TL;DR: Since August 2023, I’m navigating major changes in career and living — new job, return to pre-xAPI career track, newly single again (fallout from locking down during the pandemic) and a return to living in Chicago.

MakingBetter was always hard

Late in 2013, having worked with Jason Early previously, I developed a clear branding and identity for what I wanted to accomplish with MakingBetter. Unexpectedly bootstrapping MakingBetter in 2014, at least by 2016, MakingBetter as a business had lined up enough social-good work that going into 2017 looked like it was on-time for a banner year, with over $350K in committed work… that is, until President Trump’s inauguration early that January. Over the course of that following week, only $48K in committed/previously signed contracts remained in play.

With two principals, both of us bootstrapping our families off the business, my former partner and I had to make some personal and business pivots to survive the year.

  • We married to take advantage of the tax incentives and to streamline our mutual expenses.
  • I got coaching from Wendy Terwelp and began in earnest looking for a salaried role that would better support the combined family (ultimately, this resulted in working for Elsevier).

By the end of 2017, I was married, both of us were employed and for the next two years, things got pretty stable and comfortable from a family perspective as work stabilized. In summer 2019, however, we were made an offer that we couldn’t refuse.

When it rains

We were given about 24 hours to respond to contract offer from ADL. We weren’t allowed to make amendments or changes… it was a take-it-or-leave-it one year opportunity to design and develop the ADL xAPI Profile Server, and to produce a fully researched xAPI Profile with a vetted stakeholder with a use-case for that. It was a 7-figure deal and despite all the risks (and there were several glaring risks I identified in the proffered contract before signing) — well, I signed that contract (because with as much work as I put into xAPI Profiles, particularly why wouldn’t I shoot my shot?) and the project kicked off September 2019.

When it pours

Of course, among the risks I assumed, one was that I had a full-time role at Elsevier while also, in non-work hours, was managing (and designing, approving, reviewing, editing, emailing) ADL work, and I had to manage my time effectively. Fall of 2019, this looked pretty straightforward, but two major time sucks were quickly added to my plate within a few weeks of kicking off the ADL contract.

  • Elsevier finally offered to put me through Villanova’s Lean/Six Sigma Black Belt program — an 8-month certificate program done virtually.
  • MakingBetter was recruited to help support instructional design and development of the US Navy’s Educational & Training Center’s xAPI Library.

Both fell solely on my shoulders about the same time. I was spinning a lot of plates.

And then February 2020. For months, my former partner and I were keeping up with the amount of work and work-like responsibilities we each took on, but when the lockdown started, now we had zero breaks and zero escapes from the work, and each other.

Diagnosis

Most couples I know do not work with each other, in terms of employment. I understand why now.

The pandemic really taught a lesson about my need for good boundaries and the time/space/cognitive resources needed to be present for someone else. It also taught me a lot about the time/space/attention I need from a partner to feel healthy, connected and, uh, safe to unmask and just be me.

Working with each other and making the business work was *always* a struggle. Locking down with so many responsibilities and no means to vent, get the space and time and resources needed to be present for each other… well, that kind of pressure impacts people differently. By the end of the contract, and the end of 2020, there was so little interpersonal communication happening I lost the ability to verbally express thoughts, feelings or needs.

Realizing this, I sought diagnostic assessments, and that’s when together we learned I was autistic.

Healing as a long and lonely climb

locked down during the pandemic, Aaron dons an MF Doom mask

I said before that the pressures on my former partner and I impacted us differently. With fewer spinning plates going into the pandemic, from the point of my diagnosis for autism, I invested all my energies into reconciling lifetime-compounded traumas and anxieties to feel better as a person, and especially to be a better partner, dad and provider.

My former partner went her own way and it did not include me. I was excluded from a lot of her life over the past few years, even though we shared a house and family. Trying to make sense of the new normal, I healed without her involvement. I reconnected with friends (and, increasingly, distant friends from years ago). I worked with a therapist regularly. As I grew in confidence and newfound executive stamina for starting, following up and getting stuff done with other people, between 2021-2023 I saw more of the fissures in our relationship. Whatever each of us was trying to make things better, the situation wasn’t improving.

