How to Win at COVID When Everyone Else Seems Set on Losing

Illustration by Johanna Seng ('21)

Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot of people describe 2020 as the “worst year ever.” This is somewhat laughable. Yes, we have experienced the rapid spread of a highly infectious virus, racial unrest often in the form of violent riots, and fractious debate in preparation for a contentious election, but calling 2020 the absolute worst is just misinformed.

We are by no means the first generation to experience such hardship. Take a look at the Spanish Flu epidemic, the Great Depression, and both World Wars and tell me we are currently suffering the most out of anyone in history. Look at the seemingly impossible barriers we as a nation have overcome and tell me the world is on the brink of permanent collapse. 

This isn’t to invalidate the suffering many people have been afflicted with. 2020 may very well have been your worst year of existence as an individual. And for good reason. Around 218,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. at the time of writing, and about 9% of U.S. citizens have lost their jobs due to excessively prolonged economic shutdowns. These occurrences have affected communities and individuals in undoubtedly devastating ways, both physically and psychologically. But recall that in 1918 the Spanish Flu killed around 675,000 U.S. citizens, during the Great Depression 10.5% citizens lost their jobs, and almost 345,000 Americans died due to combat in both World Wars combined. The point, one that you can also apply to your existence as an individual, is that terrible things have happened throughout history, and yet somehow we’ve managed to surpass those difficulties and advance as a society. Herd immunity to the influenza was developed in 1920, the stock market rebounded four years after the initial crash in 1929, and the Japanese surrendered to Douglas MacArthur aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in 1945, effectively bringing the enormous destruction of WWII to a close. 

Just as all good things must come to an end, so must all bad things. History has repeatedly proven that suffering is temporary, so living as though it is an eternal state of being actively inhibits development individually and as a community. It’s not as though you can completely ignore suffering, but mourning has a time and a place—society’s current headspace is almost analogous to a progression through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. In a tumultuous national scene (politically, physically, mentally, etc.) like we’re facing today, many of us are still stuck in the anger and depression stages. Anger and depression can feel like appropriate reactions, emotionally. Sometimes they are, especially when you first encounter a difficult situation. Unfortunately, if you allow yourself to stay there, you can never move forward. When something awful happens, it’s sink or swim—either you choose to move forward or you choose to drown in sorrow. Allow yourself to rest briefly at the hilltop, shed a tear or two; but then it’s time to decide if you tumble back the way you came or if you crest the peak and proceed into the unknown. Though 2020 may feel like the end of the world, time will not stop to accommodate that feeling; we do have some sort of future ahead of us. That much is guaranteed. The exact nature of how that future might be, however, is more dependent on our current behavior than most of us would like to admit. 

That said, it’s difficult to move on. From anything, really. A relationship, a death, an academic or athletic disappointment. Recent events have rendered most areas of the average person’s life disappointing in some way or another. Schools either remain mostly closed or half-open like HBA is, sports have largely been cancelled, and socials, dances and galas remain unplanned. It seems like there’s nothing to win, nowhere to go, and nobody to meet thanks to mass cancellation and travel restrictions. Major disappointments like the aforementioned can serve as huge blows to our morale, our self image. After all, if our identity consists of our accumulative actions but COVID prevents us from doing anything, we’re practically nothing, right? 

If it truly were the case that COVID prevents us from doing anything, that statement would indeed be true. It’s so easy to let your ipseity wither, to look around and think, “Well, until everything goes back to normal, my advancement has reached a standstill.” And if you think this way, it’s quite possible your advancement truly will reach a standstill until things go “back to normal.” (Unfortunately, given our current predicament, it is unclear whether or not that will be anytime soon.) The secret to preventing this from being the case is to not let current circumstances dictate whether you can or cannot achieve and improve. If you’re anything like me, you hate being told what to do. By anyone. You naturally resist domination by parents, teachers, bosses, temperamental coaches—anyone who tries to foist their commands and desires on you, however legitimate their authority may be. After all, it’s the teenage experience to instinctively balk at forceful instruction. My question is, if you wouldn’t let the tangible authority figures in your life step on you, why would you let the intangible? Why would you let yourself be dominated by an accidentally malicious clump of nucleic acids and proteins that isn’t even capable of thought (much less so verbal commands)? 

Surely, by this point, nearly nine months into the pandemic experience, you’ve realized there are still ways in which you can improve. And you are completely free to do so, since we’ve established your ability to resist COVID’s despotism. Can’t get those gains because the gyms are closed? Do an at home workout. College class you wanted to take this semester got cancelled? Sign up for an online course. You’ve heard it all before. My purpose here is not to specifically tell you how to improve. My purpose is to remind you to keep your momentum in the right direction. It’s easy to be motivated when the path towards victory, whatever that may be to you, is clear, when you have resources at your disposal and the world’s modus operandi works in your favor, providing a defined vision for success. It’s far harder to stay motivated when resources are limited, when the world has been thrust into chaos on nearly every front, when you must be creative and clever and overly aggressive to achieve the same things that you previously relied on programs and agendas to push you towards. You need to have aggression in a purposeful, defined direction of your choosing. A world that before rewarded both strength (of personality and intellect) and obedience now reverts back to primarily rewarding the former, as does every form of hierarchy when difficulties arise. You can no longer depend on being rewarded for perfect obedience to structures that currently do not exist. You must depend, instead, on both your own drive and your own vision to create your own structure. Both factors require a high degree of vigor to properly execute.

