The future has never been guaranteed. Even so, we’ve taken it for granted, and have avoided preparing in government, our businesses, and society in general. We tend to “work in,” not “work on,” managing too many crises and tasks to tackle the tough questions about the reliability of our futures, let alone develop plans to mitigate eventual problems.
Our vulnerabilities have often reemerged in various political cycles and isolated crises like natural disasters, but they quickly dissolved from the national and global stages. The pandemic has proven we can’t avoid this discussion anymore.
We are in a global point of suspended animation—an unparalleled point in history during which our systems are breaking or sitting idle. While some executives, leaders, and first responders only have time to “work in,” heroically managing catastrophes with rapid speed, others are quietly quarantined and looking to emerge. They have the gift—and privilege—of time. They can finally “work on,” and if “working on” paves the path for “working in effectively,”then it’s never been more important to do so. It begs the question: what decisions must we make today to create futures we would envy? What would make us proud?
When we stop and think about what kind of future we want to create, we must first examine the systems we already have in place: economy, governance, and social interaction. Given the dozens of subsets of those three categories, what works within our systems considering the needs of all people? What does not?
With our noses close to our proverbial grindstones, we can’t say how future generations will judge our current actions. But we can lift our heads to adopt a bird’s eye view, and we can look to history as our guide.
The 14th century Italian philosophers reeling from the Plague’s devastation couldn’t have predicted how their admiration of the ancient Greeks would fundamentally change the Western world, but it did. The Renaissance thinkers embraced holistic thinking—the merging of scientific and artistic principles—and through such collaborations, recreated Florence. Wealthy patrons supported artists, giving them free reign to create and wonder. They rediscovered the classics’ appreciation of human’s achievements, and out of this, humanism was born. After the oppression of the Middle Ages, people were finally encouraged to question previously held beliefs. Societal focus began to shift from the afterlife to life on earth, leading to a revolution in scientists attempting to explore the physical world.
In a ripple effect, the Italian Renaissance ultimately led to the invention of the printing press, providing publications in mass to people for the first time in history. Imagine a world without wide access to the written word. Think about us not having cell phones or the Internet in this crisis. Both seem inconceivable to those living in either the 15th or 21st centuries.
If the lack of mass-produced writing and connectivity seems inconceivable to us, what, then, will future generations have access to? What will seem inconceivable to them? These are the questions we must ask ourselves now, at this time of stagnation and breakage. The Coronavirus
has already altered society. Its mark will last forever. As with any global, shared experience, there can be no unseeing what we’ve witnessed, no un-experiencing months of confinement, no unrealizing how vulnerable we are to another pandemic. So, we have a choice: we can either retrench into what was, realigning with old systems that have already revealed their cracks, or take the brave step the Renaissance Men and Women took to envision a new future—and then create that.
The Renaissance was born out of an invisible enemy, too. Without the travail the Plague caused, the Renaissance likely wouldn’t have occurred in the way it did. This is not to say what we’re experiencing is in any way for the better, as millions are suffering around the globe. But it is to say that we are not alone in history. Others have survived these invisible wars and emerged with a newfound approach to creating a better world. If you’re in a position to work on your business instead of in it, consult a variety of different people with divergent perspectives. The Renaissance partially succeeded due to its equal embrace of the sciences and arts, so in these equally unprecedented times, you might find the insights you’re seeking from unlikely sources.
Renaissance means “rebirth” for a reason, and in that rebirth, there is hope, there is opportunity, and if we can take the time quarantine grants us to stop and think and plan, we can create a 21st century Renaissance that will positively alter society for generations to come.
So, let’s get at it. Let’s get to the thoughtful work of creating our own Renaissance and let’s start by working on our issues versus just working in our worlds. The results will make it better for every life you touch, starting with your own.