You Are On Your Own
‘As you know, madness is like gravity…all it takes is a little push’
— The Joker
Our lives of comfort and predictability rest on a fragile balance. Much like the descent into insanity that the Joker talked about, it doesn’t take long for our worlds to be completely upended. For most people of our generation, the limits of the systems we rely on have never really been tested. We just expect everything to work, even if imperfectly. The drama of our lives is played on a background of unchanging larger-than-life systems — corporations, governments, the healthcare system, and the media. Whether we’re happy or sad, healthy or sick, dead or alive, these core engines of civilization keep ticking along.
Until, of course, they don’t.
This is what the current pandemic has done. Like a monkey wrench thrown into the guts of a machine, it has completely rattled our world in a matter of a few months. Governments have buckled, businesses have folded, lives have been lost and millions of jobs have just vanished into thin air. What is truly unsettling is not that this has happened, but that it has happened so fast. And still nobody knows what the world will look like when all this is over.
For the individual the single biggest message from this disaster is that in the end, you’re really on your own. Your future, and that of your loved ones, does not lie on a straight line anymore. This is a frightful reality, but also immensely liberating. It should finally unshackle us from the fantasy we live with on a daily basis: that there is a safety net and people will protect you. Because when the whole world is falling, the only thing that can save you is you.
So what can you do when you have no idea what the future holds? How do you prepare for something you don’t even know? The simple answer is this: take personal responsibility. We have been so spoilt by monthly salaries and easy access to leisure, that the hardest thing we do is go to the gym and sweat all over the treadmill. That is simply not a smart way to live anymore. What we need instead, is a set of principles that can help us take ownership of our own destiny.
There are three such principles, which I believe can equip us to face the future with confidence.
Build skills that you can sell
Your employer is like a living organism, with survival as its first priority. Like the alpha male in a pack of gorillas, it is benevolent when times are good. But when last night’s dinner hits the fan, its instincts take over. It does not care for what it has said or done in the past. There is no past when your existence is under threat.
For them, you are simply a number on a spreadsheet. Your name will be projected on a screen thousands of mile away and people you don’t even know will take a decision on cutting you loose. With a few taps of the keyboard, your job will cease to exist. Goodbye paycheck. Hello despair.
So when you’re tossed out like this, how do you ensure that you land on your feet? How do you ensure that you are not put in the same situation again? The only answer is to build individual resilience. Through a combination of skills and a tough mindset, you can not only protect yourself from such random events, but also thrive when everyone else is panicking.
Most of us are useless outside the safe context of a job. This is especially true for those who manage others, and have none of the skills themselves. The future, however, belongs to those who can build things or teach others to do so. So if all you’re good at is ‘managing’, you might be in trouble sooner than you think. You need skills that can be sold to those who require them.
Don’t be the person who has been comfortable for so long that they have forgotten how to survive in the wild. Sharpen your skills that got you here in the first place. If you don’t have any, start learning one. It is as easy as ever, with all the resources available to you today for free. But you have to train in peacetime to be fighting fit when the war comes.
Specifically, the best insurance against uncertainty is a side hustle. We’re not talking hobbies here, but something that can be turned into an income-generating business. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a blog, an e-commerce business or freelancing gigs. All that matters is that you’re good at it and it meets a demand of the market.
The era of long term jobs is over. The age of skills is upon us. What are you going to do about it?
We are designed to live in communities. So much so that in our evolutionary past being ostracized from a group was as good as being given a death sentence. It is important to remember this as we enter a world where many people will either choose to step off the employment bandwagon or will be forced to do so. This exodus will mean that we might lose the groups we used to automatically become a part of.
This means that the responsibility of building our communities lies squarely on us. We can no longer stay passive participants and hope to get the benefits of our network. Unless we become more deliberate about contributing to the success of others, we will not be setting ourselves up for success in the post-work world.
So begin by doing things for others without gain. Look to add value rather than just sell yourself. Self-promotion and intrusive marketing simply don’t work anymore, which is why being helpful is the best strategy. Whatever you are doing — selling products or creating content — build an audience of like-minded people.
However you go about it, never forget to be helpful. Only by doing this can you create the goodwill that you can bank on when you need it. Give away so much that when it’s your time to call upon the network, it seems like the right time.
Stop consuming so much media
Media has become the fool’s drug of our times. Media and tech companies are trying every trick in the book to ensnare us and we are falling for it hook, line and sinker. Our attention is best directed at the act of creating, loving and living, not at a 6-inch screen. But we can’t help it because of the constant barrage of bytes coming at us every second of the day.
We must start treating media like any other business: giving our attention only when needed. For instance, you look at furniture websites only when you want to buy a sofa, not otherwise. Why should it be different for media? They are businesses at the end of the day and we must choose them only when we have the need.
Stop thinking that you need to be ‘on top of the news’. 99.9% of the things that happen in the world are completely irrelevant for you, so why obsess over them? You have no reason to be clued in all the time. Trust me, the really important information has a way of reaching you anyway.
Resist. Unplug. Discern. Know what is worth knowing and ignore everything else.
We are entering a new era of personal responsibility. Those who don’t realize this will be unprepared for the next disaster that hits us. There will be others, however, who will have honed the instinct of living with uncertainty and will be primed to take advantage of such crises. To ensure we are in the latter camp, we must let go of the illusion of safety and start building resilience. Today.