2020 A year full of surprises

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This time last year I posted an article entitled “Why 2020 is going to be amazing (and really full-on)”.  With the benefit of hindsight, it’s quite comedic, isn’t it?

My plans and the reality

In that article I wrote about how I was going to travel the world doing a Nuffield Farming Scholarship about how to create a more vibrant ecosystem of AgTech Entrepreneurs. What actually happened was 4 days of meetings and 2 days of the “Contemporary Scholars” conference in March. Then the world began to implode. I hot footed it back to the UK: isolation in
the attic, then lockdown. From then on, keeping the wheels on took priority, and the scholarship was largely parked.

So, 2020 wasn’t that amazing.  It had some very low lows – cherished plans in tatters, staring into the livelihood abyss, personal and family life difficulties, suffering consequences of others’ poor leadership.  But there were also wonderful highs – seeing colleagues perform miracles, securing a major contract, emerging to spring sunshine after isolation, embracing my inner battle-axe. Everyone’s experience of 2020 has been different, and I am under no illusions, the tough times are not behind us yet.

Reflecting on that title, I thought I’d share a little about why 2020 was full-on even if the amazing things in it were not what I expected.

Face down the tough times

During the first lockdown in March one of my businesses, Duraweld, lost 90% of its turnover.  I am sadly not the only business owner who knows that sickening feeling – literally no work for staff who’ve been with us often for 15, 20 or 30 years in a region where, even in good times, there is high unemployment.

The partner of one of our team worked in the NHS and knew of the PPE shortage.  To help, we pivoted within 48 hours, designing and testing an inexpensive at-cost visors to meet their needs.  Our visor was tested and certified to BE and CE standards, and after a protracted due diligence process we landed a 6 month contract to produce for the NHS (despite a lack of political contacts!). Far from being a godsend, this has in turn created a wealth of new agonies.  

What I learnt:

  • Team, team, team.  I knew I had a great group of colleagues but my appreciation of them collectively and individually has redoubled.  Each brought their own technical contribution, but the collective energy, positivity and trust when the going gets tough has been awesome and has sustained us all.  
  • Silver linings are everywhere.  Truly, everywhere, if you look for them.   Finding them has become like a muscle that has strengthened over time.  The positives sometimes help emotionally – to soften a blow – but they also made me more alert to new opportunities
  • Roll with the punches.  I have definitely felt the knocks.  The sickening lurch of the stomach, or the suffocating weight of yet another challenge.  But without minimising the pain, I found could get up again.  And again.  It turns out that I have reserves I didn’t know existed.  
  • Professional support I have never spent so much on advice, expertise, support as this year.  I have not regretted it one jot (NB, privilege appropriately checked).

Innovation finds away

Less conspicuously impacted by the pandemic (plants will grow, food needs producing), PBS International, CHAP and the other Agritech organisations I work with navigated a series of frustrations.  How do we plan for Brexit – in a 98% export business – when we don’t know what it will involve?  How can you show me why that component on the prototype isn’t working – across a language and distance barrier?   

So, we innovated and experimented.  I recorded Plant Breeding Stories, a new podcast (imminent!).  We hired and on-boarded colleagues remotely, published two papers and conducted trials in 4 countries, redesigned our processes and methods.  We are about to, finally, launch our new range of pollination control tents.  Progress is still possible, and often came in new and better ways.

What I learnt:

  • The Great Outdoors.  Walking, walking, walking.  Not just paying attention to the wonderful scenery and plants on my doorstep, it frees the mind for creativity.  However, outdoor meetings in Northern England …apparently, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.  Ahem.
  • “If you didn’t laugh you’d cry”.  Things go wrong.  Often.  Sometimes tears are needed, but where there’s a choice I’d opt for laughter every time.  It buys goodwill and patience.  Plus, swearing creatively at Get Ready for Brexit adverts is great source of relief.
  • Focus on what you can influence.  I am pretty good with change, but the visceral discomfort of uncertainty when I have no influence, is horrid.  I found that either making a plan and leaning in, or explicitly deciding I could not and would not try to change a situation, helped me feel better.
  • Something is better than nothing.  As part of my Nuffield experience I was supposed to do a six week world once-in-a-lifetime GFP trip with other agriculturists from around the world.  It was reduced to 5 x early morning zoom calls – not at all the same.  It sucks.  Yet, I still learnt something.  Still better than nothing.  

Embrace the inner battle axe

This is not the place for the personal life rollercoaster, but here are two insights from my home life that gave me the resilience I needed.

What i learnt:

  • Diverse friendship groups are underrated.  The people who often pulled me through the toughest times were often on the periphery of my friendship circle – people I hadn’t spoken to for years, different generations, or new friends.  
  • Good enough is good enough.  And that’s fine.  Perfectionism when the world is on its head is a fools’ errand.  I learnt afresh the value of everything I have, however imperfect it might be – home, health, family, friends, love, livelihood.    

I will build back better

I am sickened by the self serving attitudes and selfishness I have seen from some in 2020, particularly from those in positions of power and privilege.  I have been inspired by the difference that individuals can and do make.  In my Nuffield study, my personal aspirations, my business I am even more resolved to use my energies to try to bring about change for the better.

So yeah, 2020 has had some amazing things in it and it was certainly full-on.  

Just not in the way I imagined.  

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