What Comes Next?

The future is a work in progress, something we'll make rather than buy

Ancient Evening by Alphonse Osbert, 1908 (public domain - Wikimedia Commons)

"Fate leads the willing, and draws along those who hang back." — Cleanthes, c. 250 BC


Willing or not, we're all part of a new normal. Entire industries have come to a standstill and the economy is under intense stress.

As we continue to hunker down, whether we're calling it self-isolation, social distancing, or quarantining, I'm fascinated by the adoption of new habits.

The question at the back of my mind is whether or not we'll be able to sustain these habits once the intensity of the crisis has passed. After all, it's human nature to return to the familiar and comfortable.

There's nothing like a crisis to focus our attention and to discern true leaders.

Seneca, in "On the Shortness of Life," reminded us that "Life is divided into three periods: past, present, and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain."

He argued that we should not be preoccupied with the present, "as if harnessed in a yoke" and so unable to "turn round and look behind." He considered it essential to eliminate distractions, spending time in quiet reflections and learning from our past.

But neither did he think it prudent to daydream about things too far ahead of us. He wondered if anything could "be more idiotic" than people who "direct their purposes with an eye toward the distant future."

With a doubtful future, perhaps it's silly to think too far in advance, for reality can be altered in an instant.


"The future comes like an unwelcome guest." — Edmund Gosse, 1873


Present circumstances have required us to alter life as we know it and to face some unpopular or even unpleasant truths.

We don't know how this will end, but a must-read in The Atlantic ("How Will the Coronavirus End?") lays bare our weakness:

"Aspects of America’s identity may need rethinking after COVID-19. Many of the country’s values have seemed to work against it during the pandemic. Its individualism, exceptionalism, and tendency to equate doing whatever you want with an act of resistance meant that when it came time to save lives and stay indoors, some people flocked to bars and clubs. Having internalized years of anti-terrorism messaging following 9/11, Americans resolved to not live in fear. But SARS-CoV-2 has no interest in their terror, only their cells."


If that refrain sounds familiar, you read something similar here recently ("Individualism Has No Place in a Pandemic").

Americans have had a romantic notion of manifest destiny since John L. O'Sullivan wrote an editorial in 1839 that predicted "our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity."

Can we put aside our sense of moral superiority and collectively do the things to minimize the spread of the disease? It's going to require a major shift in behavior.

Since we have the next 30 days to practice these behaviors, there might be a chance. Popular wisdom says that changing a habit takes 30 days of consecutive actions.


"Ill habits gather by unseen degrees, / As brooks make rivers, rivers make seas." —  John Dryden, 1800 (translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses)


Given that our ancestors fought for years in two world wars, or that Anne Frank and her family spent over 700 days in a 450 square-foot attic, it's not much of a sacrifice for us to sit on the couch for a month. I think we can do it.

For perspective, here's the rallying cry that Winston Churchill gave the nation in his "Finest Hour" speech:

"The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”"

There was no guarantee that they would succeed, nor what England would look like after a protracted war. But that's the kind of leadership that we need right now to impress upon the public our need to be resilient.

Why is this so hard?

For years, I've seen companies struggle with allowing employees to work remotely. Well-meaning individuals who have successfully navigated working from home in other settings find themselves frustrated and thwarted by traditional-thinking managers at other companies.

Yet when governors created orders for non-essential workers to stay at home, companies had to adopt nearly overnight to the new conditions.

And they seem to be doing just fine with it.

But somewhere along the way, a short-sighted manager didn't want to allow employees to work from home or enjoy the flexibility that a remote location might offer them.

They couldn't see how such an arrangement would be fair, or they assumed the employee might be goofing off. Never mind that it would cut down on commuting time, which itself involves an additional expense and stress, and cuts into family time.


"Every man takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world." — Arthur Schopenhauer, 1851


It's funny how a global pandemic forces change. It doesn't care about biases, ignorance, or inflexibility.

In the weeks ahead, after the bans are lifted, we won't need to be confined to our homes exclusively. But will we automatically revert to our previous arrangements and habits? I sincerely hope not.

