We are steadily emerging into a world that is very similar to the one we bade farewell on 27 March – yet so very different. The pressure to return to what we knew is immense, especially in the commercial world which was dealt a severe, in some cases existential, blow by a six-month lockdown.
Pre-COVID-19 most of us were on treadmills; chasing targets, keeping businesses afloat, but during lockdown it just got exponentially worse. In the midst of the stress of the greatest pandemic in living memory (and the reminder it brings to each of us of our mortality), if we managed to survive a tsunami of Zoom meetings and telephone check-ins, we still had to contend with an info-demic of facts and fakery, real science and quackery.
Now we are physically returning to work with the ringing injunction to ‘normalise the new’ and get back on that treadmill and start pulling the levers in the organisation that make it all happen. But which levers do you pull and why? You can be frantic and pull them all in sight or, if you are calm and settled, work out, even intuit, the connections between the levers and pull the correct ones. It’s an important realisation. If we don’t, we’re like those kids sitting in the yard on their soapboxes spinning their make-believe steering wheels left to right, making a lot of noise but not going anywhere.
When we get panicked, we tend to focus on the immediate problem to the exclusion of all else. The symptoms and not the deep causes. Often our ambition can have the same effect if its wrongly focussed. Manchester United had the privilege of fielding the brilliant duo of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole who scored 53 goals between them in the 1998/99 season. They played like they were one person. It was poetry how they inter-related because it wasn’t about them.
I contrast this with the video an Australian Olympic trainer once showed me of two other soccer superstars bought into a soccer club. They hated each other – but they loved themselves. In a critical moment these two players were so driven, so narrowly focussed on the ball, that they crashed into each other in the penalty area. Their self-obsession led to them both missing a certain goal for their team as the ball fell to the ground and rolled just past the goal posts and out of play.
This is what happens when you lose your peripheral vision. A great tool to getting it back and to honing it, is called mindfulness. It’s an important facet for leadership and a critical part of the best programmes on management practice offered by business schools. Mindful leaders are not people who think more, they are actually people who have become less attached to their thoughts.
British cognitive scientist Guy Claxton explained this phenomenon in his book ‘Hare Brain and Tortoise Mind’, how we have these epiphanies in times of detachment from the mundanities; when we are exercising, hiking, flying, surfing, even having a shower – because we are concentrating on something else and letting our subconscious do the work, in the time it needs. This is echoed in Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman’s book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ that brings decades of research together to propose that that people have too much confidence in human judgement, including their own.
We have to slow down the narrative, clear out the clutter and let these answers to questions we might not even have consciously known we had, emerge. In the process, we have to become in touch with more authentic versions of ourselves, not the versions which we have allowed ourselves to become – or the artificial versions of ourselves that we have created.
I saw a marvellous throwaway line on social media recently, which asked “what do you refuse to feel?” What are the places you refuse to go to, the doors in your mind that you don’t want to open, because it’s simply too painful and too hard? Practicing mindfulness allows you to start going there more easily, to make sense of exactly what we avoid. When we develop a familiarity with the shadow areas of our minds, we unlock the true wells of our creativity and indeed our latent power. Those shadows are like leashed dogs; it’s your choice whether you allow them to remain untrained, control you and drag you around wherever; or whether you face, train and control them – and they power you to where you want to go.
The more you practice mindfulness, the less you are captured in the daily vexations and the more the bigger, existential issues come into view. It becomes a little clearer what are the, well, highly-leveraged levers that you can pull that will get you further for less effort, for a greater cause. You won’t be nearly as frantic either.
Over time, the compound effect of all this can be as magical as it is massive. The process is a little, I suppose, like golf. The more you try to hit the ball, the more unsuccessful you’re going to be. You can’t search for the outcome, you have to let it happen; the positioning, rhythm and flow, and when it does - when you lean into your swing - the ball just flies where it is supposed to.
Decades ago, mindfulness and meditation were the preserves of the gurus in ashrams, in India or the West. You don’t have to go there - as I actually did for a couple of years after I turned 23 - you can literally download an app that will help you or you can just switch your smartphone off altogether and just go for a walk. More and more people are turning to it. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the best-sellers: Sapiens
, Homo Deus
and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
, spends two hours a day meditating and takes a month off every year in a silent, technology-free retreat. For him, our future superpower must be to ‘know ourselves’, our thoughts, emotions, assumptions and chosen identities. He says we must do this to defeat the power of the future AI algorithms which will otherwise surely know us better than we do, and so we become their consumerist and behavioural puppets.
We all need to still the maelstrom in our minds, most of all we need to break the semi-automated responses that continue to chain us to the hamster wheel that’s starting to spin even faster than it did in March. If we don’t, we will find ourselves frantically doing the same things all the time, yet expecting a different result – still ‘winning’ but to what end?
By regaining our sense of perspective, we build more mastery of our own lives, something that has been severely tested over the last six months – and is going to be tested even more as we step further over the threshold into the realm of not just the fourth industrial revolution, but a post-pandemic one at that.
The greatest weapon in our arsenal will be our mental resilience, an unshakable sense of purpose and a profound empathy with one another in the knowledge, if nothing else, that we are not just fundamentally the same, we are equally vulnerable to whatever the future holds. We have no option but to work together to survive – and flourish.