As the discomfort and unfamiliarity of our world intensifies, it’s time to look inwards, not only ahead, and forge a better future for everyone.
As the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, people around the world cast envious looks at the nations who were free to celebrate; grateful to leave 2020 in the rearview mirror as we set our sights on the next twelve months, and confident that things really can’t get much worse. And for the first few days of this year, it seemed our collective sigh of relief had been heard. Days 1 to 6 of 2021 were quiet, a soothing balm on the splintering year before.
However, the serene mundanity of week one of 52 was shattered by the storming of Capitol Hill in Washington, as pro-Trump vigilantes sought to derail the changing of the political guard in the not-so- United States. What felt like an aftershock from 2020 was a stark and solemn reminder that we are still living in a time of transition, and that the global pandemic was merely the starter’s gun for what’s to come: a time of profound change, opportunity and possibility.
After a year of harrowing loss, confinement and uncertainty, setting personal resolutions and targets for the year seems small. We’re entering the decade that will define the story of our species and planet. What we really need is a collective reset that amplifies the personal commitments we’re making to building something new, and better. But where to begin? It starts with understanding what we need to carry with us, and what should be left in the past.
CREATING OUR COLLECTIVE REALITY
As a species, we’ve been conditioned to prioritise tomorrow. Whether we’re storing grain for the winter or setting dinner dates with friends, working towards a deadline, or building a 5-year plan, we are laser-focused on the next thing that deserves our attention and precious time. Fuelled by this fierce focus on our own future, we rarely stop to pause and reflect. Both past and present are relegated on our list of priorities, anchors that slow us down on the endless pursuit of our goals.
The COVID-19 pandemic remains a reality check that reminds us just how risky that relentless future-focus is. Despite the discomfort of our slow-motion present, we have a truly unique chance to pause and unpick the persistent narratives and subversive norms that have brought our world to the brink of collapse and write a new reality that leads defiantly to a better future, starting right now.
It is completely natural and necessary to find personal ways to cope with any crisis you may face, and the pandemic has been no exception. Some have found comfort in diving into new challenges, while for others, simply surviving is enough – and rightly so.
However, if this period of transition is to lead us all somewhere better, I would argue that we need to structure this period of collective reflection as an opportunity to learn; that rather than following the heard into fleeting lockdown trends, we use this chance to equip ourselves with a clear process to use this (and upcoming) pandemics to manage our memories and upgrade our perspectives.
Memory management is critical. The first step in coping with constant change is to learn how to mourn the loss of memories we had planned to make. It’s easy to feel hard done by when that holiday you’d so been looking forward to is no longer possible, but it’s important to process that memory and move on.
Without the compass of future dates and targets to steer us, it’s easy to feel lost and aimless, and to fixate on what we have lost rather than what we can achieve. To avoid the infinite loop of wondering what might have been if the world hadn’t dealt us such a cruel hand, we need to mourn those plans, and move on to accepting what is happening. Moving forward in this way allows us to negotiate our own panic, and progress from thinking about our survival to a place where we are mentally ready to redefine our narrative and embrace change rather than eschew it.
CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER
Learning to let go of hopes that never become real is central to another core skill that we need to develop. Once we accept that there are certain things beyond our control (and most are), we can begin to become what renowned statistician and risk analyst Nassim Taleb calls “anti-fragile”. Being anti-fragile is a challenge to replace fear and fragility – a normal response to trauma – with flexibility. He suggests that we need to cultivate the ability to bounce back, rather than break, under pressure, by reframing difficulty as a chance to learn.
Within that context. anything from a failed relationship to a global pandemic becomes manageable, because it is something we can use to learn from, and better ourselves. Of course, our willingness to treat hardship as opportunities is directly proportional to our own curiosity, because if we’re not curious we cannot see through immediate pain to potential progress.
Activating our curiosity can start small. Maybe it’s spending the time you used to use on your commute to listen to a podcast about something you’re interested in, or taking an online course to break up those Zoom calls. The point is, when we’re curious we become resilient enough to seek out opportunity in uncertainty.
And there’s an additional benefit to being curious. While curiosity is going to be an essential trait as we move to an era that rewards unique perspectives (we’re likely to see renewed investment and integration of infallible automation), it also equips us to unravel that dominant fables and folklore that have brought our society to the brink.
WHAT’S YOUR STORY?
Once we have learned to accept the conditions of our current reality rather than clinging to the future, and activated our innate, unstoppable curiosity, we can start to rewrite the stories that have transcended tradition and begun to dictate the way we live our lives.
Stories have always been central to our lives, and have incredible power to shape our perceptions of the world. The things we tell ourselves, the ideas we choose to expose ourselves to, even conversations with friends – these are all threads in a broader story, and they stay with us. Whether it’s a childhood fairy-tale that sets expectations from our romantic relationships or an anecdote we relive fondly, stories are a source of constant reference and comfort.
Unfortunately, stories have a sinister ability to take on a life of their own. It’s how rumours become rampant, and whispers change the world. In the space between listening and retelling, stories grow from words to “wisdom”, evolving as they’re handed from generation to generation until narratives become norms, and “Once upon a time… “ is forgotten in favour of “We’ve always done it this way.”
Left unchecked, this dangerous shadow of storytelling can cause untold damage as lies are disseminated through casual conversation and become doctrine. Racial prejudice, sexism, and even politics are often built on the back of people sharing stories that they’ve heard about others: rumours and lies that have mutated to form part of the fabric of many peoples’ minds. Thankfully, we have the chance to rewrite these wrongs and reflect on the stories that have brought our society so close to collapse, and I believe there is one story that should serve as our starting point: economics.
Few subjects are so central to humanity’s success and suffering. The rise of capitalism and the true arrival of the global market has helped businesses and entrepreneurs from every corner of the world connect and collaborate, helping reduce poverty, but this spirit of connection has not filtered down throughout society. If anything, there’s been an increase in the wealth gap.
Money, power and control are all so closely linked that it may seem like an impossible story to retell, but I believe that 2021 is a perfect time to separate fact from fiction and start working together to find an economic system that uplifts us all. In fact, it’s already happening, as people rebel against systems that serve to reward the few and ignore and many.
Rewriting our economic reality starts with dispelling several central myths about money. Firstly we need to embrace the fact that rather than putting jobs at risk, increased wages promote the growth of an empowered financial class who increase demand, starting a virtuous cycle that sees communities prosper – as proven in Seattle, where raising the minimum wage contributed to a financial boom. Next, we need to realise that the best way to increase demand is to create a greater consumer pool. Rather than funnelling disproportionate wealth into the pockets of CEOs, creating a small subset of consumer who have a minute impact on demand, we should be encouraging systems that distribute wealth to the biggest majority possible, because that creates exponential demand, which again benefits the community as a whole. Finally, we need to recognise that human beings are not wholly self-interested; rather, we are naturally collaborative and will act in the best interest of others – proving that Homo Economicus is an inadequate foundation for a society.
CHAPTER ONE: A COLLECTIVE REALITY
What we need is a system that leverages our collaborative human nature to unite the most diverse array of problem solvers possible to tackle the increasingly complex challenges we will continue to face, thus helping the entire population to live prosperous lives. By replacing greed with generosity and competition with collaboration, and choosing to serve our communities rather than shareholders, we can start writing the first chapter of a better, collective reality that tells of a society that turned isolation into community.
So this year, why not replace the resolutions that are still standing with a different challenge: to try and make sure this is humanity’s happily ever after.