Word of the Year: Pivot

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Word of the Year: Pivot

By: Julia Larson | Mission & Management | October 7, 2020
Worker inspects repainted street signs, Works Progress Administration Sign Project. Courtesy of MNHS online collections. from file print

How many times have you heard this word in the past week? “We’ve had to pivot our programming.” / “The way we were doing things did not fit the response so we had to pivot.”

I have heard this many times over the past few weeks. This describes museum sites that opened and had more attendance than expected, schools moving from hybrid learning to all distance learning, newspaper articles describing how restaurants have gotten creative in their ways to feed people and partner with other businesses; the list goes on. It seems in my personal life, I have also pivoted. From having my children home from school due to a teacher strike, melding right into having to do distance learning this spring due to the pandemic; then, adjusting our house to accommodate working from home. I have more than once thought about how much I have “pivoted” due to the pandemic.

That got me thinking, what does the word “pivot” actually mean and how has it manifested itself this time in history? I am a fairly visual person and when I think of the word “pivot” a specific visual comes to mind. The visual is that of the toe of a basketball player. The paragraphs in italics are what I see, in my own words.

Five toes, snuggly housed in a tennis shoe, tensely bent as the heel of the foot raises high off the gym floor. The toes are planted- firmly planted- the heel reaching up and then rotating. Yet, it only spins halfway, then switches, forcing the body’s hips to swing the other way. “KEEP YOUR FOOT PLANTED!” yells the coach to the player; the player who is trying to live out their vision of being a basketball superstar.

This is where I have heard “pivot” before. Is this visual a good description of what is happening in society? I tentatively say, yes, it is. Businesses, people, decisions, keeping rooted, but modifying the outcome. Or, maybe more accurately, businesses, people, decisions, trying to keep rooted while spinning and balancing. We all know the eventual outcome of the pivot.

The toes, holding the weight of the body, expand as far as they can, getting more and more spread out as they are pushed and turned. Pushed and turned, pushed and turned down toward the floor. The other foot, which the rest of the body is trusting to gracefully caress the gym floor quickly and often to balance the body, eventually betrays the planted foot and slams into the gym floor, shifting the weight of the body and forcing the planted toes to move.

Anyone who has played basketball knows that feeling, the unbalance that finally ensues, forcing the frantic release of the ball or whistled travel call. Sometimes my professional pivots feel like this. Before the pandemic one of my favorite parts of my job was doing site visits. Now I have to first, review if a site visit would be safe and second, if a site visit is really necessary. Also, meeting people to tour their buildings and hear their passion is enlivening to me, but now I have video meetings, video Grants Open Houses and video tours if those are possible and safest. While I know the pivot to more video meetings is the right thing to do, I still mourn the loss of those interactions. But, maybe pivoting has another outcome?

The toes- planted, pressured, straining to cling to the wooden gym floor- hold their place. Twist, squeak, twist, squeak, twist, squeak. The toes, doing their job of moving in place, providing the time, the hesitation for the body to use its senses; to look, to feel, to decide the next move, until finally, the open player. The body’s hands confidently and forcefully thrust the ball forward and into the teammate’s hands, only for the teammate to bounce, jump and release the ball into the basket with the swoosh of the net. 

Some things have improved with the pivots. Due to the video meetings and conferencing, I feel like the Department is getting more accessible, which will hopefully translate to getting in contact with more people around the state regardless of location to help preserve their histories. I am also attending a lot of webinars and expanding my knowledge in subjects I would not have been able to before everything went online. 

What is your pivot? How has it gone? Are you getting off balance and frantically searching for solutions; or, are you staying planted and confidently making plays? Are you perhaps confident at one pivot and falling off balance for the other? 

No matter what, now is a time to pivot. No standing still, you must pivot.

Share your thoughts in the comments below or reach out to the Minnesota Local History Services with your pivots.