In times of tremendous instability, the easiest tendency to fall victim to is retrenchment. “Let’s just go back to how things were before…” many find themselves musing. But the “good old days” crowd has to face some facts.
For one, unless somebody creates Doc Brown’s DeLorean time machine, we can’t just “go back.” Even more importantly, the truth is those bygone days remembered so fondly weren’t good for everybody, and never quite as simple as we remember.
The challenges of the 21st century are enormous. They were before the global pandemic in which we find ourselves, and they will be again when we’re past this inflection point in human history. COVID-19 will not be our last fight. But it might just be the one that opens our eyes in a way that unlocks our capacity anew. Seizing this opportunity begins with moving past the natural desire to “just go back.” It must also include stripping away forever the notion that, “well, this is the way we’ve always done things” is ever an acceptable answer for anything.
Most importantly, it requires coming to grips with another unseen enemy, one that also overwhelms individuals, groups, organizations, and beyond. That enemy is rigidity of thought. It is an existential threat to innovative thinking, creativity, and even problem solving itself — three fundamental necessities if we are to keep people safe and prosperous, and emerge from this current crisis stronger than we were. The manifestation of rigidity of thought flows from a simple truth. We are all prisoners of our own perspective. Coronavirus is showing us that in real-time. Government officials define the threat and responses based on their specialty. Some do so from a public health background. Others from an epidemiological scientists’ way of thinking. Far too many from a “job-loss-is-bad-for-incumbent-politicians” frame of mind.
In this particular crisis, what we are seeing is how a multitude of perspectives forced by circumstance to focus on a single issue simultaneously perform. Which naturally begs the question — how’s it going? The answer is… better than it would be without that multitude of perspectives!
Having a unique perspective informed by one’s own life experience isn’t inherently bad. Whatever your occupation or life story, it should inform your perspective. Those truths are highly valuable and constructive. Even if you didn’t help see the world through the Ebola crisis or aren’t an expert on the Great Depression, you could very well have value to add when it comes to pandemic response and rebuilding the economy. The problem is that far too many are far too inflexible in considering others’ perspectives and fixate on their own. That, in a nutshell, is rigidity of thought. And those capable of outwitting that particular unseen enemy, those who escape their prison of perspective and embrace truly holistic thinking, are the types of leaders we need — now more than ever.
How do we do that? Remember that our experiences are not shared. Those who don’t see the virus up close can’t possibly have the same perspective as those on the frontlines in hospital emergency rooms in Manhattan. Different cultures define “safety” and the tradeoffs between liberty and security in different ways. China tracking citizens with coronavirus is one thing. Americans? Good luck with that.
Italians haven’t so much as been allowed to go outside to exercise during this crisis. The United Kingdom’s reality has been very different. Each of those perspectives flowed from the wisdom of policymakers with their perspectives taking into consideration vital context, norms, and data. As humanity emerges from this great test, perspectives, context, norms, and data surely all have a role to play. But more than that, they are needed to create a better world. One better prepared, built on sturdier foundations on which sit the individuals, families, communities, and economies that define our world.
What do we want that world to look like? How should those foundations be set? Answering those questions does not require breaking entirely free of the prisons of our perspectives, but it requires breaking free from rigidity of thought. We need to. That rigid, “my-way-or-the-highway” thinking has been allowed to run rampant for far too long. Leaving a world far too complacent and, tragically, too slow to act.
This time, we have to break the pattern. We have to move towards more holistic thinking. If we do so, change is surely within our grasp. If we collectively recognize our biases and check rigidity of thought at the door, it will provide the space and freedom for the greatest thinkers in the world to collaborate in ways heretofore unimaginable. That is how we emerge from this crisis stronger than before. It will also allow us to tackle the challenges that have persisted for years – climate change, income inequality, gun violence, and more — in a way that turns the page on the past, and toward a more secure, brighter future for all.