Elementary, Mr. Watson: 2020—The Year that Taught Us Resilience

You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude toward what happens to you, and in that, you will be mastering change rather than allowing it to master you. [1]

During this time of year, I enjoy taking a step back for a serious look at the year that was, while preparing for the year ahead. I am sure that many of you would join me in giving 2020 a swift, hard kick out the door. Merely saying that 2020 was a challenging year would be a colossal understatement. But congratulations: You made it to 2021.

Yes, 2020 was a challenge. It's during those times that we can learn some significant lessons if we allow them. I love playing chess. When I first started playing, I quickly learned that although it is fun to play with someone below my abilities, I learned much more playing with someone above my skill set. When it was tough, and my opponent kicked my rear around the board, maybe even beat me over and over, was when I learned the most; it gave me the most significant benefit. Because it pushed me beyond my self-imposed limitations, I could see mistakes made or learn new methods of doing things. But none of that learning is possible unless I don't get out of my comfort zone and push myself. If nothing else, 2020 involuntarily pushed all us out of our comfort zones, and with that, provided some significant lessons.

What are some of the hard lessons that 2020 taught us both personally and as a community of engineers or PCB designers?

We Learned it's Okay to Fail
Some believe that successful people should not fail. That in some way, they are immune to the pitfalls and should succeed with absolutely no failures. We look at people in business and tag them as a failure if they declared bankruptcy or if the engineer goes through thousands of failures before finding the answer. But in reality, the most successful people are those that fail the most—the ones who are willing to take the chance and take a nosedive, if necessary, to get to their goal.

One of the most prominent baseball players in history was Babe Ruth. With an astounding record career, Ruth established many MLB batting records in baseball history, including career home runs (714), runs batted in (2,213), bases on balls (2,062), slugging percentage (.690), and on-base plus slugging (1.164); the last two stood until 2019. But another career record that Babe Ruth held for nearly 30 years was 1,330 strikeouts. When asked about it, he replied, "Every strikeout brings me closer to my next home run." You see, for Babe Ruth, each time he would go to bat, he was swinging for the home run and never let the fear of striking out get in his way.

Last year taught us the same principle: Whether you succeed or fail, at the end of the day, it allows you to show your resiliency. Resiliency is defined as "the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness." No matter what happens, no matter how many times you get knocked down, you get back to the plate and swing for the home run every single time.

Maybe in 2020 you were collateral damage of the COVID pandemic. I know many lost their business or jobs. Everything that was "normal" got flipped on its head in a relatively brief period of time. The stress of the situation hit all of us hard. But something deep down inside began to grow: No matter what happens, no matter how many things occurred, how many times we got "knocked down," we knew we had to pick ourselves back up and continue to keep moving forward.

We Learned What's Most Important
Whenever things get reshuffled, we also tend to reprioritize what’s important to us. With companies forced to close or downsize, many had to reinvent themselves and their careers. We learned an important lesson along the way: It's not your career or your job that makes you who you are. It's not what is on the outside but rather what and who you are on the inside. 

Several years ago, while hiking and camping with my oldest son on Catalina Island off California's coast, we suddenly got caught in a severe storm. We quickly set up our tent and hunkered down for the night. Despite the pouring rain and howling winds that reached gusts up to 50 mph, we were perfectly safe and dry in our tent—a somewhat fragile and insignificant little item of nylon and polyester material. You see, a hiking/camping tent is a very lightweight item; mine weighed about 2.5 pounds. I can typically imagine if you place such a light item in a severe storm, it would just blow away pretty quickly into the Catalina wilderness.

Why did that not happen? Simply, it was because of what was inside the tent or, more accurately, who. Similarly, who you are on the inside is what got you through 2020. That fact alone should be reassuring, because the outside situations will always be changing, either for the good or the bad. You can always control what’s on the inside.

We Learned to be Proactive
For many, as times get rough and uncertainty takes over, they become very reactive to situations. It's difficult to break out of that mentality because they cannot prepare for the unknown. But for others, they remember who they are. They are engineers and PCB designers, and they are wired to fix problems; instead of merely reacting to a situation, they were proactive. Proactive means that you are continually looking for the solution and striving to become more. In 2020, we learned that we are more than the byproduct of our situations or circumstances. As engineers and PCB designers, we are the problem-solvers, the builder of the dreams.

C_Watson_Ventilator.jpgA great example of this was the thrust of innovation that swept through the engineering field, such as the development of MIT's newer and cheaper version of a ventilator. The need for ventilators had skyrocketed across the nation, with a cost of nearly $30,000 apiece. A significant issue to be solved was the among of time required for the manufacture of a ventilator. The team at MIT designed and built a prototype, costing about $100 for materials. Being proactive puts you in charge of your situation instead of the other way around.

A final word of advice: 2020 is gone; leave it in the past. 2021 lies ahead. Let us take the lessons we learned and forge ahead. New challenges are facing us. Maybe we will fall, and that's okay. Pick yourself back up and keep moving forward.

I am not one to make New Year’s resolutions. But this year, we all should resolve not to be satisfied with just being good, but rather being great Engineers and PCB designers who work toward being the best we can be every day. That’s who we really are.

Happy New Year, everyone!


  1. Brian Tracy, https://www.brainyquote.com.

John Watson, CID, is a customer success manager at Altium.




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