Unclenching

It was a yoga teacher who first pointed out to me that, even in a strenuous pose, there was no need to furrow my brow and clench my jaw. This is because, as it turns out, neither my jaw nor my forehead is connected to my thighs, hips, back, or hamstrings.

Of course this applies, like all things, beyond the yoga mat. Take running, which has returned as a major part of my life thanks to social distancing. I’ve logged my two longest runs ever in the last two weeks (just under 9 miles) since…what else is there to do?!

Mostly, I enjoy it, but I’m also having to unlearn the always-struggle, always-push mindset that I employed when I last ran regularly, in my teens and 20s.

I’m trying to remember to relax my face while I run. I’ve noticed that my forehead, the space between my eyebrows and my jaw are perpetually clenched when I run. This helps with absolutely nothing.

Clenching is a natural reaction to stress, but it doesn’t make sense. It provides no protection or safety. It wards off nothing.

Needless to say, stress is everywhere these days. We can trick ourselves into believing that clenching, both physical (in our jaw and forehead) and psychological (in our minds as we scroll through screen after screen of frustrating, worrying news) equates to “doing something.” We can pretend that worrying about what’s going on helps in some way.

The fact is, adding strain and suffering to something that is already strenuous is completely optional. There’s enough that’s hard already, why should we be adding more?

Here’s how to practice unclenching.

Find a spot in your body where you hold tension. For me, this is the left side of my jaw, which I often clench when awake and asleep.

Consciously unclench it. Breathe. Breathe again.

Now pay attention to other things that are clenched.

Let them relax too. Breathe. Breathe again.

Repeat as necessary.

Adjusting Your Value Wheel

Each business has a value wheel – the collection of things you do that create value for your customers.

In each situation, and for each customer, you present these in a different way. One customer cares more about the speed of delivery, another about how flexible you are, a third loves that you have an office in Cairo right next to where their main supplier is.

While your value wheel has a few core elements—the handful of things (values, behaviors, promises you keep) that make you you—each customer’s next-level reasons for hiring you will differ.

Your job, when selling your wares, is to know which of these value wheel elements to present when and to whom, and to be facile enough in representing and rejiggering them to communicate just the right offering to each different (potential) customer.

If this all wasn’t easy to see a month ago, it certainly is now. A month ago, a big chunk of how we used to create value was taken off the table. Our new task is to see if the pieces we are left holding are enough that we can continue to do (a new version of) what we do, even in today’s new, unprecedented context.

For many industries and business models, the short-term answer is a simple ‘no’:

Airlines can’t be airlines if people don’t want to travel.

Most restaurants can’t be restaurants without seated customers

But there is also potential, even with a lot of change:

Schools, it turns out, could probably teach kids effectively without kids coming together (though most are failing to do this well).

Most services businesses, whose lifeblood used to involve face time (not FaceTime) with clients and going to giant conferences, are discovering that a lot of that was expected behavior that was mostly unnecessary.

For those of us lucky enough to still be holding enough pieces to stay afloat, the questions to ask are:

How do we clearly see the collection of pieces we’re left holding?

Might there be a way that THIS collection of pieces is, in fact, enough to do meaningful work?

If we imagined that this new normal were here to stay, what would we do differently? What bigger bets would we make?

(and finally)

What new things have we learned about ourselves, our capabilities and our customers that we want to preserve, even when things get back to “normal?”

To help take this forward, here’s a downloadable value wheel that you can print out and fill out with your team (virtually, of course).

Value Wheel

Far Away from Here

“Have you heard? That new virus is spreading like crazy in Wuhan, China. That seems just awful.”

“Oh gosh, now there are tons of cases in Italy and Iran. I heard it came from a bat. How terrifying. Thank goodness there are only a few cases here.”

“It’s exploded in New Rochelle, just outside New York city, and cases are increasing across Europe. Close the borders.”

“New York is the epicenter of coronavirus in the U.S. Those damn, godless New Yorkers, all pressed up against each other. Good thing we’re safe out here in Texas. Or Wyoming. Or Nevada. Or in Lagos or Delhi or Mexico City for that matter.”

Obviously, we all know the terrifying punchline: “there” became “here” for all of us in a matter of weeks. Just as quickly, our carefully cultivated story of separateness has been debunked.

As we live through this, we have the opportunity to acknowledge a few revealed truths.

Our selfishness

First, unavoidably, we are all selfish in some important ways. Or, at least, I am.

I know that I started paying attention to, and worrying about, this coronavirus early. I vividly remember the daily, sickening terror I was feeling in mid-February, unable to shake recurring thoughts about the risk to my three children from a MERS-like killer. Then one day I tuned into The Daily podcast and learned that children were very likely to be safe from this virus. I exhaled, the worst of my fears momentarily put to rest.

