By the time January 2021 rolled around I found myself beginning to dread the arrival of March. I kept thinking—has it really been a whole year already? I’d spent the last 10 months at the drawing board (literally—I’d ordered a giant whiteboard for my makeshift home office last May) drawing and redrawing the path forward for Farmgirl. Usually just when I thought I’d figured it out, my team and I would come to another seemingly insurmountable obstacle and I’d be right back where I started—with a clean slate, the smell of Dry Erase markers in the air, and the prospect of a sleepless night of “figuring it out” ahead of me.
It’s difficult to understand that “this,” in the broadest sense of the term, has been happening for more than an entire year. So when I sat down to write this—a reflection on the lessons I’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic—I was, more than anything else, tired. Like bone tired. It’s been—and this is an understatement—a year. And/so I wasn’t sure where to begin. But eventually two things came to mind.
First (and bear with me here because it does eventually all make sense) was one of my favorite quotes of all time by Will Smith. He talks about knowing that someone else in the room will always be more talented, smarter, or sexier than him, but the one thing that will absolutely never be true is that someone will outwork him. He said “…if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die.”
The second thing was a recent Instagram post by a friend of mine—a fellow entrepreneur who also founded and runs their own business. It was a relaxed selfie, and they were smiling this wide, genuine, crinkly-eyed smile. In the caption they talked about getting off that “treadmill” after their own incredibly challenging year and finding a moment to unplug from work and check into whatever was the source of that infectious-even-through-a-photo grin.
And ever since I’ve just kept thinking about treadmills.
I’ve often described being an entrepreneur in tempo terms because, since starting Farmgirl, it’s quite literally felt like running. Sometimes the road is flat and consistent, you can catch your breath and feel like you’ve found your pace and think that maybe, just maybe, you’ve mastered this whole cardio thing. And then, before you can even blink, there’s a hill. Then another hill. And another hill. Your breath becomes ragged, your legs begin to burn and your mind and body are both on the brink.
Less metaphorically speaking, in the ten years my company has been around I’ve had different relationships with exercise. Some months (and years) are so busy the only marathon I’m running is in Excel. But at other times I’ve ran, lifted, piked, and, more recently Peloton-ed with the best of them. But whether I’m plugging decimals into cells til four or five in the morning (only to startle at six AM when my alarm clock revives me to do it all over again) or doing elevator lunges on a reformer until it feels like my quads will quite literally fall off, I’ve got Will Smith’s words on a loop in my head every time. I know that come hell or high water that I will spreadsheet or sprint longer than anyone else. Period. I have always really prided myself on this work ethic—it comes with growing up on a farm, I think, because when most kids were only cleaning their room I was cleaning an entire barn. But, this is the first year that I’ve actually questioned it.
For every hard period in my professional life I’ve always been able to gas it to the finish line precisely because I knew there was a finish line. But in this pandemic? I don’t even begin to know what that looks like right now. As humans I think we’re hardwired to think about time with a beginning, a middle and an end – all with a thousand “once upon a times” and “happily ever afters” written carefully into the smaller stories that make up the months, years and decades of our lives. But if COVID has taught me one thing, it’s that you can’t fit a global pandemic into neat, little narrative boxes. Believe me—I tried. I can’t tell you how many times when we first fell into the shelter-in-place mandate last year that I reasoned with myself that “if we could just make it to this point” or “once we got to this month” that everything would get back to normal. But “normal” never came. And just as spring has come once again, signaling a full year of panic and pivots and piecing together some semblance of consistency, I realized that I might actually collapse on this “treadmill” before we get to whatever the end of this looks like.
And so, in a more than a year full of some of the hardest lessons I’ve ever learned, this has been the hardest. I don’t think I’ve ever shied away from a serving of humble pie when I was due it, but the humility required to accept that I need a break from, well, pretty much everything from the past year has been overwhelming. And as a leader with a team of almost 300 employees I’ve felt like I’ve let myself down not only personally but professionally, too. I feel like a hypocrite staring into a Zoom screen full of nervous faces when I’m trying to rally the management team after a series of crippling shipping delays during Valentine’s Day. I’m telling them not to give up when all I feel like doing is dropping my cell phone into the ocean and walking as many miles in the opposite direction from any and all responsibilities as I can get. But I don’t. I keep Zooming and leading and moving forward because the other thing I’ve learned this year is that we have the capability to do so much more than we believe we’re capable of, even and especially when we don’t believe it.
But that grit? That determination and belief you can do it based on nothing other than the flight of fancy that your feet will take you where you need to go if you keep putting one in front of the other? It requires fuel. And whether that fuel is sleep, water, good food, a vacation or maybe just an afternoon spent watching Gilmore Girls, fuel is a need to have—not a nice to have.
Because when there’s no end in sight and it feels like you’re beginning to run on fumes, you have to write your own ending even if it’s only for right now. That spreadsheet, those faces on that Zoom screen—they’ll all be there tomorrow. But you won’t be there—at least not in the way you want to be or need to be – if you don’t give yourself a break first.
And now that we’re in spring, the big bad I’d been expecting on the heels of the shutdown anniversary has come and, surprisingly, mostly gone. It was just another day, like so many before it and so many that will come after it. And, regardless of what those days may hold I know that I’ll be able to handle them because it’ll be the same way I’ve handled all those that came before: the only way out is through, and the only way through is with a lot of hard work, some long nights spent back at the drawing board, but also (and especially) some much needed R&R in between. Here’s to persistence—and to rest.
Check out the full article on Maria Shriver’s blog, click here!