I’ve started hearing people saying things like “if we all do our part, we’ll end Covid-19.” #CoronaWillEndSoon was trending on Twitter a couple days ago. People I talk with seem very ready to “get back to normal.”
I’m not sure that’s the best mindset right now. I understand it – most people are used to interruptions in their lives, in the form of snow days or vacations or illnesses. US government employees have experienced multiple government shutdowns over the last 20 years. But all of those end after a couple days or a couple weeks, so we just don’t know what to do with this.
I think the better way to think about this is as if you just arrived in a new country and you know you are going to be here for at least one year, maybe two.
Think of yourself like an astronaut arriving on the ISS, a member of the military sent PCS somewhere, a teacher or doctor who has taken a job abroad. If you change your framing, rather than longing for things to go back the way they were, you’ll start focusing on how to make this place and time work better for you.
Things, after all, never go back to exactly the way they were.
You were able to come to this new place without having to pack all your belongings (and then deal with the government-contracted moving company losing them), without having to change your address and phone number, and without having to get all the inoculations, including that gamma globulin that is like a golf ball being injected into your butt cheek. You didn’t have to learn a foreign language or put your pets in quarantine.
You did have to pull your kids out of school, though, and tell them that they could only see their friends online, not in person, for the next…year? More? You have had to figure out how much time to allow them on HouseParty or Steam, and have had to tell them over and over that they are going to have to learn to entertain themselves. You have had to wipe out your planned annual calendar of doctor visits, haircuts, and sports…and, let’s face it, summer camp is looking pretty unlikely.
You did have to learn a whole lot really fast about coronavirus, social distancing, and proper hand washing technique. You’ve probably had a continual low-grade worry about whether you or yours will get Covid-19 (unless you’ve already had it, as I’m pretty sure I have). You may have even had a bad case of it, been hospitalized, had a loved one hospitalized, or lost someone to it.
You may have lost your job to it.
My experiences moving to a new country every couple years, as well as working on startups and launching them inside and outside the government, has taught me a couple ways to live with continual uncertainty, and not only not let it destroy me with stress, but actually thrive and flourish from it.
Step 1: Flow like water
My co-founder liked to repeat “Flow like water” as a mantra when we were trying to get our startup off the ground. No successful startup gets that way without hundreds of setbacks, a few near-death experiences, and at least one pivot. She adapted Bruce Lee’s advice to “be water, my friend” to remind us to keep flowing and not break.
Lee’s whole quote is more for practicing martial arts, and I love it for that:
Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.
Innovation, by definition, exists under conditions of extreme uncertainty. By that measure, we are all innovators right now, innovating our new lives. I don’t know that you need to take on the first statement to “empty your mind,” but don’t try to hold too rigidly to a form that may not fit anymore. Learn whether your new life is a cup or a bottle or a teapot.
Know when to flow and when to crash.
There may be times this year when you need to be like the power of the waves breaking on the shore, tearing down the rocks. First thing in the morning on Twitter or Facebook is probably not that time.
If you are “essential” and currently overworked, try to flow. This will ease. Think of how others can help you, and ask for that help.
Step 2: This is a two-year tour of duty
If you are not working, and you are very scared of the virus and don’t know why there’s pressure to get back to work and open your country, be empathetic to those who are very scared that they don’t know where next month’s rent is coming from, or how to feed their children.
Some people are saying we may need to social distance until 2022, but of course that will fully collapse the economy. The very wealthy will be fine, and those on fixed incomes will be OK at first (I recall that the US Government stopped paying government pensions in the Great Depression, so that is a possibility). We are already in the worst economic situation since the Great Depression, and it’s possible that low- and middle-income people will be destroyed.
Even if it’s not as bad as I fear it will be economically, the virus isn’t going to magically go away. That is not what viruses do. We got pretty lucky with SARS…for this, we need to expect some level of quarantine behavior and some level of economic stress for the next two years, if not four. (Longer if it’s a full Depression).
What do you need in order to survive and thrive? Is there a way to have social interaction safely? People cannot function psychologically if they are fully isolated.
Develop a routine, rather than treating this like summer vacation (but give yourself an off day from your routine). If you, like me, are out of work, find things you can do to be useful.
Do the needful to set yourself and your family up for the next two years, after taking a realistic look at what the new environment is like. It’s not where you lived a month ago – there aren’t as many restaurants, bars, stores. There’s not the same food and supplies in the grocery.
This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Step 3: Innovate your way out
We can’t go back to “normal.” That isn’t a real thing.
We also can’t maintain this level of lockdown forever. That’s unhealthy for each of us psychologically and for all of us economically. Staying locked down means that children will go hungry, people will die from lack of medicine, domestic and social violence will increase.
We also can’t just “open the country.” That is very likely to trigger a new wave of infections and overwhelm our already stressed medical system. While hiding from the virus doesn’t mean that the virus will get bored and go away, as some people seem to think, quarantining and social distancing are crucial for the at-risk and important for the greater good, so that we don’t overwhelm our care providers.
Flatten the curve and raise the line
If you live in the US, UK, or India (or maybe others; those are the three I know about), sorry…your country did the “flatten the curve” part but not the “raise the line” part, and has done nothing to increase the health care capacity. This seems crazy to me, because funding the construction of new hospitals, transforming existing facilities into care centers, and subsidizing the training of replacement nurses and techs would both help address the pandemic and stimulate the economy.
Regardless of where you live, you need to find a way to go to work, have a social life, and hamper the spread of the virus long enough to give science a chance to make a vaccine, or the virus a chance to mutate to a less deadly form.
The ways we have been doing those two things – work and social distancing – are mutually exclusive. That’s not sustainable, so we need to come up with new and better solutions. Can we make masks that are transparent so they don’t interfere with non-verbal communication? Can we redesign office spaces to be lower density? Can we accelerate the use of drones to deliver goods? Can we build high-speed rail to replace air travel, and enough of it that people aren’t crammed into the cars?
Can we build good group online collaboration tools and platforms? Can we use VR to hang out and hold classes?
There are so many things the world needs right now, and so many of us have free time. Let’s put those together. Innovation requires creativity but also practicality – ideas don’t matter if they are not implemented. There is a role for you in this, regardless of your strengths.
Rather than stressing yourself out longing for a world that’s gone, energize yourself by building the world that’s being born.
Never let a good crisis go to waste.