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Making the Most of This Ugly Year

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

— The opening line to Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Ziba’s Holiday Gift 2009. Featuring Ugly.

I still have a holiday gift I got in December of 2009 from the design firm Ziba. They created six brochures on trends for 2010: me, we, happy, human, old, and … ugly. (1)Design companies like to create beautiful and provocative gifts. For example, Thomas Heatherwick’s delightful Christmas gifts were featured in a museum.

Ugly! Why would consumers be drawn to (or want to purchase) something ugly? Initially, I thought this for shock value, like a kid screaming for negative attention, but over time, I realized it’s more than that. 

Ugly and beauty are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. The most beautiful football game isn’t the one you win by 50 points. When you’re winning by that much, the game gets boring. The best football game I’ve ever seen was the Harvard-Yale game of 2019. I was watching at home with my son Blake and things weren’t looking so good for the Yale team. We were down 36-19 with 13 minutes left in the game. Blake wanted to stop watching, thinking there was no chance we could win. But I told him that we needed to watch. If we were to win, this would be the most amazing game ever. And through the craziest set of events—we did!(2)We won in a double-overtime on the last possible play of the game. The sun was setting, there was no artificial light, and the game was an hour later than it should have been due to a climate change protest at half time. It was an ugly win with onside kicks at the end of the fourth quarter, but it was the most beautiful game I’ll ever watch.

Life is about challenges. We imagine that paradise is a world where everything is perfect and all of our wishes would come true. But what would that really be like? There’s an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone called A Nice Place to Visit that examines this alternate reality.(3)A Nice Place to Visit is available on Netflix. It’s well worth watching. After leading a life of crime, a thief dies and gets everything he wants. He believes he’s in heaven. There’s nothing that he can’t have, whether it’s women, food, or money. Nothing requires any effort to achieve. After a month he realizes that it’s a horrible existence and doesn’t want to be in heaven anymore. That’s when it’s revealed that he’s not in heaven but in hell.

It’s the diversity and differences that make life beautiful.(4)Are you interested in what would it look like if everyone were perfect? There’s another Twilight Zone about this one. In Number 12 Looks Just Like You, also available on Netflix, everyone gets plastic surgery at 18 years old, choosing from a small set of templates. We follow Marilyn who doesn’t want to go through the transformation saying, “When everyone is beautiful, no one will be because without ugliness there can be no beauty.” Think about hand made bagels. Machines can make perfect round and consistent bagels, like the Lenders bagels you could buy at the supermarket. But if you go to a fancy bagel store, they’re imperfect—even a little bit ugly. These imperfections make each bite of a bagel taste different, and that’s what makes them taste so good. Ben & Jerry’s does the same thing with ice cream. While Häagen-Dazs will sell you a perfectly blended strawberry ice cream, Ben and Jerry’s is far uglier, and in my mind far more delicious. They put large pieces of chocolate and swirls of caramel in the ice cream making each bite taste different.

This is an ugly year. We’re used to a world of endless opportunities. In non-pandemic days we tried to fill out lives with only the most wonderful things—parties, vacations, and other awesome experiences. But this year, in order to find the beauty in this world, we need to take a different perspective. In order to find beauty these days, we need to look deeper into the nuances of life. While it’s tempting to just stick our heads in the sand and wait until this is all over, we need to do the opposite.

Most of the time I’m afraid to engage deeply with people. I don’t want to talk about anything happy because I don’t want to make others feel bad. I don’t want to talk about anything sad because I don’t want people to feel worse than they already do. So I end up with a milquetoast conversation that’s not really about anything.

But the fascinating conversations these days are about the challenges everyone has. To paraphrase Anna Karenina, we’re all unhappy in our own ways, and we all are overcoming challenges in our own way. For me, I’ve been consulting and looking for a job for the last year which is allowed me to learn a whole lot of new things and advise some incredible businesses. But on the positive side, I’ve been able to work with my kids on their schoolwork during this crazy homeschool time. But it also means that finding work is pretty grueling. Everyone has a similar story of challenge and opportunity. I have a friend who moved to Virginia just as the pandemic was starting which was fantastic because he had this enormous house however, I also meant he had to sell his apartment in New York City as the housing market was drying up.

It’s in these ugly challenges that we can find beauty these days. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl wrote that life is one long search for meaning. He said that meaning can be through work, love/caring for others, and courage in difficult times. It’s the third one that we often forget and overlook. In these difficult times, it’s worth taking a step back and realizing that there’s nobility in overcoming these challenges. Or as Dr. Suess said, “When something bad happens you have three choices. You can either let it define you, let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you.” Instead of framing it as “This sucks” we can frame it as “This sucks, but I’ve been working hard to overcome it, and I should feel good about that effort.” Give it a try!

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Design companies like to create beautiful and provocative gifts. For example, Thomas Heatherwick’s delightful Christmas gifts were featured in a museum.
2 We won in a double-overtime on the last possible play of the game. The sun was setting, there was no artificial light, and the game was an hour later than it should have been due to a climate change protest at half time.
3 A Nice Place to Visit is available on Netflix. It’s well worth watching.
4 Are you interested in what would it look like if everyone were perfect? There’s another Twilight Zone about this one. In Number 12 Looks Just Like You, also available on Netflix, everyone gets plastic surgery at 18 years old, choosing from a small set of templates. We follow Marilyn who doesn’t want to go through the transformation saying, “When everyone is beautiful, no one will be because without ugliness there can be no beauty.”