, where she is telecommuting full time while also caring for her children, ages 11 and 3.

Laura Lawless and her kids, 3-year-old Connor Robertson and 11-year-old Emma Robertson, stand for a portrait at their home in Chandler, Arizona, on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Lawless is an employment defense attorney and is working from home while taking care of her kids as a single mother during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Laura Lawless and her kids, 3-year-old Connor Robertson and 11-year-old Emma Robertson, stand for a portrait at their home in Chandler, Arizona, on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Lawless is an employment defense attorney and is working from home while taking care of her kids as a single mother during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Eli Imadali, for the Deseret News

Lawless, who specializes in employment law, says she misses the intellectual stimulation of working in an office, though not the 2½ hours she spent commuting. Some analysts expect the number of people working remotely to increase even after businesses reopen, but that’s not something that Lawless desires. There are other, more meaningful ways in which she hopes society will be different when the pandemic ends.

“I hope people remember the feeling of needing to be sacrificial for one another, and the humility that it takes to do that. I hope we remember this feeling that we were willing to sacrifice a lot because we cared about the lives of others, even if we weren’t ourselves at high risk. I don’t want to lose that feeling,” she said.

Similarly, Denise Akob, a microbiologist in Reston, Virginia, and mother of a 9-year-old, has found that her priorities have shifted in both work (How important is that meeting, really?) and at home (How many times do I really need to go to the grocery store?).

“It’s been interesting to reprocess all the pathways of what you’ve been doing,” she said.

McKeown said that the novel coronavirus forced the world to do something he advocated in “Essentialism” — to distinguish the “trivial many” aspects of life from the “vital few.”

“We’re all essentialists now,” he said.

Laura Lawless stands for a portrait at her home in Chandler, Arizona, on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Lawless is an employment defense attorney and is working from home while taking care of two kids, a 3-year-old and 11-year-old, as a single mother during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Laura Lawless stands for a portrait at her home in Chandler, Arizona, on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Lawless is an employment defense attorney and is working from home while taking care of two kids, a 3-year-old and 11-year-old, as a single mother during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Eli Imadali, for the Deseret News

Essential business

McKeown said he recently spoke with a man who had been planning a trip around the world this summer. It had been a dream of his for years, but now that it’s been canceled, he was surprised that his reaction was something akin to “meh.” He decided that the two things that matter to him are being alive, and his son. And when McKeown asked him to explain why his son was so important, he said he couldn’t put it into words.

The author, who is working on a second book and will launch a podcast in May, said the exchange helped him to see that there is a select, narrow group of things that are almost transcendent in their significance. “And from that, we can extrapolate that most things are not in that category, and therefore deserve less of our energy, less of our attention.”

He added, “I can’t think of any time in living memory where so many people have been asking this question — what’s essential now? So many things that we believed and said were nonnegotiables — you had to have them — have been stripped away, layer after layer. And as these things are being stripped away, we’ve come to some surprising discoveries about what really matters.”

States, of course, have made formal declarations about what kind of businesses are “essential” when crafting stay-at-home orders. (This has also led to debate about some of the decisions, such as whether liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries are really essential.)

But individuals are also making these decisions daily, and finding that little things that were “essential” in January are less so in April.

Kasey Steward, an office manager at an architectural firm in Chicago, said she used to consider expensive coffees at coffee shops important to her life. But now working from home, she bought a French press and is getting just as much enjoyment out of the coffee she brews herself, and she’s saving money at the same time. With paper products in short supply at grocery stores, she’s also discovered she doesn’t really need paper towels; her cloth kitchen towels do the same job at less cost.

What’s become even more essential, however, are Steward’s relationships. For example, she has friends who are artists, but in the past, she rarely attended art shows. “Once I’m able to get back out, I will support my friends at the events they have,” she said.

And, she added, “I used to complain about sitting down and going to the hairdresser. Now that I can’t see her, I miss her; I miss chatting. I felt like these things were such little things, and I was so dismissive of them; now I can’t wait to do them again.”

A less hurried life?

Alan Lightman, a physicist who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in The Atlantic that adversity often gives birth to innovation.

“Consider, for example, the many new platforms for online teaching, or the use of cheap Bluetooth smart thermometers able to transmit a person’s fever and geolocation to a distant database, or members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performing together and apart from 29 different locations using their smartphones.”

Innovation also occurs in “habits of mind,” he said.

“The frightening COVID-19 pandemic may be creating such a change now — by forcing many of us to slow down, to spend more time in personal reflection, away from the noise and heave of the world. With more quiet time, more privacy, more stillness, we have an opportunity to think about who we are, as individuals and as a society.”

McKeown, who is working at home, along with his wife and four children, finds it interesting that much of the world has been sent to their homes, similar to a child in trouble who is sent to his room to think about what he has done.

“It’s the most profound pause button of my life. Literally a quarter of the world’s population has been told to go to their homes and to stay there. People are having to confront how are things there? We’re having to face how we’re doing in the most important relationships in our lives.”

There’s an increasing frustration, and a desire, to get back to the way things were last year, but McKeown says he doesn’t believe we’ll be the same again, not should we want that.

“We need to hunker down at home, stay safe, stay well, by all means. But this isn’t a time to hunker down mentally, spiritually or emotionally and hope for the status quo to return. This is a time to innovate, to create, to reinvent, to seek ongoing revelation because we’re not going back. There’s no going back,” he said. “There has been a big, deep change in the human condition.”