Schools shut down in New York City on March 16, 2020. That was the day my wife and I hurriedly booked a flight, gathered our two little boys, threw some clothes into a bag, and traveled to Boulder, Colorado. We live in a small apartment, and my parents had generously offered for us to stay with them in their house until… well, none of us were sure.
Today, on August 2, 2021, a year and a half after we left New York, we are beginning to return.
The experience changed me in ways I can’t fully explain, and it has surely influenced a future path that I cannot predict.
But here’s what I can tell you with certainty: Moments of disruption, terrifying as they may be, are also our most reliable source of what we never knew we needed.
So I’ll share my experience in brief here, hoping that it may inspire you to embrace yours.
I have a theory about change. I believe that we experience it in four phases:
3. New Normal
4. Wouldn’t Go Back
The first three phases are about being forced to make changes that we wouldn’t have previously considered. That last phase is the most important one, because it is where we discover how valuable these changes are. We start to say, “This is so good that I wouldn’t want to go back to a time before I had it.”
As I’ve talked to entrepreneurs over the past year and a half, I’ve heard many Wouldn’t Go Back stories. People redefined their businesses and lives. They found new opportunities and embraced new experiences. I called around asking experts why moments of disruption can lead to such positive outcomes, and the best explanation I got came from Wharton professor Brian Berkey. “A crisis like this can shift the window on the options that we are willing to collectively take seriously,” he told me.
In other words, change forces people to reconsider what they once believed was impossible.
This is a humbling process. I’ve learned this personally throughout the past year and a half.
For example, here’s a story I used to love telling about myself.
You know how Coors Light advertisements often feature a train that sorta, kinda resembles a beer can?
A few years ago, Coors ran a billboard in New York City that said something like, “Catch the 5 pm train.” I remember looking up at it and having absolutely no idea what it was referencing. What happens at 5 pm? After a moment or two, I realized: Oooooh, in the rest of the country, 5 pm is when people leave work! I felt a great sense of pride that this meant nothing to me. I’d moved to New York City in 2008 with the explicit goal of kicking ass, and that meant I often anchored myself to a desk inside a magazine office until 7 pm or later, and so did my friends.
Catch the 5 pm train? Why catch a train full of slackers?
This was my mindset. I loved New York for its aggressive energy. I identified with the grind. When I was transported to Boulder, that work obsession felt like the thing that grounded me. I was a New Yorker who wasn’t in New York, but at least I could act like a New Yorker. Meanwhile, the people we first met here kept talking about weed and hiking trails. I told my wife, Our people aren’t in Boulder.
Months passed. We were fortunate to get our kids into full-time school out here, which wasn’t available in Brooklyn. This meant we were staying for a long time, and we tried to make the most of it. We met new people. We explored the region. I started working outdoors, sitting in a chair in front of my parents’ house. (That’s where I am right now, as I write this newsletter.) And then one day my friend Jason from across the street rolled up on his bicycle. He, like us, had temporarily relocated with his family here. It was maybe 1 pm and he was about to go on a bike ride.
“Don’t you have work to do?” I asked. He runs his own company, so I know he’s busy.
“I do,” he said, “but I can do it later.”
He invited me to join him. I said no. He took off. Then I thought about this exchange for days as I sat there in my chair all day, working. I never took breaks during workdays. But now I started to feel myself fusing into my chair. I won’t always be here in Boulder, I started to think. Maybe I should take advantage of it.
One day, I did: In the middle of the day, I put the computer down, got on a bicycle, and headed out into the mountains. I worried about all the work I wasn’t accomplishing, but I enjoyed the feeling of movement. When I got back to the computer, I discovered that nothing bad had happened. No emergencies. No fires. So I went on a ride the next day too. Soon I was biking regularly, and hiking too, and my career continued to grow unabated. I sold a book. I landed some big new projects. And I did it while working fewer hours and treating myself better.
I mean, look at this guy!
This, I now realize, was me moving from one phase of change to another. I’d left Panic, and entered Adaptation.
Meanwhile, my wife and I started making more friends here. Some of these people were like the work-obsessed New Yorkers I knew back home, but many were not. Either way, they became some of our closest and most treasured friends. I even started hiking with some of them. Then I thought back to that thing I said to my wife, about how our people weren’t in Boulder. It turns out they were. So who are our people? And who are we? And what does this say about where we belong?
My wife and I have had endless conversations about what to do next. We decided that the first step must be to return to Brooklyn, where we own our home and had built a life. It’s worth seeing if that’s still right for us.
But as I’ve spent the past year and a half writing about other people’s Wouldn’t Go Back moments, and speaking about the benefits of change, I’ve of course thought a lot about what my own Wouldn’t Go Back moment is. What form will it take? Is it about the place we ultimately live, or the decisions we make about our lives, or something else entirely?
I’ve come to an early conclusion: Change doesn’t always look like change. Sometimes change is simply permission to do things differently.
Maybe my Wouldn’t Go Back moment is that I learned something important about myself here — that I am more flexible than I thought, that I can be happy in many different kinds of places, and that success takes many forms (and maybe even requires fewer hours). Maybe Boulder just taught me to be less rigid. Maybe it taught me to care for myself more. Then it’s up to me to do something with all of that. I am the one that must put it to use. I must take the best of what I knew, and combine it with the best what I’ve learned, and do something so that I will say, with certainty, that I wouldn’t want to go back to a time before it.
Maybe that’s what Wouldn’t Go Back moments looks like — for you and me and everyone. It isn’t one thing. It’s everything.
I’ll hit send on this email on Monday morning. A few hours later, my family and I will leave Boulder and start making our way back east. We’re taking our time; we have a lot of friends and family to see along the way. Then we’ll arrive in Brooklyn in late August, which I once thought would mark the end of this strange interruption in our lives. But endings don’t work like that.
You might think you’re bad at talking with strangers. But in fact, you were built to talk to them — and you’re more natural at it than you know. On the new episode of my podcast, we go back millions of years to learn how our cultures and even our bodies were shaped by strangers, and what that can teach us about healing today’s great divides.