Once more ’round the block

Tomorrow marks two years since our arrival in the UK. It seems both forever ago and only yesterday that it had been a year, and if we hadn’t moved flats in the middle of the blur, there would have been even less to mark the passage of time.

Our plan had been to live here for “a couple of years” – but our plan certainly hadn’t been to live here for “a couple of years almost entirely in our flat.” Our plan had included things like exploring London, traveling around the UK, and visiting places in Europe we didn’t get to while we lived in Luxembourg. The pandemic had other plans, and as it stretched toward the end of last year, we started talking about what we wanted to do, and if we could figure out how to do that.

We sorta decided that unless the pandemic situation in America got a bunch better, and got a bunch worse in the UK, moving back without doing any of the things we came to do felt like something we’d regret.

Moving internationally takes work. We haven’t found it to be as hard as people expect, but it certainly takes effort, and comes with its fair share of stress (especially if you’re moving animals). Oh, and it’s not exactly cheap.

The hardest bit is typically immigration – getting permission to live and work in a country you’re not a citizen of. Both times we’ve lived abroad my work visa has been sponsored by my employer.

The term of my agreement to come to the UK was two years – and while extending that agreement was possible, there was no guarantee. Around April of last year I’d moved out of the group that I was part of when we moved here, and for several reasons it wasn’t clear the group I had joined was going see enough value in me being here that extending my stay would make sense to them. If they weren’t supportive, I didn’t have too many options, and none of them seemed great.

So I started working on a “Plan B.”

I engaged a local immigration law firm, and with their help and with some graciously written letters of support from a few former colleagues, I was able to petition the UK government to decouple my immigration status from my employment.

It took a couple months, but by the end of last year, I had a Plan B – and more options.

With that in my back pocket, I had a frank and honest conversation with the leadership in my org, and we mutually agreed that there were probably places I could be more valuable than where I was. So I started chatting with other teams and moved into a new team (again) earlier this year. As it turned out, the new team was amenable to extend my assignment, so a little paperwork later and our new plan is to be in the UK through the middle of 2022.

In other news, we’re both fully vaccinated – and by this time next week we’ll both be +2 weeks from our second dose (“maxinated”). The government is making optimistic noises that the four week delay to eliminating the last legal restrictions will stick – and that July 17th, we’ll be back to normal. “This time for real.” I’m not sure the data I can see supports that optimism, but then Boris’ government hasn’t established a particularly good track record of ahead of time decision making.

Still, with any luck the next year won’t be like the last year. We’d like to do some traveling, get back to Seattle for a visit or two, and generally speaking not spend another twelve months in our flat.

Fingers crossed.

Trade-offs, Triggers and Least Regret

If I had to sum up the UK government’s pandemic response succinctly, I’d say “better late than never, but frustratingly late.”

The UK lagged Europe in implementing non-pharmaceutical interventions, stubbornly insisted Christmas wouldn’t be canceled – only to go back into lock-down days ahead of the holiday – and inexplicably waited weeks while case counts in India went vertical before restricting travel into the UK.

A few weeks ago, I wondered what, in a few weeks, we would we wish we had done “now” instead of waiting to do it later.

We had been chatting over lunch with friends about the early signs that the Delta variant (a.k.a. the-variant-formerly-known-as-Indian) was spreading exponentially, and what could and should be done about it.

“Their only choice is to extend lock-down, and they can’t or won’t” a friend argued. I disagreed – arguing there were other possible responses – re-targeting and accelerating the vaccination program, for example – shifting supplies to the areas affected and and opening vaccination to the younger age groups likely to be socializing and thereby spreading the virus.

I wasn’t privy to enough information to argue that was the right thing to do, just that it was a thing that could be done, and that if it were to be done, doing it now would be better than doing it later.

A few weeks later the government has announced that the June 21st target to eliminate remaining restrictions will be missed due to rising case counts and hospitalization. They’ve been “surge vaccinating” in hot spots, and as of yesterday (15 June) accelerated access to vaccinations for younger age groups and reduced the inter-dose delay from ~12 to ~8 weeks.

Again I couldn’t help but wonder why couldn’t we decide to take these steps a few weeks ago?

There are very few “right answers” in life – mostly we swim in an ocean of trade-offs. We try to make the best decisions we can, given the situation we’re in and the information we have. And we hope not to regret our decisions later.

Many of us struggle to think clearly and in advance about what change(s) would make us change our decision. My experience has been that by thinking through those triggers, and playing “what if” with a goal of minimizing regret we can often make “better” decisions. Or at least make decisions we’d make again, if the choice was ours to make again.

A simple way of thinking about minimizing regret is to ask yourself, when faced with a decision between alternatives, given everything you know now which choice do you think will cause you more regret over time? What could happen, or what could you learn, that would change your choice? How likely do you think you are you to learn that thing, or for any of the possible triggers you identified to happen? Is it possible to change your choice once you’ve made it? Is it possible to change if you made the other choice? Is one direction easier? Cheaper?

What we regret as individuals depends heavily on what we value. You and I, faced with the same decision – and both of us trying to minimize regret – may come to opposite conclusions. We might not agree, and it might not be obvious why we disagree. Still, if we’ve been successful, and not just self-delusional, if faced with making the decision again both of us would repeat our choice.

Consider the decisions that the government has been lambasted for delaying. Between the time a decision was made to do nothing (e.g. the decision that there would be no Christmas lock-down, or the decision not to impose restrictions on travel from India to the UK) and the time that decision was reversed, what was learned? What changed? At what point was that outcome certain, or predictable with high confidence?

High stakes decision making with incomplete and inaccurate information is hard, I mean really hard. There are no A/B tests – no way to know, or convince others, what would have happened if we made the other choice. What would have happened if we had turned right. This has real and significant implications. If we take action to avoid a disaster, and the disaster never materializes, there will be voices – sometimes loud ones – asserting that the disaster never would have happened regardless, and our actions were unnecessary and in some way harmful.

This sentiment has become a louder undertone in the media in the UK of late, seeming to increase in volume as delaying the removal of lock-down restrictions past the June target became more likely. Past modeling of disease and resulting hospitalization and death have been wrong – overshooting the observed reality, sometimes significantly. Restrictions on freedoms and trade have a cost – in money, in livelihoods, in opportunity. These costs are real.

When making a trade-off between predictable economic damage and likely increased illness and loss of life, and knowing what you know, how would you minimize regret?