Fast forward two more weeks and it became real again: I began actively worrying about my parents, and then about my friends, my community, and me.

The truth is, most of us only really wake up when something threatens people whose names we know: our family, our friends, our community.

Does this remind you of anything?

Second, the parallels to global warming are so glaring, it feels heavy-handed to point them out.

Something out there is slowly, inexorably putting us all at great risk. The science is clear about these risks and about the steps we could take to mitigate them. Most of us understand the problem but we ignore it. A few powerful people deny it. Those that don’t do the polite, educated thing, giving lip-service to how important this thing is while making virtually no sacrifices to fight it.

The mirror we can all see

What have we learned in the last few months? That most (but not all) societies are geared—politically, economically and socially—to underprepare, underreact, and stay complacent for far too long. Then, when it’s nearly too late, when it becomes real to us, we will panic, overcorrect, and bemoan the missed opportunity of having started sooner.

A few societies, though, learned important lessons from near misses. They retooled and reprioritized, capitalizing on shifts in attitudes to make significant shifts in resources. They made sure that the next time they’d be in a position to act and act quickly.

The questions we must ask ourselves

Will we all take the lessons we are living and apply them to the next gigantic, looming crisis on the horizon? Or will we, in our desperate desire to return to normalcy, rush headfirst into collective amnesia?

I think the answer to these questions will boil down to our willingness to look own selfishness squarely in the face, to study it without flinching.

If we could see how most of us (importantly, not front-line heroes) have responded to this crisis—how, when left unchecked, we fall prey to a massive, collective failures of imagination and empathy, effectively ignoring far-away-seeming hardships and far-off-seeming risks—might we gain the perspective to start acting differently?

Might this experience engrain in us our fundamental connection with each other?

Might it push us to set different priorities, be willing to give up a bit more, and act sooner and with much more urgency the next time around?

We’ve all been warned.

We all are living through this.

What will we do with this knowledge when we come out the other side?

 

Crisis Speed

There was a moment, not long after we incorporated 60 Decibels, when I was sitting in the office with my head of operations. We had to decide which of a number of office spaces we had seen was right for us, and what lease to sign.  We discussed it for about five minutes, agreed what we wanted to do…and then we both just stopped for a beat.

Both of us paused because it felt like we needed to check with someone else, to get an additional approval, to run it up the flagpole.

But in a startup, blessedly, there is no flagpole.

Both of us got a bit giddy as we realized it was just up to us. When the surrounding silence made this abundantly clear, we confirmed our decision and moved on. That was the first of a thousand small decisions we made quickly.

She and I had both spent our careers in bigger organizations. We’d learned about things going slowly. It had been, slowly and surely, pounded in to us.

Of course things change in moments of crisis–like what we’re living through right now. When a crisis hits, we all move faster, because what’s happening externally is so big and so universally understood that no one will punish us for choosing to act.

The question that presents itself is: why only in a crisis?

One of the many things we are all learning is that we can up our game when we have to: we can make important decisions and own the consequences.

The people whose job it is to make sure everything is just right have other things to worry about right now. Or they’ve consciously changed their standard, tilting far in favor of action and away from methodically checking off all the boxes.

This has happened because we all understand the cost of inaction in a crisis.

What we shouldn’t forget, not just today but also in a calmer tomorrow, is that the cost of inaction is always high.

Many of us have learned that we can’t get blamed for doing nothing. But the much more important lesson is that inaction and passing the buck are nearly always the most expensive thing–not just because of the things we don’t get done, but because of the culture we build and the lessons we teach our best people:

That’s it’s not really up to them to decide.

That they’re not really on the hook.

That we don’t, when you boil it all down, trust them to act in our best interest.

What could be more damaging to the cultures we aim to build?

Sundays at Cafe Comercial

I’ve lived in Spain twice, once taking a semester off at the start of my junior year in college, and once four years later. Both times I mostly lived in Madrid.

Madrid seemed familiar to me at first, a big city that reminded me of my hometown of New York. But Spanish culture and the patterns of daily life were very un-American at the time. The siesta still existed, meaning long breaks at 2pm for lunch, and the workday stretched to 8pm. You couldn’t start dinner at a restaurant before 10pm unless you wanted to eat alone.

The thing I noticed most, though, were Sundays.

On Sundays, nearly everything was closed. A whole vibrant, dynamic city shut itself down for the day.

When I first lived in Spain, those Sundays felt endless. I spent a huge amount of energy grumbling about things being closed, noticing all the things I couldn’t do, and, finally and reluctantly, finding ways to fill my time.

