Lessons From This Year I Will Carry Forward to 2021
Life between two kingdoms, the loss of control, the end of winning, the microbiocene, intimacy — and silence.
by Tim Leberecht
Yuri van Geest, Canay Atalay, and Rudy de Waele, the founders of the Conscious Learning Tribe, asked me to contribute to their last Un-Conference of the year. It was great to see Canay and Rudy again — they had spoken and run workshops at the first two House of Beautiful Business gatherings in 2017 — and to join their community. This past weekend, they convened 21 speakers from different walks of life and asked them to reflect on 2020 and look ahead to 2021 by answering three questions. Following is my response:
What did you learn from 2020?
This was the year when metaphysical truth became physical, when existential wisdom met science fiction, when God met Wes Anderson. It was a weird, never-ending story gone awry.
I saw loved ones fall sick because of COVID or as collateral damage. The writer Suleika Jaouad, creator of the Isolation Journals who spoke at The Great Wave festival, reminded me of these lines of Susan Sontag:
“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
This year we all learned to live with two passports, to live as citizens of both those kingdoms, loyal to both of them.
That wasn’t the only ambiguity.
We also lived more distant lives this year, but at the same time grew closer. We had to learn how to make distance beautiful, to create intimacy from a distance, like a painter. With the House of Beautiful Business, we hosted 50 online Living Room Sessions this year. During the first wave of the pandemic, we even hosted two per week. In these sessions and then later in The Great Wave festival we organized this fall, I found a sense of unity I had never seen before.
But maybe unity is not the right word. We were not ideologically united, but merely united in our being alone, in our desire to transform ourselves with this crisis and not squander this opportunity. There was a newfound tenderness in our actions and interactions, at least for a few weeks, and I will carry it with me going forward like a souvenir of what could have been.
One image that stuck in my mind was from a session with graphic artist Anthony Burrill in April. He asked the hundred participants to create poster signs with messages for others during the pandemic, and in the end they all held their posters in front of their web cams. The result was a Zoom gallery full of compassion and love. One poster said “This sucks…”, another “I see you”, and another just “Hold on.” It was a powerful moment, and like many other powerful moments this year it took place in silence.
Another such moment was the hour with Esther Blázquez Blanco who was silently staring at her Zoom viewers for what felt like an eternity during a session at The Great Wave, holding the infinite empty space with infinite grace. (Esther will also feature in our special New Year’s Eve Living Room Session on December 31).
She and others this year showed me that silence is a gift. When I was younger, a student, living alone, the silence was often numbing. In the past, silence made me feel isolated, this year it made me feel more connected. In the past, silence aggravated my loneliness, this year it enhanced my solitude.
Finally, I learned that we are not in control, and that once we accept that, we can influence our destiny. This is particularly true for business. The pandemic taught us that three-year strategic plans are a thing of the past the moment they are written. That rigorous and robust systems are in fact more exposed to disruptive events. That, in fact, fragility makes them stronger, makes us stronger. That resilience eats efficiency for breakfast.
Another long-held darling of business and our market societies suddenly seemed incredibly outdated: the idea of winning that is at the heart of our economic growth impetus. The idea that there is such thing as a definitive victory, a win, a win-win.
Donald Trump, the sourest of losers, showed us what happens when a society views the “art of the deal” as the highest art of all, where the winners are the best dealmakers, and where everybody gets only what they pay for.
This year we learned that our victories are always Pyrrhic victories, and that our wins are always someone else’s losses. We learned, paradoxically, that we will only prevail over the pandemic if we let go of the idea of winning and become better at losing.
In fact, we suddenly realized what we risk to lose if winning is the only option: everything.
What do you see as key trends for 2021 and the next decade?
This sets up what I view as the big showdown, the endgame of this decade: the clash between, on the one hand, a new collective consciousness and, on the other hand, our propensity to self-destruction.
There are three vectors at work that could push us further down the path to self-destruction, in fact, push us over the cliff: AI and the possibility of singularity, nuclear proliferation, and the climate crisis (or, in a broader sense, an alienation from nature, from our nature).
Most experts say that we have roughly 10 years to make drastic changes, or we will suffer the ultimate loss.
Here, too, we encounter a paradox. Last week marked the beginning of the Anthropocene. For the first time in the history of our planet the mass of all inorganic and human-made materials, including everything made of plastic, officially outweighed all organic matter such as plants and animals. Yet at the same time, the pandemic has shown us that we need to move beyond the Anthropocene if we want to survive and thrive as a species. We need an understanding that we are “a pond among ponds,” as the philosopher Tobias Rees called it, who also gave this new era a name: the Microbiocene.
What makes me optimistic is the other force: the rise of a new collective consciousness. The rare “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn we wtinessed this week may indeed give birth to a whole new era, a new consciousness.
This new consciousness has five core building blocks:
- a humble reconciliation with nature;
- a quantum-physics based appreciation of the notion that our realities — and our identities — are nonbinary and fluid;
- a new feminism and intersectionality in the way we lead, govern, and live our lives;
- business that is not just more productive or efficient, but more beautiful;
- and a new spirituality that transcends the mechanisms of technocratic winners-take-all market societies.
So, basically, we have a choice: the future will be either be a new era of quantum, intimacy, and beauty — or it won’t be at all.
Finally, what is your personal Intention for 2021?
I want to be pleasantly surprised.
This article first appeared in the Journal of Beautiful Business.