We live in the world C-19 has permanently changed. We need to pivot now from a crisis mindset to a coexistence one. Next, we’ll need to figure out how to capitalize on it.
In early March (after SXSW was canceled, before the NBA shut down its season) I opined that 2020 was going to be another “Year without Summer”. I compared this moment not to the 1918 Pandemic, but to the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia that led to years of tumult and irreversible changes in society.
In early April, I noted that we were reaching “the end of the beginning” of this crisis and that we had entered into a funhouse mirror version of reality that I called “the Upside Down”. It was a reference to the Netflix show Strangers Things, of course. But I used it to reflect the fact that so much of what we were living through was the opposite of what we’d known before.
Now, in early May, I’m going to risk getting over my skis again and proclaim that the crisis phase of COVID-19 is over and that there won’t be a post-C-19 World. Why? We’re already in it.
First, let me reassure you that I’m not joining the demonstrators who want to end the lockdown. We haven’t beaten this virus; it’s actually still winning. We’ve just slowed it down with shutdowns and physical distancing. But make no mistake: it lurks out there, ready to infect us as soon as we relax.
However, we need to declare an end to the crisis mentality that has consumed us for 2 months. COVID-19 isn’t a hurricane to ride out; this “Upside Down” we’re living through is, for all intents and purposes, permanent now.
Maybe you disagree. But the best scientific minds argue that a vaccine is the only way out of where we find ourselves, and that it is 12 to 36 months away in even the most optimistic scenarios. You see, merely discovering one is not enough: we need to mass develop and then mass distribute it — to the entire world. Why? Because an outbreak somewhere can lead to an outbreak everywhere, eventually. So for all of us pining for a miracle cure, remember that we will need one … plus the logistics efficiency of a McDonald’s or an Amazon on steroids to administer it globally before we can be safe.
I’m not making this argument to depress you. I’m saying this out loud so that we can collectively transition from the crisis mode we’ve all adopted (wait this out, make the best of it, this too shall pass) to one of co-existence instead.
We can’t look forward to a post-COVID-19 world; we are now living in the one C-19 has already changed.
What are the implications of such a shift? For one, we have to stop being so tactical in our response to this virus crisis and develop a global and long-term strategy. Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Laurie Garrett made this point recently, and it resonated with me deeply.
Be honest: how have you handled these past 2 months — as a person and as a professional?
I’ll speak for myself: I’ve been mostly tactical. I’ve tried to be responsible vis a vis contagion, of course. But my goals personally and professionally have principally been to “limit the damage” (not to get too out of shape, not to spend too much money, not to lose any clients).
I spent the first several weeks of this moment treating it like something to suffer through but now I’m pivoting to living with the virus semi-permanently. Unfortunately, what we all loved (fill in your blank here) about the pre-C-19 world isn’t coming back. We’re not going to party like its 2019 any time soon. So I needed to change my approach in accepting and adapting to this reality. When I started thinking about it, I realized that there are distinct phases to how we are coming to grips with all of this.
The Four Stages of our C-19 Response
This period — the one we’ve been living through since shutdown — is characterized by a combination of anger, denial, and anxiety — sometimes all in the same day! As individuals, we’ve hoarded toilet paper, binge-watched “Tiger King” (c’mon — admit you did), and consumed copious amounts of comfort food. In general, we’ve treated this time as an interminably long snow day to ride out (Canucks, you know what I mean. Californians, picture a weekend of nonstop rain).
Organizations have reacted similarly. Some have reflexively furloughed employees (perhaps even before they needed to) in order to conserve cash. Overall, they’re regarded this moment as one they merely want to survive.
This reaction was understandable. I get it. But it is no longer is appropriate and clinging to it is unhelpful at this stage. The virus is here, and it’s not going away.
This is the most important mindset switch we can make right now. It’s not merely about acceptance, though that’s a crucial element of adapting to this new world. It also means shifting our time horizon from short-term to long. Even if it’s reluctant, we need to treat this phase now as a prolonged one.
It’s no longer good enough to contain the damage. I lament the loss of my gym and my barber, but it’s time to find a new way to work out regularly and DIY a haircut (as some of us already have). It means realizing that my business has to adjust and — perhaps most importantly — I have to start thinking about the long term.