I moved back to Spain four years later, and this second time around I more quickly slipped into the culture and rhythm of the place. I began to notice the beauty of the different way things were done: going to lots of little shops one at time to shop on Saturdays (a fruit shop, a cheese shop, a butcher) wasn’t worse than having everything at one supermarket. Yes, it was slower, but I got to know the couple that ran Tomad Mucha Fruta, and they got to know me. I talked each week to the butcher, and to the many abuelas on line with me, about how a stew or a roast had turned out and what I would make the following week. My now-wife and I would have long conversations with the cheese guy (she also had a crush on him…and how can you compete with a guy who is good looking AND sells cheese?) All of this wove us into the fabric of our neighborhood and the local community.

Sundays were the biggest difference. This second time around, ‘nothing to do’ was something I began to understand intuitively. A few months into the year, my wife and I created a lovely routine. We’d print out the NY Times Sunday Crossword (newly possible thanks to the internet) and make our way to one of Madrid’s big old coffee shops, Café Comercial. We’d settle in with a big café con leche, maybe a palmeira or other snack, and pass half the day reading, talking and doing the crossword.

Those Sundays were far and away the most peaceful time I had during that year.

Everything being closed meant we had nowhere to be. Having nowhere to be meant we could embrace moving slowly, letting time be expansive, and truly taking a day of rest.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as ready as you are for “shelter in place” to become a thing of the past. But that’s not happening any time soon.

So, let’s allow ourselves—those of who are not on the front lines, bravely serving others with a fraction of the support they need or deserve—to reframe this moment.

Let’s allow time to pass differently.

Let’s be thankful for what we have, and sometimes, just sometimes, to experience our inability to do all we want to do as a new kind of freedom.

Resources for Remote Surveying

Much of the world has ground to a halt in the last week, and I expect it will continue this way for some time.

Our 60 Decibels team has been looking for ways we can help directly, and we’ve put together some resources I’d like to share.

First, yesterday we shared the 60 Decibels Remote Survey Toolkit. It is a new, free 19-page guide on how to successfully conduct research work remotely. This is a response to the fact that virtually all face-to-face research has stopped in reaction to COVID-19, and many organizations are scrambling to shift some or all of that data-gathering to mobile phones.

Since our 60 Decibels team has been conducting phone-based surveys for the past six years, we thought it would be helpful to compile some of the lessons we’ve learned about how to gather high-quality feedback and social performance data remotely. This Toolkit capture the most important lessons we’ve learned in speaking to more than 120,000 customers in 35 countries.

60 Decibels Remote Survey Toolkit

In addition, we have a network of more than 200 trained enumerators in 30+ countries who speak 40 languages (ready for the list? It’s awesome: Amharic, Arabic, Assamese, Bangla (Bangladesh), Bemba, Bengali (India), Bisayas, Burmese, Chichewa, English, French, Gujarati, Hausa, Hindi, Igbo, Japanese, Kinyariwanda, Kiswahili, Krio, Luganda, K’iche, Kannada, Malagasy, Malay, Malayalam, Mandarin, Marathi, Nepali, Oromo, Oriya/Odia, Pidgeon English, Portuguese, Punjabi, Q’eqchi, Shona, Siswati, Sotho, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Tamil, Tigrinya, Telugu, Twi, Urdu, Wolaiytigna, Wolof, Xhosa, Yoruba, and Zulu.)

While we have, so far, used this network to conduct our own work, we’re having lots of conversations with other research organizations to see if we can help them keep their work on track. If this network might be helpful to you, please let me know.

Finally, we are going to take steps to integrate questions about COVID-19 and its impacts into all our ongoing 60 Decibels surveys. While there are already some great initiatives tracking the impacts of COVID-19 globally, like this one created by Harvard, Cambridge, Warwick, and 7 other universities, they are mostly online-only and won’t capture the voice of the 3.5 billion people who don’t have a smartphone.

While it’s just one small piece of a much, much bigger puzzle, we hope that the work of listening, especially to those most impacted by the many hardships the world has to offer, can continue through these challenging times.

Stay safe, stay positive, and let’s take good care of each other.

The Second Wave

A week ago, I felt ahead of the coronavirus curve. Our town had closed schools as of the prior Sunday night, so our kids were already at home. Our community had started social distancing and I was already staying home from work. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, and most of the rest of the world, was going about business as usual.

What a difference a week makes.

If last week my community was living through a first, early wave, this week everyone everywhere got hit head-on with a mammoth second wave, and it’s knocked us off our feet.

