In a few short months, the Coronavirus has brought the world we know to its knees; forced the fast-racing train of modern life to a full, screeching stop. And while none of us chose, nor could have foreseen the situation – it is upon us, obliging each of us as individuals and a collective to see the world as it really is, not as we wish it were. And in this truth, there is as much challenge as there is opportunity.
In 2016, geologists officially recognized a new phase in Earth’s geologic timeline: Anthropocene, which in Greek means the “recent age of man”. It is a term used to describe the current period of Earth’s history since roughly 1800, during which Homo Sapiens have brought about a catastrophic phase of disruption similar in planetary impact to other geologic happenings over time, including the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Yet this Anthropocene period is also quite different from other eras, for it marks the first time in the planet’s more than 4.5 billion-year history that a new epoch has resulted directly from the activities of a single species: us.
To put the timeline in a broader context – if the Earth’s 4.5 billion-year history were consolidated into 24-hours, modern man would have been around less than a second. Far less time has passed since we entered the so-called ‘modern age’ tied to the first Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century. Fueled by the steam engine – which many consider to be the greatest invention of mankind – machine power opened new ways of life, business opportunities, and economies of scale. It also enabled incredible population growth: at the outset of the Industrial Revolution, the global population numbered ~360 million people, whereas only 100 years later, in 1900, this number had doubled; today, our global population is 7.6 billion strong – or 6 billion people more than at the start of the Anthropocene era.
During this same time period, we embraced an economic model lifted straight off the pages of Adam Smith’s 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations. Hard-pressing, pressure-cooking, and based mostly on consumption (defined by Merrion-Webster as “the using up of a resource”) – we’ve promoted a kind of zero-sum capitalism that pushes growth at any cost, largely values profit over people, and rewards a Darwinian “survival of the fittest”. Human beings have spent the past 220 years pushing, pushing, endlessly pushing – for innovation, progress and profit. The impact of this can be seen in clear scientific evidence showing rapidly expanded life expectancy and quality of life advancements on the one hand, but a growing and urgent need for positive intervention on a range of social and environmental issues from economic inequality to climate change on the other. Yet despite awareness of these more negative facts since at least the late 1950’s or early 60’s, little meaningful action has occurred. In fact we’ve continued in our busy, ambitious ways — full steam ahead towards the precipice where we now find ourselves.
In record time, the novel coronavirus has shined a spotlight on every crack in our ‘modern age’. From global interdependence and the under-preparedness of governments, to the immense limitations of our medical systems and obvious impact of continuous and ongoing reductions of investment in social welfare and infrastructure — we now see in stark relief how at-risk we all are, not least of all the most vulnerable among us. But these observations are not limited to the public sector. It is equally apparent how the private sector — the greatest beneficiary of the economic expansion of the past 250 years — has few if any contingencies for “a rainy day”. Most businesses answer to investors and creditors hungry for quarterly gains, run on the thinnest of margins, and have limited cash reserves. We’re seeing companies of all sizes and lifecycles ill-prepared to weather a slowdown of a few weeks, much less the total shutdown so many industries are now facing.
It’s like COVID19 has tripped the wire on the modern world’s basic operating model. Full stop.
Many in yoga, energy medicine, and similar wellness communities — whose foundations lie in ancient and indigenous wisdom (despite the somewhat derogatory all-inclusive term, “new age”) — believe this pandemic is a sign. It is a call from Mother Nature forcing us to finally slow down, to take stock of the world we’ve created, and asking our plans for future generations. Whether you abide by such a belief system or not, the truth is that nearly everyone right now is feeling some sense of reckoning upon us. Even just a few short weeks ago, our present reality was unimaginable. In major cities and small towns around the globe, the average day-to-day has ceased. No longer able to run forever forward as we’ve been doing since the beginning of the Anthropocene era — we are now left facing some hard truths, but also have an opportunity to open our eyes to some incredible possibilities.
In my work, I help brands and businesses move from point A, B or C to a destination point X, Y or Z. Rarely is the path clear or the steep climb undaunting, but the journey is always guided by answers to two key questions: What do we believe, and who do we want to be when we grow up? To uncover the truth of these principles requires space for reflection, reassessment, and revision. So today, even though it may seem counterintuitive in a moment when the world around you is in disarray, your strategic plan may be out the window, your teams and suppliers and partners are at-risk, and you yourself may be fighting to stay relevant – the opportunity before us is to make space for this process. For each of the two questions below – let’s take time to reflect on our past answers, reassess based on present insights, and revise for the future so we can seize new possibilities.
1. What do we believe?
Values serve as a guiding light and compass. Like GPS for our lives and businesses, values help steer the ship towards a desired destination or end goal. So, what are the underlying beliefs and motivators that guide your company’s decisions and behaviors? If not only profit and influence, efficiency and effectiveness—what matters most? Is it your people, your customers, bold creativity, excellence, innovation, fairness…? Define 4-6 core values and think about how you can show these, live and abide by these going forward. What differences might this make to your actions and how you show up in the world?
2. Who do we want to be when we grow up?
You undoubtedly already know who you are – what you sell, who you sell to, your place in the market. But take a step back and ask, why do you do what you do? What got you started, and is this still what keeps you going? What’s changed, why and how? What was your big audacious goal when you started out; forget the money or recognition part, what was the real truth behind it? Now, given what you know today—reassess what is possible for your business; and redefine, if necessary, what you truly desire both for the business and its impact on the world we share.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought the human-driven Anthropocene era to a full, screeching halt. The social and economic impacts of the current global shutdown are just beginning to be felt and will likely go on for years, if not decades to come. Yet we have so much room for hope and optimism — for in the forced shutdown of “business as usual”, we each have an opportunity to pause, recalibrate, and make positive change. Perhaps in this pause and the space we fill after — we’ll see that growth is not only about profit as Adam Smith would have it, but is much more about progress, especially the kind that is possible when we take action, individually and collectively, to create a better future than our most recent past.
Today is the beginning of the rest of our lives, and the opportunity before us is as great as the challenge. Full stop.