No Mercy No Malice

What We Leave Behind

Much like an Etch-A-Sketch, Covid has presented an opportunity to envision our lives turned upside down, powder redistributed

While the fires of Covid-19 continue to rage around the world, here in the U.S. we’ve turned a corner. The intensity of an emergency doesn’t register until after it’s over, and many of us are still trying to wrap our heads around the events of the past year. Inevitably, our pause turns to curiosity … what happens next? What will be different, what will be the same?

I took some time this week to look back at where we were a year ago: reeling from the initial shock of the pandemic; facing the long grind of a summer in isolation; and dreading winter’s second wave. In the post we’re revisiting below, from May 2020, I was in an optimistic mood, though with less justification than today. Many crises have birthed periods of exceptional progress — our strength gets buttressed and our vision broadens. First, we need to envision the self we hope to be coming out of this plague.

What We Leave Behind

An Etch A Sketch is a mechanical drawing toy invented by André Cassagnes of France. Two knobs move a stylus that displaces aluminum powder on the back of the screen, leaving a solid line. The genius of the toy is the aluminum powder. A child only needs to flip the toy and shake, redistributing it over the screen.

Covid has presented an opportunity to envision our lives turned upside down, powder redistributed. We can start over. We hoard relationships and the accoutrements of a life others have fashioned for us. We often don’t know any better, or don’t have the confidence to draw outside the lines until we’re older. My colleague, professor Adam Alter, has done research on the regrets of the dying. One of the biggest: not living the life they wanted to lead, but the life others chose for them.

In 2000 I left my marriage, my career in e-commerce, and San Francisco. I hit the restart button and left a lot behind. The period was lonely, rife with collateral damage — but it was the right decision. Covid presents society, and each of us, with the opportunity to design a better life with … less.

What do we leave behind? Some thoughts:

Emissions. I’m not an environmentalist, and mostly believe that after the last human draws her final breath the Earth will register a 20-year belch and feel fine again. To be clear, I do believe climate change is man-made, as I don’t have my head up my ass, but I also believe the move to renewables will be expensive. Just as trickle-down economics is a lie, so is the notion that the Green New Deal would pay for itself.

In Florida, like many places, the water has been so clear, the sky so blue, that I wonder if this is a time to move away from coal, cars, commutes … even if it is really expensive. The last several months have convinced me it’s worth it. A spectacular home is worth a ton of money. Why wouldn’t we decide that a spectacular backyard (sea, sky, land), for all of us and our children, is also worth a huge investment?

Essential workers. The term essential means we’re going to treat you like chumps but run commercials calling you heroes. Just stop it. We lean out our windows and applaud health-care workers, as we should. We don’t, however, lean out our windows to salute other front-line workers — the guy or gal delivering your groceries or dropping Indian food through the window in your back seat.

Why? Because, deep down, we’ve been taught to believe that we live in a meritocracy and that billionaires and minimum wage workers all deserve what they get. We’ve conflated luck and talent, and it’s had a disastrous outcome — a lack of empathy.

There is so much that’s jarring about American exceptionalism. An enduring American image of the pandemic is a makeshift morgue in a refrigerated tractor-trailer in Queens. Worse? We idolize the founder of Tesla, who’s added the GDP of Hungary to his wealth (all tax-free/deferred) during this crisis, even as we discover 25% of New Yorkers are at risk for becoming food insecure. This isn’t a United States, it’s The Hunger Games.

This country was built by titans of industry even wealthier than today’s billionaires — Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan. But 1 in 11 steel workers didn’t need to die for bridges and skyscrapers to happen. We are a country that rewards genius. Yet no one person needs to hold enough cash to end homelessness ($20 billion), eradicate malaria worldwide ($90 billion), and have enough left over to pay 700,000 teachers’ salaries. Bezos makes the average Amazon employee’s salary in 10 seconds. This paints us as a feudal state and not a democracy.

Our lack of empathy for fellow Americans is vulgar and un-American. We can and should replace the hollow tributes with a federally mandated $20/hour minimum wage. This “outrageous” lift in the hourly wage would vault us from the 1960s to the present. As of 2018 the federal minimum was worth 29% less than in 1968.

Howling in the Money Storm

Money is a vehicle for the transfer of time and work from one entity to another. If we spend less money on one thing, we can invest more time on another. Could we invest less in stuff, less in commuting, and more in relationships? I’ve been howling in the money storm for so long. Believing my worth to others was a function of the stuff I had, or didn’t have.

We proffer admiration, affection, and a sense of awe to people who aggregate wealth. But that affection is often misplaced, as wealth can lead to greed and a lack of empathy. This is an opportunity to spend less on stuff, spend less time commuting, and reallocate that capital and time to our partners and children.

On the Prof G Pod, when I interviewed philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, I asked him for one piece of advice on how to be a better man. He offered that rather than trying to parent, cajole, discipline, or guide your children, your real purpose is just … to love them. My 10-year-old has struggled, as many kids have, with corona. I need to spend less time correcting, explaining, arguing, and more just loving. We got through the first five seasons of The Simpsons. There’s 31.

And … we’ll get there.

We need a generation to emerge from this crisis with a commitment to being better fathers and mothers, spouses, and citizens. The fastest path to a better life is regularly assessing what we leave behind. The fastest blue-line path to a better world is more engaged parents, not a better fucking phone.

Life is so rich,

P.S. Registration is now open for my next Strategy Sprint with Section4. During this two-week intensive course, I’ll go deep on the frameworks that make today’s corporate giants successful and how to apply them to your own company, no matter the size. The Sprint runs July 6–20. Join us.

Prof Marketing @NYUStern · Founder @L2_digital @redenvelope @prophetBrand · Contributor @bloombergtv · Cohost Pivot podcast · Weekly musings

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