Six Months: Half a Year of Crisis, Chaos, and Creativity

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It’s been six months. SIX MONTHS of working from home, schooling from home, social distance, and rethinking a lot of life. Half a year of crisis and chaos and human creativity.

One can’t steer their entire career around the idea of being excited for change and “what’s next” without practically living that philosophy and walking it out tactically during the biggest paradigm shift of our generation. Right?

I’ve always been the guy that answers the crisis call, isn’t afraid of the bad news, buys the Google Glasses, or when there’s polar vortex statewide shutdown says, “Hey kids, let’s put pants in the front lawn and try to go viral!” But the pandemic (oh, and civil rights awakening, civil unrest, culture wars, and more!) is certainly more than a cold winter storm when it comes to “new” and “different” “crisis” and “change.”

So as we look back six months, I think it’s important to journal out what all happened and what I learned from it. Or, as Sir Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” 

To be clear, I’m extremely fortunate and blessed to be in the situation I’m in right now: healthy, employed, educated, and privileged. Any struggle my family and I have experienced in this period pales in comparison to so many who are truly struggling, hungry, or need shelter. So please accept and understand the context of that acknowledgement as we get into activities and lessons from this period that weren’t always serious or that meaningful.

And believe me, mistakes were made. My hair and beard length reached biblical proportions. I’ve been fighting wasps flying into my home office all summer like a child. And I ordered and wore cargo shorts for 131 days because I knew none of you would see me below the waist

But also, there was a lot of good here. And valid life lessons that came from these six bad months. 

Here are the highlights: 

WORK WORK WORK WORK WORK WORK 

When the whole world moves digital and social and that’s your chosen vocation, let’s just say it got busy. 

Like others who were fortunate enough to to maintain employment and go remote during the inital weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself working from home longterm and unexpectedly on March 13, 2020. And it was 15 hour days, 7 days a week crazy for those first couple of months.

Adjusting to being on camera required some hacks and tricks, so I wrote these 15 Tips for Being on Camera All Day Long, which was picked up by Twin Cities Business in this piece Zoom Hacks from Local Pros: Tips and tricks for making the best of video conferencing

And that led to this front page feature article in my local paper: Navigating the New World of Working At Home. My daughter took that photo of me — and you would never know that’s a small corner in my bedroom designed to look like an office on camera, right?

But there was more to working from home than setting up a desk and webcam. Humans need routine!

So I explored Rituals and Traditions During Shelter in Place, given research that shows rituals can help us manage anxiety and process grief. I found that routines in work and home life were extremely helpful in creating a “new normal” in the last six months. Finding ways to relax and reset wasn’t easy, but routine helped.

And even then, there was the whole crisis part of the pandemic. 

Strategic communicators found ourselves needing to immediate shift ALL communications from our brands or clients.

I wrote this three part series for Social Media and Communications Crisis Strategy for COVID-19:

There was even a moment in May when it seemed like we may be finding the fulcrum of the crisis. To finally know where to push off from and pivot!

I wrote Post-COVID Predictions and Observations curating predictions and insights from some of my favorite smartest futurists. Those predictions weren’t necessarily wrong, but there was another ongoing crisis that was going to come to light that would impact everything…. Racism.

After the murder of George Floyd here in Minneapolis, we found ourselves with a compounded crisis. A topic Black and Brown folks have experienced their entire lives but was becoming part of the national conversation: racism.

Suddenly companies found themselves being asked to communicate their opinions about systemic racism and equity in the form of what to post on social media, which was the tail wagging the dog. It was backward!

You don’t work out your company’s POV about racism based on if you do or do not post a black square on Instagram. 

I wrote this primer, with all the right questions we should be asking: Quick, We Need a Social Post; What Do We Believe? 

Black lives matter. It’s not political to be anti-racist. It’s not a deal-breaker with your company or clients to affirm that Black lives matter and help make change. It’s an asset. And we should know better. And do better.

In that spirit, I wrote this round up of Common Words and Phrases Steeped in Racism We Should Remove From Our Vocabulary.

I’m no bias or racism expert! I have a lot of growth to do myself, too. And as someone who places a lot of value in the words we use, this was a helpful exercise for me personally.

The result was the the most popular post I’ve had since my music blog days. And you can imagine the kinds of racist comments and emails I’m still getting about that one. PS: Black lives still matter. 

At work, our entire company pivoted to Microsoft Teams and remote working collaboration tools faster than would have ever have happened without a global catastrophe. We learned to innovate, collaborate, and yes, be creative. And deliver for clients. 