Perhaps a hybrid of sorts is what we can hope for.

Consider some of the industries that have the greatest to gain from these flexible ways of doing business:

  • Automotive: Dealerships can still sell and service cars, but be more responsive to customer preferences in terms of where and how the transactions are done.

  • Higher education: Watching your children learning online should make you question the value of the physical overhead that goes into running universities. How much of this can be done remotely versus in person?

  • Retail: Amazon has been booming amid the shutdowns. Traditional retail needs to get on board with digital and physical shopping alternatives, and have a seamless integration between the two.

  • Trade shows: Does your company really need to spend millions of dollars on so many shows? Are there ways of bringing people and ideas together online in an engaging way that can complement physical gatherings?

Classical music is seeing a surge of interest in streaming content, now that concerts are cancelled. For outfits like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (disclosure: I'm a trustee) that in 2012 stated its goal of being "the most connected orchestra on the planet," it's business as usual. But for others, they're finding new opportunities and new audiences.

What about coffee consumption? Home-brewed coffee (or even home-roasted coffee) may replace $5 barista-crafted drinks, after a month of the stuff. It's a significant savings for some.

There are doubtless others.

Do we know what's likely to happen next, what form our behaviors will take, or what iterations will evolve from businesses?

Absolutely not.

And like Seneca cautioned, we don’t want to be idiots who spend our time dwelling on the distant future.

Meanwhile, we're sequestered with family — or perhaps we're separated from family by many miles, but connected to them on Zoom or Facetime — thus giving us the gift of time together.

Before we got to this point, we were zipping about our daily lives with a thousand things to do, meetings to attend, projects, recitals and rehearsals, and the minutiae of a helter-skelter life.

It makes me wonder if humanity was reaching a breaking point before COVID-19 came along. As Emily Webb lamented in Our Town, "I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another."

It was only after Emily's death, when she returned to relive one day of her life — her twelfth birthday — that she came to understand what truly mattered in life.

“I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back up the hill to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.

“Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners . . . Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking. . . and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths . . . and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize.”

Here's hoping that you're appreciating what's wonderful today and planning to retain as much of that for tomorrow.

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Timely: Present Tense

"Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present." — Albert Camus, 1951

Changing work habits means changing media habits: music streaming may be falling because of coronavirus. (Quartz) Makes sense: no more coworkers to block with your noise-canceling headphones.

Since most podcast listening happens during commutes, it should be no surprise that there’s also a dip in podcast listening. According to Podtrac, podcast downloads in the U.S. have fallen ~10% and total unique listeners are down ~20% since the start of March, with true crime podcasts down the most. (WWD)

Here are 13 Zoom video chat tips, tricks and hidden features. (CNET)

Since we actually need it to connect with each other, social media has finally become social. (Techcrunch)


Timeless: For the Curious Mind

"Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved." — William Jennings Bryan, 1899

“Americans took little notice of the pandemic. Then quickly forgot whatever they did notice.” So goes the observation in “Once-in-a-Century Pathogen: the 1918 Flu Pandemic and This One.” If you study what happened in 1918, there are clues as to how we can handle COVID-19. (The New York Review of Books)

A Tale of Two Cities: This chart of the 1918 Spanish flu shows why social distancing works. The cities of Philadelphia and St. Louis had different responses, and thus vastly different infection rates. (Quartz) And once again, we’re copying the 1918 flu pandemic, as shown in San Francisco and Miami:

If we reflect on the past, we can’t avoid being influenced by ruins. What is it about these partial relics of previous civilizations that fascinates us so?


Recommended Reading and Listening

“Men are able to assist fortune but not to thwart her. They can weave her designs, but they cannot destroy them.” — Niccolò Machiavelli, 1531

🎧 The Economist's Tom Standage and Slate's Seth Stevenson examine the historical precedents that can transform our understanding of modern technology, predicting how it might evolve and highlighting pitfalls to avoid in The Secret History of the Future.

📘 What will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari explores the ideas that will shape the 21st century—from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution.


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