My sister-in-law runs a wonderful commercial bakery in Nashville, and nearly all the restaurants in town are running skeleton operations and will soon be shut down. She and countless others running small businesses have no playbook for “the economy grinds to a halt.” For now, she and the restaurants are doing what they can to keep paying their staff, but that can’t last forever. What happens 3-4 weeks from now?

She, and I, and every small business owner in the country and the world spent the early part of this week running all the numbers: our revenues, our costs, our cash. We’re trying to make plans but have no crystal ball to tell us how big a hit this will be and how long it will last.

Are we stopping everything for a few weeks or for a few months?

Come mid-April, will we have adjusted to a new normal, a pulled-back version of what we know, one in which everything functions, albeit at 60-70% its normal capacity?

Or is it possible that major parts of the economy, our school systems, our houses of worship, our community service organizations, and our social fabric all stay offline for months or longer while our healthcare system gets crushed by demand that is a multiple of its current capacity?

Honestly, it is all too much to get my head around.

And, in truth, while all of this worries me, I quietly fear that in a few months’ time I will look back longingly to a time when I was mostly thinking about changes in regular life instead of worrying about the health and well-being of people I know and love.

I pray every day that what we’re all doing will buy us the time we need and avert the worst-case scenarios.

Instead of trying to make sense of it all, I’m doing what I can to keep focused on the present, to do what I can to take care of my family and myself, to stay connected to the people I work with and the customers we serve, and to find ways, big and small, to support one another.

I notice that our 60 Decibels team is much more active online—new Slack channels are coming to life, and everyone is much more responsive. It’s become OK to spend time on a Zoom call just asking how people are doing, to speak about feelings and experiences. These are all good things.

I’ve also noticed is how differently time is passing. Without a regular schedule, the days have lost their structure, so they are bleeding into one another. A morning or afternoon might fly by, but the days themselves feel slow, sometimes plodding. Every time I count how long it’s been since schools shut down–8 days, as of today–the number feels woefully small compared to what’s to come.

I, along with a number of people around me, have…some sort of illness. It’s some combination of a low fever, a tight chest, aches, listlessness. Normally we’d take a DayQuill and get on with things, but now we realize that we could be the ones spreading this thing if we’re not careful, and of course its scary to think of the worst scenarios. So, we alert everyone we’ve been in contact with over the last 10 days (nearly nobody), while at the same time all deciding that there’s no point in trying to get tested because tests aren’t available.

This means we don’t know, and we won’t know, if we have a cold or the flu or the coronavirus, and I expect most of us never will. Even the relief of catching the virus, getting over it, and having immunity eludes us because of the embarrassing, dangerous lack-of-response to this pandemic that’s our reality in the United States.

At the same time, there have also been many wonderful moments over these last eight days. I’m definitely spending more time, and different time, with my children. We, and they, have gone for many more hikes. They are, by necessity, much more independent, venturing off on walks and through parks without us, the sort of unstructured free play that’s all but vanished in our modern, over-parented and over-scheduled era. I’ve taught my third-grade daughter how to add fractions—I didn’t just help her with her homework, I taught it to her from scratch. We’ve brought the ping-pong table back out and everyone’s eager to play. We are eating all our meals together and cooking even more than we normally do (which is a lot). Mostly, we can get the groceries that we want.

When they ask, we tell our kids this has never happened before, that it’s unprecedented. I think we’re failing to communicate the scale of our un-knowing. We are all children in the face of this new era that’s smacked us in the face, with no experience to guide us, no intuition to inform where we are relative to where we will be.

Stay safe, stay positive, and let’s take good care of each other.

The Eye of the Storm

Like many, I’ve found my week and life disrupted by the Coronavirus.

First, over the weekend we decided to keep our 60 Decibels New York team working from home for the start of this week, since two of our team members live in Westchester County (which has been leading the nation in total number of Coronavirus cases).  Then I learned late on Sunday night that our school district was closing until March 18th.

One thing I’ve noticed over the past week is that we’re all on different Coronavirus waves. Each wave is separated by a few days or maybe weeks, and each brings with it a different experience of how real, and close, this pandemic is. I expect that what’s going on in Westchester County, where I live, is a lot like what happened in Northern Italy two or three weeks ago, and that what we’re experiencing will soon happen in other parts of the country.

The main thing I’m noticing is nobody seems to really know what’s going on or what to do. This is all new, uncharted territory, and outside of learning how to wash our hands better, everything else—figuring out whether and when to close things down, to practice social distancing or to quarantine ourselves—is a guessing game, especially in the absence of widespread testing.