Working quietly in this bedroom corner isn’t my favorite. But working with brilliant colleagues and clients to bring new ideas into the world is certainly one of my favorite things. And we had some really fun successes in the this time!

Some of my favorite client #humblebrags of new work our teams put into the world during this time include: 

As far as work style, my colleague Chris Campbell invented and implemented “Meeting Free Monday Mornings,” to reduce weekend work and allow for less stress to start the week from home. And he introduced “The Lunch Let Down,” which is a 30 minute block for lunch on everyone’s calendar, so you knew for sure you would have a break from Zoom. Pretty clever, eh? 

These simple schedule hacks greatly impacted my team, family, and personal schedule in the last six months, and I’m grateful. 

I also lead a handful of SWAN, LLC. consulting projects related to the economic changes, COVID-19, and anti-racism communications — working with my start-up clients to help them navigate the changing storm of variables and business impacts. Plus, finding opportunities in the storm to pivot and grow. It’s possible!

I don’t know what the next six months holds for work, but I’m so grateful to my partner, Jenny. Without her support and encouragement and patience and understanding, this would have been an impossible phase of my career. I also think this experience gave her a unique, intimate opportunity to see what it’s like for me to work, how I work, what gives me energy, and what drains me. 

Nobody asked for these experiences, but I’m grateful for a lot of the above in this time. 


EDUCATION

I am SO THANKFUL for teachers. They hit a brick wall when centuries of in-person schooling took a backseat to 100% virtual classes with the only cushion being some of the kids had Chromebooks already and were really good at playing that game where the T-Rex runs and jumps over stuff when your computer doesn’t have internet. 

Again, my family is fortunate that that can afford home wifi and have the education and means to support our kids with virtual school. But this experience further underlines teachers deserve a massive raise (don’t get me started about my community’s NO vote on the last school bond) and our systems need to better support net neutrality and equal internet access for all.

I’m a big fan of school participation as a parent. I’m the dad that volunteers for every field trip, chaperones the class trip, and likes to come to class and teach art.

But the move to social distance learning for my kids happened right in the middle of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s “Art Adventure” season, where parents like me bring works of art into the classroom and teach critical thinking, creativity, and global awareness.

Unfazed, my daughter Annie and I decided to keep going with Art Adventure sessions for her classmates, but do them on YouTube! Mia took notice and interviewed us about it: Mia’s Art Adventure at Home: Critical Thinking in Critical Times. We also repurposed some of the curriculum to lead a virtual Zoom art session with the kids at work. My daughter is so talented!

Beyond my kids, all spring and summer I had a consistent number of video and phone calls with graduating college seniors who were doing a great job setting up informational interviews during this stay-at-home time – building out their networks despite the fact many internships were postponed or there aren’t many entry level positions open right now.

I was initially at a loss — how could my work, life, and agency experience help these young folks going through unprecedented changes? Until I realized that graduation post-9-11 and promoting the spirit of entrepreneurialism and lifelong learning was actually perfectly suited for this era.

I summarized those conversations in this round up – 2020 College Grad Advice, which ended up being a rich resource of continued education and training links that’s pretty good for anyone who works in digital. And now I’m working on my own Facebook accreditation — eating my own dog food!

I was honored to be asked to share a Commencement Address at the University of Michigan (my first-ever!), virtually speak to classes at Minnesota College of Art and Design and Augsberg College, and share my “Creativity in the Modern Age” keynote with the Drake University admissions team. 

I love sharing thoughts with the next generation and will keep those up, but the rest of my 2020 speaking gigs pretty much dried up —  except the ones full of white men like me giving away their IP for free via Zoom. No thanks. Not after this summer. Give my slot to anyone other than white men who look like me, please. 

But if you are a recent grad, early in your career, or experiencing a vocation shift and want to grab a virtual coffee, please reach out. I would love to chat.

And now… we’re now moving into the 2020/2021 school year, and so far, I’m impressed how our local schools have pivoted. Compared to last Spring’s emergency virtual schooling, this year I’m seeing a curriculum flux, and new interaction design to mix synchronous and asynchronous learning. Leveraging the power of virtual instead of viewing it as a handicap!

Whether K-12, college students or recent grads, the young people of our generation going through this massive shift to virtual education (and its limitations and benefits) are learning lessons and skills we can’t even fathom today. 

This experience will stick with them for a lifetime, and I’m excited to see how they innovate and build on this crisis in creative ways as they become adults. I’m proud of them, and anyone who works with young people – and is carrying their burden right now – deserves all the thanks, love, and grace we can afford them. 


FAMILY

So I’ve been home a lot compared to normal. In fact, I haven’t gone six months without getting on a plane since 2006.

