Our New Horizon

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The Celtic storytelling gene runs strongly through my family. 

I was fortunate to have grandparents and great-grandparents in my life while I was growing up, and they enthusiastically shared tales of their salad days. The stories frequently involved overcoming challenges during the Great Depression and World War II, which helped explain a number of habits we grandkids found confusing, like squeezing a tube of toothpaste down to the last dollop before throwing it away, or the look of disappointment that came our way when we didn’t consume every item on our plate during a meal. 

Our favorite Depression-era practice was a repository known simply as the “junk drawer.” Typically found in a grandparent’s kitchen, the Junk Drawer™ was filled with random objects that might come in handy someday, like loose screws, tape measures, vintage cigarette lighters, and tools whose purpose was not clear, such as a monkey wrench small enough to fit a baby’s hand. True story. (Maybe baby plumbers were conscripted into domestic service during the war?) 

Foraging through the junk drawer was a blissful adventure that never lost its allure. 

All these habits were, of course, born of necessity. The early part of the twentieth century, the 1930s in particular, was a time of subsistence survival, and many of the behaviors that kept people alive during that time became so deeply engrained they were never abandoned by the Greatest Generation. 

I listened to my grandparents’ stories with great interest, but also with a degree of detachment, naively assuming that nothing as life-altering as what they had experienced could occur in my lifetime. Enter COVID, which the World Health Organization recently stated has caused more mass trauma than WWII. Even more stunning: The trauma of COVID has affected “each and every individual on the surface of the world.”

Each and every individual on the surface of the world. 

So if the Great Depression and WWII led to behaviors that became permanent, what lasting habits and actions will COVID inspire? Mask-wearing in crowded environments, exercising at home instead of the gym, and interacting with medical experts via telehealth rather than office visits seem like behaviors that will be with us for a while. 

But there’s also another habit forming, and if some of the behaviors associated with it become widely ingrained, there are positive implications for our shared future. 

The context of this change is the Great Resignation, a phenomenon that began last spring that has resulted in millions around the world quitting their jobs in search of things like better pay, professional development opportunities, and the ability to care for children and other family members. 

Research has revealed there’s an additional motivation behind this phenomenon, one that is existential and driven by pandemic epiphanies. Basically, COVID has caused many people to think about their lives, jobs, and the world differently, to reflect on the purpose of their existence. A lot of them have concluded that something foundational needs to change, and that something is their job. 

We can thank the adaptive neuroplasticity of our brains for this ability to recognize when a circumstance is off-kilter – and the world has indeed felt off-kilter for the last 18 months – and for our ability to create solutions that restore equilibrium. When humans experience a calamitous event like the Great Depression or WWII, our brains literally rewire themselves to help us problem-solve and adapt. Sometimes that means wholesale abandonment of longstanding practices or contexts.

New sociological research shows that many people gained insight during the (disorienting) pandemic about what gives their life meaning. And when they juxtaposed that knowledge against their employment, they decided their job was an impediment to a meaningful life and therefore needed to change. This belief was even observed among people who were laid off or furloughed. Despite economic necessity, their primary focus wasn’t on merely securing a job. It was on finding a job that would help instill purpose in their lives. 

Instead of a Great Resignation, this has turned into a Great Reclaiming.

What are these existentially-motivated folks reclaiming? Some want more time with their families. Others want to focus on their mental health. Many want to launch a business. (During the pandemic, entrepreneurs opened their own businesses at more than twice the rate seen in pre-pandemic times.) 

The bottom line: People want to start prioritizing their own well-being above their employer. 

And that’s what I think has such positive implications for our collective future. Millions of people across the planet, almost simultaneously, have come to the conclusion that they must find a way to focus on preserving their mental and physical health, nurturing their families, and creating new engines of creativity and commerce. This may be an act of survival, but it’s also an act of extreme optimism.

A very simple metaphor explains what’s happening and why it’s cause for optimism. It starts with the big sky of Montana. If you’ve spent time in the Treasure State, you’re familiar with its sky, which seems wider than the sky over other parts of the country. It’s beautiful, majestic, and expansive. However, Montana’s sky isn’t literally bigger than other places. Rather, its sky seems big because the state consists primarily of huge expanses of farmland. There are few trees and almost no tall structures. As a result, the view of the sky is unobstructed. There’s very little in the foreground affecting the sense of width or depth of the sky beyond. As a result, the sky seems to go on forever. 

As COVID trapped us in our homes over the last year, many of us felt physically, mentally, and emotionally confined, which led to some profound soul-searching. Many concluded that their horizon of possibility felt narrow, that the sightline of their potential was obstructed by ‘structures’ like toxic or unfulfilling employment. 

Millions around the world then began quitting or changing their jobs and reclaiming their horizon of possibility. As they removed obstructions limiting the view, including contexts and environments that were damaging to their mental health or kept them from their families, their horizons expanded and their possibilities started to feel less limited. 

Imagine what a post-pandemic world could look like if these COVID-inspired behaviors become lifelong habits. Picture the world after five years of a major segment of the global population prioritizing mental health, identifying and pursuing opportunities for personal and professional autonomy, and engaging in empathetic leadership practices.

It would demonstrate that while we were trapped in our homes during the pandemic, we looked inward and found ways to set ourselves free. That’s the post-COVID horizon we need to focus on. It’s our big sky! 

(We should also probably continue completely finishing the toothpaste, cleaning our plates, and stocking the junk drawer. Trust me, future generations will thank us for those baby wrenches, and if not, maybe at least they will explain them!)

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