With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, every day brings fear, uncertainty, and a whole lot of bad news that sounds like this: “Confined […] to their own neighborhoods, they got sick every day by the thousands…[…];
there was not enough consecrated ground to bury the enormous number of corpses…[...]; fathers and mothers refused to tend to their children and take care of them, treating them as if they belonged to someone else…[…]…in the midst of so much affliction and misery….the respect for the…authority of laws…had declined just about to the vanishing point…people felt free to behave however they liked. …instead of shutting themselves up, they went about…[whereas]….”
Sound familiar? Like a typical dispatch from CNN or The New York Times? How about Giovanni Bocccaccio’s Introduction to The Decameron? That’s right—that medieval collection of 100 short stories written about Florence, Italy during the plague of 1348 otherwise known as the Black Death. What reading a book like The Decameron right now can do, however, is give you that critical perspective and long view of history that ultimately helps to reveal patterns in thinking and behavior that will help you to sculpt the future. In the rush to embrace, and indeed to invent, the “new normal,” business leaders are scratching their heads trying to innovate: adapting to new technology; redesigning the workspace; streamlining staff; overhauling product delivery; and questioning decades of best practices and industry standards. The future looks ominous, but it also looks like a free-for-all race to see who can master this crisis and prevail. Looking backwards rarely, if ever, seems like the way to move forward; it would be like watching the rear-view mirror while hurtling down the freeway. Yet, being reflective about past trends and patterns is perhaps now the only way to really grasp and leverage the many opportunities of tomorrow.
Take, for instance, the perceived value of email. A normal letter was slow, ineffective, and antiquated. Until everyone got overwhelmed by emails and they lost their luster. What happened? The handwritten thank you note made a comeback. All of a sudden, the personal and physical touch of a real letter could once again shift the course of your business transactions. The same is true about nearly every industry: craft beer makes a comeback compared to mass-produced Miller-lites; slow-travel instead of mass tourism; personalized lattes instead of industrial cups of coffee; an Air B&B instead of a hotel. Yesterday and yesterday’s way of doing things, seems new, and more importantly, relevant, again.
That, in a nutshell, is how the Middle Ages became the Renaissance. The devastation of the Black Death necessitated a radical rethinking of the world—every way of “business as normal” upended by the dramatic loss of life and shift in perspective about the nature and meaning of human life. How did they move forward and create tomorrow? By looking to the splendor and glory of yesterday. The Renaissance was not only about the mastery of new or superior technology; it was not a dusting-off of long-forgotten ideas, or a miraculous recovery of lost invention. It was a dynamic commitment to a future built in concert with a supreme understanding of and appreciation for what was great about the past. They did not decide just to rebuild the Roman Coliseum, or Circus Maximus. Instead, they took the architectural principles of those monuments and applied them to new aspirations and new heights of achievement. They did not resort to copying Greek philosophical texts and arguments—they extended and deepened them allowing them to speak across centuries to new ears and diverse circumstances.
The post-plague world did not simply restore itself through the birth of new generations (of people and ideas), but from the rebirth of ideas that could stand the test of time. They did not build their empires on trends; they built them with an idea of eternity and the enduring value of always. As we face similar disruptive challenges to industry and our “way of doing business” we must embrace the opportunity to develop a kind of double-vision: now is the time to go forward by looking backward. It is time to innovate by remembering why you got started in the first place (what motivates you); analyzing what place you occupy in your industry (reorienting yourself); and taking stock in your resources and resourcefulness (how can you leverage your power). It is time to return to origins and redefine the core values and ideas that are at the heart of your business as you keep in mind that today’s tomorrow might look a lot like yesterday. And in the meantime, maybe read a page or two of The Decameron.
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