I love traveling for work, but it turns out I also love being home. Getting to spend this much uninterrupted time with my wife and kids in this period of their lives is truly a gift. I love them, and they are truly my favorite people in the entire world. I think they like me, too!

We didn’t see much of our extended family in the last six months. We all got Zoom fatigue pretty quickly, but the kids and I built this directional art pole with cities of our loved ones and miles away in the backyard as a constant reminder of our love for them no matter the distance between us. 

We’re taking social distancing super seriously at the Swan house. It’s something we’re fortunate to be able to do. But in a time of shelter-in-place, working from home, and schooling at home, it was evident there has never been more of a need to get out of the house with a purpose. 

When every day can seem like the same, I felt strongly that weekends should feel like a weekend. It can be valuable to break routine while still social distancing, not interacting with others, but also giving yourself a mental break from inside your four walls.

So I started a “Surprise Road Trip” tradition with the family, where I choose a social-distance-friendly destination about an hour’s drive away in and then surprise everyone by driving there on the weekend.

We’ve done it 17 weeks in a row now (see: You Need a Surprise Road Trip This Weekend), including stops at World’s Largest Ball of Twin, Jolly Green Giant, and the Smallest Dedicated Park in the United States! And it caught the attention of PR Week in August: “A Vacation During the Pandemic?”

Beyond those road trips, we’ve spent a lot of time on screens at our home. We don’t really have a negative conviction about screens and screen time. Rather, screens have been a game changer and lifesaver in the last six months.

My kids have been living inside of Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox. These are interactive, connective, and FUN places for our kids to play with their friends while they can’t play together. They allow you to flex your brain and explore new ways of collaboration, sharing and creativity.

For example, my daughter and her friends built a fully functional Chuck E. Cheese restaurant, stage show, and arcade in Roblox and have Zoom meetings about who was going to work what shift. It’s absolutely a next-level phase of “play.” Just a ridiculous amount of exponential creativity. And it was all their idea.

We also have been adding to our collection of Oculus Quest VR games for when it’s more fun to transport yourself someplace new.

I wrote up this roundup: My Kids’ 10 Favorite Apps of the Summer at Home. VR is a great escape from home without leaving home!


AT HOME ALL THE TIME

Speaking of home, although our house is small, we are fortunate to have one. And to have a bedroom for each kid. However, having only one bathroom turns into more of an issue when five people are home all day. 

Our yard between the alley and house is small, too. But we ordered an inflatable 8’x8’ swimming pool for the kids in April, assuming they would sell out quickly. As a result, the kids had a safe place to cool off and burn some energy every day. And yes, we ordered an LP gas patio heater in July for this fall. I like to plan ahead.

As for me, being home all the time when I’m used to being on an airplane every other week has been a lot. Both for myself and also for my family, who sometimes needs a break from me, too. So I had to find ways to hack my routine to stay busy, get away from the house, and feel productive. 

I bought a lawn edger. I over-trimmed the lilacs. I over-mulched. I stained the deck. I painted stuff. I cleaned out the basement. And the garage.

I’m a huge fan of the #TangibleAchievement. When a lot of what you do as a day job is never really complete, it’s important to find things you can start — and finish.

And I went for walks. A lot of walks. I know you’ll be surprised, but I’m not a big exerciser dude. But I found myself walking 2-5 miles almost every day, usually around the Minnesota River levee trail, AND the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge trail, which is a just 5 minute walk from our house. 

I learned that when you experience the world through a computer and your phone for months on end, there isn’t anything better than plopping your brain into a wildlife refuge with nothing but birds, babbling brooks, and silence to distract you. It’s restorative, and important. 

Of course, I’ve been using Strava to map my walks and track data, which has also been fun to total up the data, discover new trails, and try to beat my times.

You can take a digital guy into the forest, but you can’t make him unplug.


INNOVATION AT HOME

The internet never saw COVID-19 coming. The strain on global connectivity, neighborhood cable hubs, and home routers isn’t something to underestimate. 

We are fortunate to be able to afford the highest speed available, but even that wasn’t enough for 5 people all trying to do video calls at the same time. I installed a mesh network on our home wifi system, which helped even out the coverage in our home. And Xfinity even waived its data overages for awhile, until they saw an opportunity to take advantage and put the fees back in place. Now we pay extra for unlimited home data. Again, we are so fortunate and I can’t imagine how so many have to balance this extra cost. It’s borderline criminal and needs to be a priority for our lawmakers.

On the A.I. assistant front, we now have Amazon Echos in every room of the house, plus a complementary Google Assistant in the living room and a Facebook Portal in the kitchen. By “dropping in” on each other throughout the day, we are able to intercom across the house things that used to be yelled — yelling up the stairs is the worst option when you’re on a work video call. 

Of course, all those listening devices raise a lot of questions about privacy and how is listening. So I was excited to test out the Alexa Gate by MSCHF: Three Claps for Alexagate

The device sits atop your Echo device and uses 7 ultrasonic speakers to jam your Echo’s mic so it can’t hear you say “Alexa…” or ANYTHING ELSE.

You can turn the jamming on/off by clapping three times. The device isn’t really a mainstream utility, of course. Instead, it helps provoke a conversation about surveillance and sousvelliance (the recording of oneself, on purpose). And education. And privacy. And trust.

The primary use of the Echo Dot in my son’s room is telling him what day it is in the morning. Thanks, Jeff Bezos!

In other Amazon ecosystem news during the pandemic, I got the new Amazon Echo Loop smart ring and wrote a deep review: Alexa on Your Finger: The Amazon Echo Loop Smart Ring.

It’s not a must-buy, but it is certainly a compelling look into the future of wearable technology. 

And I started wearing Amazon Echo Frames, the smart glasses that have have four speakers and two microphones built in, just waiting for you to say “Alexa,….” so they whisper whatever you ask for into your ear. 

I also got ‘computer glasses,’ which have a reduced focal length to reduce eye strain when staring at a computer monitor and camera all day (18″ from pupil to screen – I measured). My eye doctor said “it’s just math!” Indeed. But my computer glasses don’t need Alexa built-in, because there are four other Amazon devices all around my workstation.

And guess who bought a new Jeep just before work-from-home was instituted and my 50 mile daily commute ceased to exist? This guy. Luckily I had already canceled my gas delivery service.

Then Automatic Labs went out of business and discontinued their support for aftermarket smart car integration. But that was also okay, because I learned Nobody Wanted to Follow My Tweeting Car Anyway. RIP.

And I still don’t know who did this — Instagram: Which Greg Swan Are You?  — but it’s pretty damn funny. 


REDEFINED FRIENDSHIPS

The last six months have completed redefined the paradigm of friendship for many of us. 

For my wife’s 40th birthday in March, we had more than 100 people drive by our house and honk and wave! It was the first of many birthday parades for most of our friend groups, and was a real source of joy in those initial weeks when this at-home period still seemed like an adventure. By the time we had my son’s summer birthday, and then my other son’s summer birthday, everyone was pretty over parades. 

But there were still many ways to “get together” and make an impact. We held a local supply drop for The Coven’s efforts to support downtown Minneapolis residents impacted by the unrest in Minneapolis and FILLED OUR ENTIRE MINIVAN. We found ourselves donating food or money in lots of places, and I started keeping a balance on my Venmo and PayPal accounts just so I could easily drop a donation to a friend, the homeless shelter up the block, or to a kids’ virtual lemonade stand. 

I don’t share this to humblebrag but rather as a milestone of a heart-change. Acts of service and donation became a primary way of showing love and support in the last six months of distance, and honestly, it feels really good. I’m ashamed I didn’t do more of that before and am glad it’s part of my life now. We’re budgeting for it now, and I highly encourage you to do the same if you’re not already. I’m late to the party. 

I also lost some friendships in the last six months, and it hurts a lot. 

That whole “this is a ‘plandemic’ conspiracy orchestrated by democratic governors to hurt the President” response really stings when it’s coming from longtime friends and you’re trying to share that real people in your life are sick and dying from a real life pandemic and we should do everything we can to protect and love others. I also lost friendships in my family’s heartfelt bias awakening and response about George Floyd’s murder and our desire to move our life toward anti-racism. Good riddance, I guess. But it hurts.

And I’ve had some strained friendships over my more conservative approach to in-person hangouts, gatherings of people, church services with unmasked singing, and my go-to response to a social distance driveway beer request always being “Can we do a Zoom instead?”

The fact is, Minnesotans really straight up did not want to do Zoom happy hours in July and August when the weather was gorgeous. They wanted to hang out IRL, and we didn’t. And friends like me were left behind. And it felt personal. And hurt.

Therefore, I’m also so grateful for friends who didn’t let COVID-19 come between us. 

I’m grateful for the group thread friends who consistently sent dumb memes 24/7. For the Marco Polo friends who said, “I’m kind of worried bout you, Greg. Are you taking care of yourself?” For our Sunday night Zoom trivia friends and host Brianna Liestman, who kept the weekly trivia nights alive even when she wasn’t being compensated and not that many folks were showing up. For our therapists who kept the whole family supported with virtual sessions. For the early Friday morning group of guys who made it a point to get on video and share our fears and hopes with each other, even when we were exhausted. The friend who called me on his commute home to check-in every week. And for the few couples who kept doing weekend Zoom hangouts with my wife and I, even when they aren’t being as cautious as us. 

