Dam…it’s nearly Christmas and amongst the many traditions of the year, I’ll be doing my own annual review. Yep, for the last three years, I’ve dismissed new year's resolutions in favour of a more reflective assessment of the year gone by. I try to objectively reflect on the past year, compare where I am to where I wanted to be, and seize upon any lessons I can take to make me a better person in the year ahead.
The annual review builds upon my goal to become a better person. So, I look to answer the following questions…
- What were my goals?
- Did I achieve them?
- If not, why not?
- What could I have done better?
- What would have helped?
- If I did, why?
As I’ve begun to reflect on what has happened, I realise my 2020 review is going to be unique. Not only will my annual review hold the drama of COVID-19, so will everyone else’s. We have faced a global pandemic, one which has taken the lives of many people but also turned the way we live on its head. I – and probably you – have had to cope with lockdowns, face masks, social distancing, possibly even illness and loss – all of which have disrupted my life and others.
Our Annual Review
An annual review isn’t only about your goals and whether you achieved them or not. It should also offer us a platform for some introspection. To look and assess our decisions – our choices – and how they worked for us. Vital to this is to reflect not only on the outcome but also the process of decision-making we followed.
2020 offers some insights to some different lessons for us though. Most of us live ‘normal’ lives, rarely are we tested by something so powerful as a pandemic. We get a view of how we deal with ‘life and death’ pressure. Now, how we see, how we orientate ourselves on the information we have, and then – the decisions we make – and the action we take matters far more than it ever has.
For me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of my annual review. Never have I had the circumstance of a pandemic to gauge my decision-making process. Through my annual review, one lesson stands out. I suspect it will be many other reviews too.
We still don't know what we don't know
Our ability to assess risk has never come under greater scrutiny than it has in 2020. COVID-19 has shown how masterful confirmation bias is in us all - and that's bad. It isn’t only confirmation bias which has affected our thinking.
We don’t understand the law of large numbers, we do not see loss aversion at work, and we accept the words of laypeople over experts.
In practical terms, our phones and TV's are full of graphs and words we think understand, but we don't.
Exponential is one of those words we don't seem to get. Just as we can’t grasp probabilities, so we cannot get our heads around the much-referenced R-number. We marvel at the power of compounding without fully understanding how devastating it is in the hands of a contagious disease.
We don't know what we don't know.
Our biases are killing us
Blind to our biases, we do not see or challenge assumptions. We all have agenda's - some more than others - and when the narrative doesn't fit, we seek evidence to ensure our stories fit. Politicians have worried more about their future election successes, than the lives of the people they are there to lead and protect.
When it came to lockdowns, wearing masks, and social distancing, we did what suited us. In the beginning, the threat felt real, so we followed the rules. As time went by, and the more distant the threat felt, the less we followed the rules. Even though the virus was still with us.
The sad fact is, we don't know what we don't know. We make biased judgements all the time - often based on confirmation of information which suits our needs. If the facts don't fit - we ignore them.
2020 has seen a year littered with evidence of our biases working against us. The people who we thought knew what they were talking about became compromised by incentives, more interested in their self-worth than the health of humanity.
Politicians started to put wealth before health. Pressured by those more concerned for their dividend payments, politicians buckled. "We're following the science." Well only until it didn’t suit them.
Our annual review lessons
Of course, 2020 has also shown had adaptable we are. Somehow, I have made it through the year without doing a Zoom call. Yes, I have used other video applications, but Zoom has escaped me - others haven't been so lucky. We've also learnt to work from home, turning our dining rooms into makeshift offices at the same time.
Lockdowns have rewarded the introverts in us with peace - and cast extroverts into a world of gloom and suffering. The cost of solitude for those in need of company will no doubt become clear as we move on from this pandemic.
But we can't escape what we don't know.
It lurks, poised to defeat our ability to be rational when making decisions. It rails our assumptions into false positives, and it is, as I see it anyway, the biggest potential lesson from this year's annual review.