I’m standing on platform 1 at Bristol Temple Meads Station. A young woman nearby sneezes into her hand. The train pulls in and she gets on ahead of me gripping the handrail by the carriage door – with the sneeze hand. Four more people touch the rail after her (I don’t). I see one of them touch his mouth; another rubs her eyes. Later, at my destination, I shake a colleague’s hand and realise afterwards that I’ve touched my mouth before and after doing it.
And so a virus might ride its way around our herd, leaping, sliding and firing itself between us; the ultimate freeloader, the dangerous hitch-hiker; the subtle, invisible, murderous travel companion.
World War Z
I’m writing this a few weeks later. It’s mid-March 2020 and the world is in uncharted, pandemic territory. I’m washing my hands more and not touching my face. Scenes from the films Contagion, 28 Days/Weeks Later and even World War Z, though wildly extreme, are closer to our experience than ever. We have a problem. We have a big problem. We have a wicked problem.
A wicked problem is ‘difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem; and “wicked” denotes resistance to resolution, rather than evil.‘
Think about the diversity of national response to the COVID-19 pandemic: China leverages its communist ethos on mitigating behaviours; Italy shuts down; the US restricts entry and the UK adopts a high risk, contrarian nudge strategy of facing it head on and letting it run its course to a faster herd immunity. ‘Solutions are not right/wrong but better/worse‘… ‘it can take a long time to evaluate solutions‘. Each government is doing the best it can with the data and resources available to it. But none yet knows if their best is good enough.
We don’t always solve a wicked problem. We poke it to see how it reacts and then poke it in a different way to see what else happens. Our focus is on finding out not fixing. It’s frightening and it could be devastating but we can learn at least 3 important things while COVID-19 plays out:
When the shock comes, what do you do? Break? Stand firm? Fight back? The scale from fragile to robust does not end at resilience. It extends further to ‘anti-fragile‘: Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Fragile breaks you; resilience keeps you strong in the face of adversity, but anti-fragile accepts that life is unpredictable; that in every shock is found a gift. It isn’t about naively embracing a crisis then exploiting the opportunity. No, anti-fragile is an attitude, a mindset, an assent to whatever the world does and a commitment to co-create with it.
Fragile is the shattered pane of glass; resilience the oak; anti-fragile the reed bending in the wind.
COVID-19 can teach us to be anti-fragile.
People you know may die. Your business may fail or take a serious hit. You might loose your job. Your investments will shrink. You could feel fear, anxiety, dread. None of this is in your control but how you respond to it is.
We’re realising just how connected we are; just how dependent we are on each other; just how much we can influence another human being. If I don’t wash my hands, you might die. I could be your executioner and you might be my father. (He’s over 90, has serious underlying health conditions and I have to decide if or when I’ll next visit him. For now, I’ll phone more and do his online grocery shop.)
The virus shows how linked we are and the links that it exploits can also be the ones we use to understand and care for each other.
COVID-19 can teach us to think beyond ourselves.
I’m looking at my bookings for the next 3 months. It’s a mix of face to face coaching, training, teaching and e-learning design. Some of it will be cancelled, some rescheduled, some will go ahead.
I’m asking myself, how much of this works if I’m at home, if I can’t travel or if my clients can’t? I sometimes use Zoom and Skype but could I use only Zoom and Skype? Will my clients be at the other end? Will they value that as much as the original plan. I’ll let you know.
If I do find myself with a blank diary and an empty bank account a plan is already in place to create a new offer, a new style of delivering Thinking Classroom. I’ve created a 9-year plan to meet my new goal (enrich the life, work and learning of 10,000,004 people each year).
I might not have much toilet paper, beans or soap, but I’ll have a mission. I’ll have something to create.
COVID-19 can teach us to innovate, to create.
The cull of the Black Death eventually lead to urbanisation and the empowerment of the peasant classes. However in the 3rd century smallpox reeked havoc on the Romans by following the same trade routes which had established the empire’s wealth and power.
We don’t yet know what scars COVID-19 will leave on our planet but, as a good friend once taught me, ‘scars tell you where you’ve been they need not dictate where you’re going.’
There will be wicked scars but there are 3 lessons here if we choose to learn. Anti-fragility, humanity, creativity.