Of course, it’s not all brute force and perseverance. Work smarter, not harder. Don’t relentlessly push yourself in a way that renders you exhausted and not much closer to your goals. That’s inefficient. Get more “bang for your buck,” maximum results for each action. There are many ways in which to do this—you have to find the particular strategies that work for you. If you want study tricks and workout tips, I would be more than willing to oblige. But like I said, these things are dependent on the person. One thing that isn’t subjective, however, is that it is much easier to work when you are happy, with a light heart and bright spirits. If you’ve ever tried to complete a project after getting into a fight with your parents, you’ll know how difficult it is to produce quality work when you’re down. In contrast, if you’ve ever tried to complete the same task after getting an A on a test earlier in the day, or receiving a text from your crush, you’ll know how much easier that task becomes. The secret is to be happy. 

Easier said than done, right? I can feel you rolling your eyes. I forgive you for your skepticism, though, because I too find it unimaginable to just decide to be happy for no reason. If that were possible, most of us would just click the ‘constant happiness’ button and go about our lives with dopey grins. (Though this button does not exist, some people attempt to replicate its theoretical effect with marijuana. I do not suggest this.) What you can do, though, is choose to find reasons for which to be happy. As an extremely ambitious, achievement-oriented person myself, the reasons for which to be happy that automatically come to mind are palpable, worldly achievements like first place ribbons and gold medals. As was previously referenced, COVID has made this particular reason difficult to attain. So, the next reason that comes to mind is thanksgiving. Not strictly the holiday, though the holiday is in and of itself a delightful celebration. The action, the deed of gratitude. 

The best thing about thanksgiving (small ‘t;’ the best thing about big ‘t’ Thanksgiving is probably the pie) is that it can be done anywhere, anytime. There is no minimum level of magnitude for something you can be thankful for. You can be extremely thankful for winning a Nobel peace prize, and you can also be extremely thankful for a cool breeze that lifts your hair off your shoulders on a particularly sweaty day. You can be extremely thankful for winning the lotto, and you can also be extremely thankful that your dad made teriyaki chicken rather than pot roast for dinner. I’m sure you’ve been taught before to always be thankful for any good thing in your life, regardless of size or supposed significance. But again, that is far easier said than done. Our society has conditioned us to mostly value the big things, like a Nobel peace prize, a winning lotto ticket, a national merit scholarship, an athletic championship. Everyone says “be grateful for everything you are given,” but how many of us actually do that? I certainly don’t, at least not without concerted effort. 

This is because most of us see thanksgiving as something to do simply because it is morally good. It’s difficult to see a significant difference in our lives based on whether or not we decide to be thankful for more of the small things that constitute each day. The truth is, being thankful is not just a way to give back to our family, friends, and God. Thanksgiving is the fuel for success.

This can be explained using a running analogy. A marathon is 26.2 miles, and the average marathon runner finishes in 4-5 hours. 17.13% of participants drop out before they reach the finish line. The exact distribution curve graphing the mile number when runners most frequently decide to stop is unclear, but from personal experience as an athlete, I know it’s far more tempting to quit a workout before you’ve made it halfway through. If you’re trying to run six half-mile reps, it’s far easier to quit when you’ve run three as opposed to when you’ve run four. Logically, this makes no sense. There’s only a difference of one between the third rep and the fourth rep. But it’s common knowledge among runners that once you make it over halfway through a workout or a race, the motivation to finish suddenly increases because you then have more to lose. You’re more likely to finish the marathon once you get 14 miles in. 

Being thankful can give you these first 14 miles, metaphorically. Giving up is far easier when you feel like you don’t have anything good in the first place. When you feel like all is lost and you’re on the very bottom of the food chain, it seems as though it will take far more effort to work yourself back up to where you want to be.  In contrast, when you feel as though you already have some of the work done, some of the mileage behind you, you’re more motivated to build on the things you have already accomplished or the things you already have. Being thankful is the fuel for success.

This year has been a difficult one for most, if not all, of us. And whenever difficulties arise, the motivation to keep pushing towards your goals can dissipate into the wind only to be replaced by a resignation to stalled progress and waiting around for a change in circumstances beyond your control. Of course, this is average, this is human. My point is that if you don’t want to be average—if you want to be excellent, if you want to be a winner—you’re going to have to do some things a little out of the ordinary. So, to recap, here’s how you win at COVID when everyone else is set on losing in 5 steps:

  1. Remember that all bad things come to an end.
  2. Remember that the nature of your future depends on what you do right now.
  3. Don’t let yourself be dominated by a clump of cells.
  4. Instead, choose aggression in a direction of your choosing to cut a path through the chaos.
  5. Use thanksgiving as fuel for the motivation to do so.
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