Companies are starting to do this, too. You see this with restaurants that are erecting plexiglass dividers between tables to limit virus transmission, or gyms retrofitting — sometimes at considerable expense — to accommodate the physical distancing that we will need for the foreseeable future. But the ninja move would be to game out what this means not just for the next few months, but the next few years.
This is really the time frame that matters now. Thinking in terms of days and weeks is what we’ve been doing all along. Planning for a future 5 years from now is frivolous but also foolish, as too many things can happen (who saw a global pandemic interrupting our 2019 prosperity and 3.5% unemployment in December?) to change the game completely. But the window between 5 weeks and 5 years is the sweet spot for strategic thinking, and that’s what I suggest we all do now.
It’s hard to picture at this moment, but there may be silver linings to this sudden disruption to our way of work and life. Entire industries are either being born (from fashionable face masks to the new “shut-in economy”) or exploding (telemedicine, home fitness). The world is evolving, and there are a lot of genies that won’t be put back into their bottles. In other words, this the time to realize that in every crisis there is an opportunity.
Few people have reached this stage yet, but well-positioned and well-capitalized companies are already making their move. While almost everyone else is lying low, Facebook just made a big bet in India. Amazon is methodically building out its competitive moats and lapping their competition. More generally, I’ve heard of some organizations that are looking to snap up talent from the massive layoffs that have recently occurred. What do all of these initiatives have in common?
These organizations are all going on offense at a time when everybody is playing defense. At some point soon, we will have to make that pivot, too.
It’s easier said than done, of course. Reinvention for someone recently made redundant is never simple nor straight forward. Organizations are even less nimble, and some of our favorites from the pre-C-19 world are going to perish. But the key benefit from looking to capitalize on this moment is that it allows us to regain a sense of control over our lives, careers, and destinies.
Nietzsche famously said that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (sorry to inform you that Kelly Clarkson didn’t coin that phrase) and while a bit trite, it’s also true. This in no way diminishes how painful this moment is, nor how many have already suffered incredible loss. In some cases, the worst thing that could have happened has happened.
However, often the fear of misfortune is more paralyzing than the reality of it. We are rightly terrified of losing our jobs, but if and when we do — and live to see the other side of that dark tunnel — we emerge with a renewed confidence that we can handle much more adversity than we realize. What’s more, we’ll be better prepared for the next challenge that will come along.
I’m confident that we’ll eventually emerge from this crucible — forever changed for sure, but hopefully stronger, more resilient, and more future-proof as people, companies, and countries.
One particularly optimistic pundit suggested that in 100 years, we might look back at COVID-19 with gratitude. How could that come to pass? This moment is a sneak preview of the havoc an existential threat to our planet can wreak. If overcoming COVID-19 arms us with the collective will and skill to work together on this huge challenge, perhaps we’ll consider this moment as our first step in pulling back from the environmental brink.
In what would be an almost poetic irony, the C-19 virus might ultimately serve as a vaccine of sorts — an unwelcome dose of chaos that nevertheless goes on to immunize us from the more devastating pathogen of catastrophic climate change.
This has been — and will continue to be — an incredibly trying period for the world. Millions have been infected; hundreds of thousands of loved ones have died; industries and companies have cratered and tens of millions have lost their livelihoods. It may get worse before it gets better. These are uncomfortable truths. Our collective and individuals are disconcertingly uncertain.
But the only real certainty is that we can’t wish, proclaim, or binge-watch this away. Health crises will flare up no doubt, but we can’t afford to adopt a panicked sense of crisis again. This caught us off-guard once; we don’t have that excuse anymore.
The only way I know how to navigate a crisis — any adversity, really — is through. The first step is acceptance because without that we aren’t even at square one. But once we make peace with our current misfortune — what Navy SEALs inelegantly but wisely call “embracing the suck” — we can start the process of re-establish a sense of control over our lives. Even if that feeling of control is largely illusory, it’s nonetheless empowering. If we stop seeing ourselves as passive and powerless victims of this pandemic, we can begin to contemplate capitalizing on and ultimately conquering this moment.
Mike Tyson famously said that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” He was undoubtedly right, but I would submit that these extraordinary times require an inversion of his thinking.