As finances have been tight, towards the end of last year I was nudging gently, and then more firmly, to check in about our money situation. When we finally sat down to talk in mid-January, she asked for a divorce. This wasn’t expected or welcome, but it wasn’t unexpected and if I’m being honest, it’s a blessing for her AND me.

We’re (knocks on wood) pretty amicable with the split and without much discussion see pretty eye-to-eye on many of the things most divorcees fight about — feedback from the universe that the healing and self-work wasn’t for nothing; which is kinda everything.

Relocation via Chicago

For a decade, despite the travel and ultimate relocation to Narberth, I maintained a monthly-bimonthly schedule of visiting my kids in Chicago. I always prioritized being present for my kids, as much as circumstances afforded (and often when circumstances were unaffordable, like during the pandemic). With my kids, parents and extended family all in or near Chicago, my living in Philadelphia only made sense in the context of living with my former partner. To the degree that I was able to establish roots in Narberth, I’m grateful for the opportunity to grow with the town.

Last year, when the kids visited the Philly area for the 4th of July, my oldest told me that it finally made sense why I was there and not in Chicago. With over 120 volunteers, many people who volunteered with my kids that day made a point to say something nice about their old man.

Now that I’ve resigned my role leading the effort, other volunteer leaders are taking on the Narberth Fireworks, I’m grateful. It’s also feedback that I accomplished what I needed to — not just in bringing back the Fireworks from its collapse during the pandemic, but also in building a bench of volunteer leaders ready to step up and take on more responsibilities.

Aaron, taking a selfie, in front of his suv that's hauling a U-Haul trailer

In a next post, I’ll get into rebooting both my career and my personal life at the same time…

What about you?

The pandemic experience broke a lot of things, but it also broke the status quo enough to, in some cases, forge something different, if not better. I’m gonna be honest, I feel pretty good these days. How did the pandemic leave you? How are you changed? What have you learned? Share in the comments.


Comments

8 responses to “The Pandemic”

  1. Mark Sheppard Avatar
    Mark Sheppard

    Wow. My head is spinning from reading everything you have been through in the past few years.

    Much love and support from here. Hope I’ll see you in person at a conference in due course.

    1. Indiana Jones has a line in Crystal Skull, “it’s not the years; it’s the miles.” I became a high mileage adult over the last five years and I hardly went anywhere.

  2. Thanks for sharing your journey, Aaron. What a few years you’ve had . . . there’s lots of learning in here for all of us. And I think the pandemic has had a far greater impact on us – and our children – than we might think. I’m looking forward to reading about the reboot!

  3. ItsMeLuke Avatar
    ItsMeLuke

    As we lost touch when we both got busy and events went away for 2 years, I had no idea. I also quit/deleted twitter when it went dark. Social media is toxic and not healthy for me. Maybe we’ll cross paths at an ATD or Guild event in the future. There’s definitely some solid beer drinking stories to catch up on.

    Where do I send the Ringalos now 🙂

    1. I can share an address for gifts from the great white north

  4. Dude. You’re a good man and appreciate everything you wrote. For most of us, post pandemic life is still manifesting creating lots of questions.

    1. Glenn Bull Avatar
      Glenn Bull

      It’s been a while since we crossed paths. Well done for making it through and being open about your journey. Godspeed!

  5. garrygolden@gmail.com Avatar
    garrygolden@gmail.com

    Thank you for sharing this… I remember the early xAPI days!
    I’ve only known bits and pieces of your journey — so appreciate the bigger picture.
    Seems like you have a lot of love and support around you. Glad the kids saw their Dad through the eyes of others.
    Glad you have a greater awareness of your self…
    Good luck on the next steps!
    Garry

    Also the Pandemic for my story? Hard but worth it…
    In December 2019, we signed commercial lease here in Brooklyn to open a creative learning space for kids (intothefuture.nyc)– and I cut off my payroll to pay for the build out. Then March 2020 and govt send us your last three months of payroll?! We pushed through – 18 months later we opened and Into the Future is now thriving — kids love it, I love it. Along the way we’ve become a creative space where neuro diverse kids thrive…
    Can imagine in 2050s us future old people will have some fascinating Pandemic stories to share…