With the possible exception of 9/11, this is the first time I am very conscious of living through a memorable period in history. It’s a time that will be discussed in my granddaughter’s history classes and used as the setting of future novels.
I’m struck by the tension between writing the story and having it written for me.
There are so many things outside of our control right now. (They perhaps always were, but I’m so much more aware of them now). We are navigating constraints and disappointments, risks and regulations, closures and cancellations that shape our days.
And yet in the midst of all that, we still have considerable agency to choose how we live, existentially and practically. Can I stay hopeful with so little to look forward to? Will I go get my groceries or have some kind soul deliver them?
As we inhabit this tension of being pressed upon and pushing back, we do so from the middle of the story.
I’ve written previously (at the beginning of the pandemic, weeks and years ago) about not knowing how to pace ourselves when we don’t know the length of the race. Isn’t that always the case in the middle of a story? It’s not an easy place to be.
We say we want to know how long these conditions are going to last. But do we? I suspect in 1942, telling people the war would only last three more years would hardly have been comforting. Perhaps we aren’t meant to know the end of the story when we’re living in the middle of it.
Can we plan from that middle place? On the one hand, we resist looking ahead. Too much is changing too fast, and that uncertainty paralyzes us. On the other hand, we’re drawn to the certainty that planning seems to offer. Having a plan makes us feel more in control, even if we deep down we know we aren’t.
I’m framing that choice differently, personally and with my strategy clients. Anyone who has ridden a bike or carried a tray of drinks knows that if you look down at the step immediately in front of you, you waver. If you keep your eyes focused on the horizon – up and forward – you stay steadier. Even if you can only see as far as the next bend. What does “up and forward” mean for you and your organization today?
Our narratives of history are shaped by knowing the beginning, middle and end of the story. We don’t have that kind of perspective right now. But we do have choices even here in the middle. Those choices will shape how the story unfolds, despite not knowing what the next chapter holds and being only a co-author at best.