For most of us, 2020 was a brutal year. I’m hopeful that 2021 will be better, but it’s going to be a slow improvement, likely with many false starts and surprises.

So how do we remain optimistic in an environment like this? It’s about the learning.

Challenges, problems and failures provide a richer learning environment than when things go well. I find that a bit annoying, but it’s true. It’s about being observant and thoughtful despite the emotional turmoil of things not going according to plan.

One of the things I learned —  re-learned, actually —  was that deep human relationships really do matter. As we shifted things from in-person to virtual, there were a number of surprises in store.

I had the opportunity to help a number of organizations design those virtual events, and it was quite remarkable how well things can work on Zoom. I’m not talking about the technology, but about how well people were able to adapt and develop great relationships while being physically isolated.

A few years ago, we never would have imagined that this was possible.

Some Zoom events I helped produce were quite complicated, with people scattered around the world, different cultures, unpredictable technology, and varied objectives. I even had the opportunity to produce some “hybrid” events with a mixture of in-person and virtual attendees.

I learned that it’s not really about the technology. It’s about the very human desires to connect, learn, and experience.

I’ve seen numerous examples of new relationships formed BECAUSE people were reaching out beyond the normal boundaries. In that sense, we’ve been able to become less isolated even while being at home most of the time.

These are the same things that our kids are struggling with as they attempt to attend school virtually. And it’s clear that we have a whole lot more to learn about how children learn and engage.

Last year, I gained new perspectives on the jobs that are most valuable in our society. We’ve neglected our health care, food service and mental health workers — yet they are the ones who have helped us survive tough times. I’ve come to realize how much we depend on non-profits to support the disadvantaged.

I think we’ve all gained new perspectives on societal divisions: race, gender, even political. The question for us all is: What have we learned?

In your own life and organization, this is the critical question. If we haven’t learned from the experiences of 2020, then it’s just about hunkering down and hoping we’ll “return to normal.” But we know that won’t really happen; after 2020 many things will be forever different than the last decade.

We can get depressed about that, or we can choose to move forward. To do that, we’ll need to learn from the past, adapt to the present, and plan (as best we can) for the future.

If you think about it, that’s what we’ve always done.

This article was first published in BizWest.