Those are real friends, right there. And I’m grateful for them. True friends. Won’t abandon you in a pandemic friends. Lifelong friends.

Our kids also used digital connectivity to stay in touch with friends — both new and old. As mentioned above, Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite were critical tools for them. So were FaceTime, Messenger Kids, and Zoom. My son has made real friendships with kids he met online and plays with exclusively through these games. They have been a lifesaver for an extroverted kid made to stay at-home and away from other kids.

Last month my daughter had a “sleepover,” where she and her friends all walked their Roblox avatars to the same house and “slept” overnight together. They stayed up late dual-screening Zoom and Roblox while laughing their heads off. The next morning, they each woke up in their own homes in their own beds, but immediately jumped back online to “wake up” their avatars and have brunch together. 

Like I said, young people are learning new skills and new ways of connecting that we can’t understand in the moment. This experience is rewiring their definition of “together” and “belonging” in a way that will make my sadness over losing friends who will only hang out in person during a pandemic seem quaint. What a world they will build out of this experience.


SO NOW WHAT?

One of my personal 2020 goals was to reclaim my passion for emerging technology. Sadly, there was way less time to innovate, test, and pilot new technology in the last six months than I intended. 

In a typical year, I blend hardware and product insights from attending CES in January (CES 2020: Trends, Brands, and Waving at Robots) with philosophy and software insights from attending South by Southwest in March (which was canceled) to put together my futurism insights for the next 12 months. These insights become my guiding philosophy and foundation for strategic gut reactions and recommendations for clients as new trends and innovations emerge all year. 

Instead, that clearly didn’t happen.

And instead, given all the changing variables and upheaval, I’m left to do more questioning than usual (e.g., Is 2020 the Year of Organic Snapchat Strategy; You Heard About Quibi, But Did You Try It?).

It’s disconcerting, to say the least. But I do still feel like I have a healthy strategic gut about where we’re headed. How?

For starters, I’ve maintained my weekly email for 166 weeks in a row now (sign up here!). Spending purposeful time curating those weekly insights, news, and trends around the topics of social, culture and technology has given me a supernatural sense of what’s happening and where we’re headed I wouldn’t otherwise have from just doomscrolling every night.

And I’m thankful I read “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History” by Kurt Andersen almost exactly a year ago – a book that greatly prepared me mentally for where we’re at today.

The book is a brutal and unapologetic chronicle of the fantastical and fanciful belief systems that fuel the very ethos of the United States, and how religion, media, architecture, transportation, PT Barnum, Buffalo Bill, and Walt Disney all share in the blame for the current state of American politics.

As we consider the current culture war and find ourselves headed into most contentious election of our generation, it’s helpful to know the rise of “alternative facts” that drives the bulk of Western society these days isn’t actually new. In fact, today’s events are just the latest manifestation of mainstream magical thinking that repeats itself across every generation – whether as a gold rush, a witch trial, Satanic cults, McCarthyism, survivalism, and more.

It’s helpful to consider that the only special thing about our current circumstances is that we’re the ones living it. We are in control of our destiny, however. We are living ancient history and have a say over what happens, how we react, and where we go from here. There will be history books written about this time, and I personally want to have an impact on at least a chapter. 

But that means we have to adapt. We have to be open to change. We have to readily admit we’ve made mistakes, have been ignorant and unloving to our fellow man, and find ways to be excited for the “what’s next.” And to use technology for good.

The alternative choice is not acceptable.

It’s been six months. SIX MONTHS. Half a year of crisis and chaos and human creativity.

We’re learning not to rely on what we knew, but to adapt to what we know.

In his 2016 closing keynote speech at SXSW, futurist Bruce Sterling closed his predictions by offering this advice on trying to guess where we were going next, “Give up on common wisdom; look for uncommon wisdom.” 

It really struck me at the time (four years ago, mind you). One of the futurists I look up to was saying to begin expecting the unexpected. To explore those unusual corners. To embrace the black swan events. So as we close out this six months of uncommon wisdom, I will echo that sentiment as we look to rest of 2020 and beyond. .

Don’t crutch on this crisis. Look for sparks and opportunity to do good. To be human. To help others. To use your creativity to embrace challenge and innovate. And to put more positive energy into the world than you take.

Now that’s another six months I can look forward to, no matter the challenges.

-Greg


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