“…a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”
~Albert Einstein, New York Times, May 25, 1946
Times of disturbance and upheaval are always times of change. Societal structures loosen, sometimes fracture, and fundamental assumptions about the world are shaken. As societies resettle from crises they resettle differently, either a little differently or significantly so.
No one would have wished for the global upheaval caused by the coronavirus and COVID-19. The ongoing loss of life, the emotional, financial, and societal toll, and the uncertainty we face, are all overwhelming.
But this terrible disturbance creates an opportunity. Octogenarian journalist and observer of society Llewellyn King said recently that “Disturbance and change open the door for great creativity. Major disruptions yield new beginnings.”
What will our new beginnings look like?
Of course, the immediate task is to suppress the spread of the virus and to develop a vaccine. As we’ve all heard so often, when we develop sufficient supplies of reliable tests and test people regularly we will be able to identify and isolate those infected, and quarantine those with whom infected individuals have come in contact. Then the rest of us can move about more freely while we await a proven vaccine.
But then what? Are we open to “a new type of thinking” for figuring out where we go from here?
What Einstein wrote in 1946 remains true today. If we hope to survive and thrive it is “essential” that we learn to think differently.
What does it take to do that and what does it look like?
Before anything else I think it requires the willingness to think differently. Karen Armstrong writes “One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of.”
Recently I read Factfulness, by Hans Rosling. Through humor and copious credible data, he reveals that most people, including “experts,” have the facts wrong when it comes to conditions and trends and the state of the world. To remedy this gap between perceptions and real-world conditions, he recommends humility and curiosity.
He writes “Being humble, here, means being aware of how difficult your instincts can make it to get the facts right…. Being curious means being open to new information and actively seeking it out.”
So first, an open, humble, curious mind is a precondition to new types of thinking.
It’s also helpful to distinguish between ideas and ideologies as mental frameworks for thinking about things. Paul Hawken wrote about the difference in Blessed Unrest: “There is a vast difference between the two; ideas question and liberate, while ideologies justify and dictate…. Ideologies exclude openness, diversity, resiliency, and multiplicity, the very qualities that nourish life in any system, be it ecosystem, immune system, or social system…. Ideas are living things; they can be changed and adapted, and can grow. Ideas do not belong to anyone, and require no approval.”
A great resource for the kind of thinking needed is Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline, about five disciplines practiced by learning leaders and organizations that learn how to respond productively to changing conditions. The five disciplines include Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision, Team Learning, and Systems Thinking. All are immensely helpful tools for thought and action. In particular, the practice of Personal Mastery and Mental Models require regular examination of our assumptions about the world, and the effort to see current reality more clearly.
The Stockdale Paradox is a specific, disciplined commitment to face current reality. According to Joel Makower in a recent column in GreenBiz, this mindset is important if we are to learn from the current crisis. Jim Collins in his book Good to Great found that the Stockdale Paradox is a habit of thought practiced by effective organizational leaders and change agents. The concept is named after Admiral James Stockdale who summarized it this way: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
We have to know where we are and how we got there if we hope to move to where we want to be.
When I think about “the most brutal facts of current reality” as they relate to the coronavirus I think of two things: the unintended consequences of humanity’s unquestioned pursuit of consumption and economic growth as a worthwhile goal, and the many failings of American society epitomized by how distant our policies, political discourse, and many of our behaviors are from the patriotic commitment in our de facto national motto, E pluribus unum: “out of many, one.”
To have a new beginning ripe with creativity requires leaving old assumptions and patterns of thought behind. It requires curiosity and humility, openness to new ideas. It requires rejecting the simplistic and confining, false comfort of narrow ideologies.
One of the powers of democracy is that citizens can convene and work across differences to co-create a future that all desire. This happens on a small scale more than we realize. Democratic structures exist to facilitate this. It requires that citizens use the skills of citizenship in a civic engagement process if the effort is going to result in anything worthwhile. It requires listening to each other, openly and sincerely, and talking with rather than at each other.
It requires having faith in each other and acknowledging our shared values.
It requires the ethic of E pluribus unum.
There is no going back to the way things were. There is only going forward. It makes no sense to perpetuate what has become outmoded or counterproductive.
If we will bring humility, curiosity, openness to possibility, and a recognition that we are all in this together to the effort of figuring out what’s next, I have great faith in the future.
I agree with Donella Meadows: “We humans are smart enough to have created complex systems and amazing productivity; surely we are also smart enough to make sure that everyone shares our bounty, and surely we are smart enough to sustainably steward the natural world upon which we all depend.”