29 January 2021 – Daily Maverick
LAST year was one for the history books, but that doesn’t mean you should consign yourself – or your career – to the bookshelf. If we learnt anything it was that 2020 was the great disruptor: We never had to stay at home before, much less work from home – and teach the kids. If that wasn’t enough, some of us had to put up with salary cuts or even lost our jobs altogether.
It can be quite overwhelming – and understandably so because we have never been asked to live through something like this, at least not in living memory and we’re still not out of the danger zone yet. In fact, we may not be back to an approximation of the old normal any time before September 2021. It all depends on the availability and subsequent roll out of the COVID 19 vaccine in this country at least.
2021 will be the year of the great reset. What can we do to reset? There’s actually quite a bit – seven things in fact. In a time of crisis, the best thing to have is a strategy, a roadmap out of the crisis. These seven tips: make reality your friend, adopt big picture thinking, skill up, understand safety, have substance in your voice, embrace polarity and be normal, will help you create that strategy. They all interlink.
Making reality your friend means understanding what is happening and reacting accordingly. For pilots, it’s the equivalent of coming off autopilot when you start flying into the storm. For the rest of us, it’s about leaning into the tsunami of information out there; being present, and taking control, conspiracy proofing our minds – and sidestepping the rabbit holes that can break our legs, figuratively; or send us plummeting into deep despair, literally.
Big picture thinking is about being able to step back, now that you are inoculated from the info-demic, and being able to see the links, joining the dots between actions and consequences – yours and others. It’s about developing the capabilities that will allow you to unemotionally and clinically analyse situations that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous using systems-based thinking and logic to find the right solution. Critically, it’s also about embracing and developing your imagination, too.
When you’ve mastered big picture thinking, you will have normally mastered your purpose too in the process which will allow you to be imaginative and innovative as you step away from the short termism of ambition and profit. The next step is to skill yourself up, to realise that the world we live in is a stage of disruption that, given the speed of technological change, is in itself the new normal. This means you can’t learn once at the beginning of your working life and hope that this will sustain you throughout your career. You can forget that right now. Instead, you have to prepare for jobs that haven’t even been conceived yet, you have to get ready to have more than one job in your lifetime – and probably a couple simultaneously as you become immersed in the gig economy.
The only way to future proof yourself is to embrace a lifetime of learning, which implicitly means learning, unlearning and re-learning. It doesn’t all have to be university based; there are plenty of other options. You can build your own academy online and in real-life; you can read books, enrol in short courses at a TVET college, get a hobby or study online through LinkedIn, Udemy and Coursera. It’s not just about lifelong learning to earn a living, it’s also about lifelong learning to live your best life as an individual – decoding your brain through mindfulness is just as important as learning how to code a computer. Above all though, it’s about mastering the practice of regular reflection to cement and make relevant your learning.
The next is understanding safety. You don’t have to be a pilot or a person operating heavy machinery to be conscious about safety – we’re living in a pandemic, which in turn has given birth to the low touch economy. Make reality your friend, adapt and adopt; it’s more than hand sanitisers, face masks and social distancing, it’s also about how and where you schedule meetings, who gets to go to the office and when, having outstanding fresh-air ventilation systems – and even if we actually need offices in any case. For this you’ll need to study a master the art of systems thinking, separating the deep causes from the plethora of symptoms.
Develop substance in your voice. Have something to say. Stand up for what you believe in – and speak up for those who don’t have a voice. Be an activist for positive change; you won’t just be helping your community, your company and the world, you’ll actually be helping yourself too. Plus, you’ll also be giving expression to your purpose – because your purpose is so much more than just personal ambition and profit. The stance and self-care and self-respect and from that you manifest consistent respect for all others.
The penultimate tip is to embrace the polarities in the world. Polarities our challenges in life that indestructible, unsolvable and unavoidable, as the father of polarity management, Barry Johnson, would describe them. Which is better, centralisation or decentralisation, stability or change, individualism or collectivism? Don’t be bipolar sitting on one extreme or veering to the other, rather balance the inescapable and dynamic tension between polarities. It’s like breathing; if we hold our breath too long, we die. It’s the same if we breathe out and don’t breathe in again. Life demands that we breathe in and out – continuously re-oxygenating our lungs. How fast we do it depends on the situation but we have to keep breathing. It’s the same between taking what might seem to be risks or staying as we are, looping back once more into the need for big picture thinking and the ability to analyse changing circumstances and weigh up your options.
The final tip is to be normal. Not the normal we might think, not the new normal or even the old normal, but the Danish normal encapsulated in the Law of Jantes: the power of us, collectively. You’re not to think you are anything special. You’re not to think you are as good as we are. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are. You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are. You’re not to think you know more than we do. You’re not to think you are more important than we are. You’re not to think you are good at anything. You’re not to laugh at us. You’re not to think anyone cares about you. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
All you are allowed to think is that you’re normal. The fundamental human design of ‘normal’ is an integrated, balanced person, accessing all our latent and inborn, active and learnt capabilities. A normal body is a healthy body, a normal mind is a healthy mind. Not the limited and watered-down social construct of complaisant and conformist social ‘normal’. Normal is more than good enough to have an outstanding life and to become great.
It’s profound. It’s the antithesis of the materialistic, narcissistic selfish sense of entitlement that has infected the 21st Century. If we can apply the Law of Jantes, we start thinking about the community, rather than just ourselves. It grounds us because it teaches us that we aren’t the centre of the universe, we’re just normal – like everyone else and we all have to make changes in a world that is dramatically different from what we expected at the beginning of 2020.
And that isn’t a bad thing at all. Disruption might be difficult, even painful, but it also brings with it incredible opportunities. Let’s start by making that reality our friend.
- Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa