The first anniversary of the coronavirus quarantine is fast approaching, and for many of us, it’s felt like a lost year. “It’s OK to Feel Overwhelmed and Be Unproductive,” Psychology Today assured its readers. “You’re not lazy: Why it’s hard to be productive right now,” read a recent CNET headline. When the Washington Post asked readers to describe 2020 in a word, among their top suggestions were “fallow,” “limbo” and “lost.” The New York Times suggested “Blursday,” for its repetitive “Groundhog Day-esque quality.” My daughter calls it a collective “gap year.”
Yet this year may not have been as lost as we fear. While researching a book on reinvention, I’ve interviewed dozens of experts on transformation in all its forms. I’ve spoken to neuroscientists who study creativity, psychologists who work with trauma survivors, cognitive scientists who study “aha” moments and business-school professors focused on innovation and career reinvention. The types of transformations they study vary. Yet I’ve been struck by the one step that every type of reinvention has in common: it’s preceded by an in-between time, a seemingly fallow period much like the one we find ourselves in now.
To be sure, these scientists aren’t suggesting there’s a silver lining to a year that’s brought an unimaginable death toll and raging unemployment. What they offer, instead, is a glimpse of how this “lost year” fits in on the journey we are attempting to navigate toward a post-pandemic world and the hope that, whether we experienced devastating loss or an uneasy feeling of stagnation, we will find better days ahead.
The prolonged shutdown, by throwing us off-kilter, may help us reimagine our futures, says psychologist Richard Tedeschi, professor emeritus at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He would know. When he and colleague Lawrence Calhoun studied survivors of trauma – hurricanes, war, domestic violence, the death of loved ones – they found that after a time, a significant portion of them report feeling renewed. They have a sense of fresh possibilities in life, an openness to following new pathways.
In the mid-1990s, the two men coined a phrase for the phenomenon: posttraumatic growth. Almost half of all trauma survivors ultimately experience it, a 2019 meta-analysis of 26 studies concluded. It can affect societies as a whole after a communal trauma like wartime or pandemic. But to achieve it, you first must go through a period of struggle, when you throw out assumptions about how life was supposed to play out. “It takes time,” Tedeschi told me. “It takes a while to right yourself and figure out which direction you’re going to go.”
Consider the case of a 1987 ferry accident, when the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized on its way from Belgium to England, killing 193 passengers and crew. In the immediate aftermath, psychologist Stephen Joseph and his colleagues were able to interview survivors, who not surprisingly reported suffering nightmares and anxiety. Yet when Joseph interviewed them again three years later, 43% reported that their lives and attitudes had changed for the better.
Survivors of a New Zealand earthquake, state terrorism in Chile, and the 9/11 terror attacks have also reported growth. Tedeschi has found that the positive outcomes generally fall into five categories: appreciation for life, relationships with others, spiritual changes, personal strength and, notably, “new possibilities in life.” A 2013 University of Pennsylvania study of 373 people found the majority also reported increased creativity after trauma.
It’s too soon to know the long-term impact of COVID-19’s “lost year.” But there’s some evidence it is already prompting people to re-evaluate their lives and careers. Millions have lost their jobs, and entire job categories, like those in hospitality and live entertainment, have been wiped out, at least for now. Millions of others who are still employed are rethinking their futures. In a November survey, 64% of Americans said they were either looking for a new job or would consider a new one.
Intriguingly, London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra found that an in-between time when you feel unproductive is critical for people who want to switch careers. She calls it a “liminal period,” when you’re “existing betwixt and between a past that is clearly gone and a future that is still uncertain.” In a Harvard Business Review article published toward the beginning of the pandemic, she wrote that it’s essential to “embrace the liminal” period, even though people going through it “feel unmoored, lose their bearings,” because it “prevents you from shutting down prematurely and missing better options that still lie ahead.”