What I’m personally experiencing is a low-level fog, a sense that there’s something potentially terrible going on out there, with “out there” not that far from home. I think a lot about the math of exponential spread: it would overwhelm our healthcare system and, potentially, cause significant and widespread fatalities. At the same time, I pray that we will look back at this as a crisis averted and learn from it for the future. I’m pretty sure that the best way to avoid the worst scenarios is much broader testing and changes in social behavior to lower the rate of transmission. But what that means in reality, on a national scale, is hard to imagine.

Despite these thoughts droning on in the background, boosted by my Twitter feed, the sun has been out, the early spring days are beautiful, and right now everyone I know is, as far as I know, as safe and healthy as they were last week. It’s all very confusing.

If a preview of having Coronavirus in your community is helpful, here goes. We keep getting drips of messages of closures and cancelations, including from stores and care providers we’ve never heard of.  Everyone who has been “thinking hard” about whether or not to close has closed. Our school’s messaging is broad and vague: there’s no clear plan for how long this will last, whether remote instruction will happen for our kids, and whether this is the start of something that will last much longer.

At each juncture we have no choice but to guess at how to act and what to do. No one has told us that we, or our kids, should stop seeing other people, so do we stop completely? Do we stop sort of? Do we stop not at all? Should we be buying beans and rice and canned goods like crazy, or just shopping normally? And why, of all things, are people stocking up on toilet paper? Is that really our biggest concern?

And, taking a step back, if this is going to be a long haul, will we look back at these early days and think how good we had it? Or will we think “if only we had done more, maybe we could have collectively contained this better?”

I honestly don’t know.

I do I wish that the people whose job it is to take away all this collective guesswork were doing a much better job. Isn’t it easy to take public infrastructure and the public good for granted until we really need it?

Insurance policies are a waste of money until disaster strikes. The ability to attend to collective well-being is quaint, antiquated, even un-American until we are all, collectively, at risk. The need for a functioning healthcare system for all is a politically charged, ideological question until, suddenly, we realize we are all in it together.

My hope is that our public infrastructure and civic leaders step up despite our systematic disemboweling of the public sector, and that our renowned private sector, so adept at saving us one day of delivery time on a pair of sneakers can point its problem-solving ability to a challenge of global proportions.

In the meantime, stay safe, stay positive, and let’s take good care of each other.

Your Best Work

There will come a day, maybe even today, that you produce something truly outstanding.

It’s you at your best, a commingling of great ideas, inspiration and a heavy dose of grit that got it over the line.

Most people who see it will be moved, maybe even inspired. They will let you know that you’ve done something truly important. You will be reminded that you at your best is really something special.

And some people, people who you truly and deeply respect…they will not like it at all.

Not because it’s not good.

Not because your best isn’t remarkable (it is.)

Simply because it is not for them.

Just like we can’t fool all the people all the time, we also cannot please all of them—and this includes people we like and respect.

The sooner we learn this lesson, the sooner we can get on with doing the work that only we can do. Because what they like or don’t like isn’t us, it’s the work.

We’re not here to please everyone.

We’re here to create concrete, meaningful, positive change for a small group of people.

Figuring out that those people are “not everyone” is incredibly freeing.

The Best Time to Start

Time is a tricky thing.

I remember like it was yesterday sitting on the floor with my newborn son, a famously bad sleeper, at a few minutes past four on a Saturday morning. It was pitch black out, I’d only slept a few hours, and we were up for the day. He sat in front of me, smiling and up for the day, diligently working on picking things up and trying to place them in a plastic shape-sorter that played a bunch of different tunes.

Day after day, week after week, my day would start at this hour—long before the neighbors, my friends who didn’t have kids, even the Marines. Being awake for hours before the sun came up each Saturday (and Sunday, and Monday) felt endless, as did that phase of life.

These days, things are a bit different.

My son, when he comes over to give me a hug, lifts his chin up a bit—he’s not yet a full head taller than me, but I expect he will be soon. We talk about his ceramics and logarithms, what e means, and about politics.

Just like that, in the proverbial blink of an eye.

Time is neutral, just doing its job day after day. Yet, despite its consistency, we fail to understand it. We get fooled into thinking we have forever, that tomorrow is just as good as today, for…

…starting that new project

…keeping a commitment

…telling someone we love them

…lending a hand

…letting go of a bad habit

…or starting a good one.

We have all the time in the world, until we don’t.

And waiting until a better time to start often means never starting at all.

We let ourselves believe that whatever is happening today will last for forever, and that we’ll never get free of the hard thing we are facing.

Just as easily, we can believe that we have “all the time in the world” when someday it will run out.

We reliably accomplish less than we think will each day and week, but much more than seems possible over the course of a year.

Assuming, that is, that we start today.