Scientists who study creativity have similarly pinpointed that fallow period as the key to breakthroughs. In their labs, it’s known as the “incubation period.” It’s what happens when you’re stumped by a problem and give up in frustration, then wake up in the middle of the night knowing the solution. Drexel University psychologist John Kounios explains that breakthroughs often come about after you’re blocked and then are distracted by exercise, or sleep, or taking a shower. That’s when your subconscious brain can weave together disparate thoughts that then may pop up into your consciousness as an “aha” moment. The “wandering mind can stumble on to insights. If you always have those blinders on like a horse, you are only looking straight ahead,” Kounios says. “It’s those peripheral thoughts that trigger insights.” There’s a reason screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has said that when he has writer’s block, he takes a shower – up to eight a day!
This latest research sheds light on why some singular achievements have taken place during previous pandemics. Isaac Newton was a Cambridge student, quarantined because of the bubonic plague at his family’s apple orchard, when he made some of his key discoveries about gravity. William Shakespeare wrote some of his most monumental works during plague outbreaks, including King Lear. Clearly, the plague didn’t make either of them geniuses, nor, sadly, will quarantine make any of us any smarter. But what it did do was create the space for thinking and dreaming, which allowed new ideas to flourish.
The science of these fallow periods may be recent, but the “in-between” period has long played a starring role in history and literature. Consider these examples from recent years: In Katherine May’s Wintering, she defines the title as “a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.” In Life Is in the Transitions, Bruce Feiler refers to this period as the “messy middle” that leads to a “new beginning.” Brene Brown, in Rising Strong, calls it a “middle space of struggle” when you’re “in the dark.”
In a sense, we’re all in that “middle space of struggle” right now and it’s important to recognize that we won’t be in this limbo forever. But if you do want to give yourself a nudge, the experts have a few suggestions. Among them:
Take a break. A shower, a run, a nap. Drexel’s Kounios has found that distracting yourself when you’re stuck is often the best way to solve a problem or come up with a new idea. In a 2015 survey of 1,114 people, Linda Ovington, a researcher at Charles Sturt University in Australia, found that 80% reported having “aha” moments, and among the most frequent places they had them were in the shower, while exercising, in transport or in nature.
Daydream. We spend 25% to 50% of our time daydreaming, a figure that mental health experts believe has increased for some people during the pandemic. The good news is, in a study of physicists and writers, psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that 20% of their most original ideas arose while daydreaming. What’s more, the ideas they had while daydreaming were more likely to solve “an impasse on a problem and to be experienced as ‘aha’ moments” than when they were consciously focused on their work. In a 2013 analysis, meanwhile, University of Minnesota psychologist Eric Klinger found that mind-wandering helps people explore possible new goals “such as job possibilities or personal relationships.”
Talk to an “expert companion.” Tedeschi and his colleagues have found that to achieve post-traumatic growth, it helps to talk to a person who knows you well. The person doesn’t need to be a professional; it’s often a friend or relative. These conversations can be revelatory even without trauma. As a young man, Danny Meyer was considering law school when his uncle told him, “Since you were a child, all you’ve ever talked or thought about is food…Why don’t you just open a restaurant?” That comment set Meyer, now CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, on a path to become one of the most successful restaurateurs in the world. “I knew I loved restaurants, but it just never occurred to me that that was a viable career choice” until then, Meyer told me.
-Try on “possible selves.” Psychologists believe we can imagine different variations of who we might become. As Ibarra, the business professor who specializes in career reinvention, has written, “the path to your next career will be circuitous. To cover all of the ground you’ll need to cover, it’s vital to let yourself imagine a divergent set of possible selves and futures. Embrace that process and explore as many of them as you can.”
–And finally, don’t be too hard on yourself. I’ve certainly had my days and weeks of feeling like I’m spinning my wheels. It’s easy to get caught up in a doomscrolling cycle of despair, even as we feel that we should do something. Yet the experts I’ve spoken with believe this period of fallow, of discomfort, does serve a purpose. “When society gets too comfortable, it gets too rigid,” Kounios says. “It’s when you are forced to think and act differently that it liberates the mind to be creative.”