25 Jun 2020 16:32 IST

Covid has been a time for reflection and self-awareness

Life is more than one’s career. The pandemic has helped us put things in perspective

With Covid-19 imposing a ‘work from home’ routine, a very different personal balance sheet has started to emerge for several business leaders. While some have merely shifted location from office to home without any change in what they do, others have used the switch to become more self-aware, to reflect on what really matters, and to study this balance sheet as it emerges.

Needs vs wants

One of the startling insights for many of us during Covid has been how little we really need. Do we really need that many shoes, ties, designer bags, jewellery? Do we really need that absolutely latest mobile device? How many wants have we converted into needs over years of acquiring and hoarding stuff?

Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg had come up with the Hawking Index. It measures how many bestselling books people buy, but never finish. His research showed people only got through about 1.9 per cent of Hillary Clinton’s book Hard Choices which topped the list. Turns out that buying the book itself was the hard choice! Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century came in second. These typically fall in the category of books purchased for nothing but their snob value. Again, a great example of acquiring stuff that we never use.

Second-hand shopping site thredUp, in its 2020 resale report, noted that about 70 per cent of consumers are now open to buying second-hand goods — a massive increase. And people are also giving up their sparely used items for sale.

Covid has also brought sharply into focus the plight of people who struggle to meet even their basic needs, as they trudge across the country — a forgotten and abandoned part of society. This has prompted many of us to help and many have forced themselves to review the way they buy and consume. This needs vs wants exercise is helpful, because it gives us clarity about what goals should really matter.

For example, employees who have always wanted to make the entrepreneurial leap have had the excuse that they have not met the nest egg target to secure their families’ future. Covid may help them realise that the nest egg number may have been vastly exaggerated by extravagant consumption assumptions. Now Covid can help them see that the leap can realistically be made and any delay is just an excuse.

What you can count vs what counts

Einstein is often credited with the quote: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”(It looks more likely that the person who should be credited is a sociology professor William Bruce Cameron). Covid has shown us the difference in these two categories.

Many of us, as aspiring and current business leaders, are used to being guided by numbers. Revenues, profits, productivity, increments — everything for us falls into the category of what can be counted. What Covid has shown us is that what can’t be counted is very often what really counts — relationships, trust, compassion, empathy. Several people who have lost their jobs are suddenly discovering that the only friends they can really count on are the ones within the four walls of their homes.

In his famous commencement speech, former CEO of Coca-Cola, Brian Dyson, gave at the Georgia Tech Institute on September 6, 1991, he talked about the five balls.

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them work, family, health, friends and spirit. And you’re keeping all of these in the air.

You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls — family, health, friends and spirit — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”

Aditya Puri, HDFC Bank’s CEO, often refers to this speech and is one of the few business leaders who actually lives it. He comes to office earlier than most, but is out of the office by 5:30 pm without the slightest feeling of guilt. He is known to neither use a watch nor a mobile phone. And  he has delivered the business results throughout his tenure. He’s understood the difference between the crystal balls and the rubber one.

Covid has given us some much-needed perspective. Working husbands and wives now suddenly get to see the significance of the load their partner lifts at home. Mums and Dads have suddenly realised how little they have been part of their children’s struggles and dreams. Old school friend networks have been activated. People are making time to exercise, to meditate, to reflect. Covid has shown us what really matters and how we take those really important things for granted.

My Asset Sheet

Covid has also shown many of us the poverty of our lives outside work. Many so fully identify with their work. When that is suddenly in peril or disappears, they are faced with a horrifying vacuum. They have collected no knowledge outside of work, cultivated no hobbies or interests, have only colleagues and no friends.

Covid has shown us the foolhardiness of this approach to life. Covid has given us the space to review things that we can put on this balance sheet. Perhaps online courses to help us reskill. Maybe online courses to just pursue a passion. A neighbour ran a photography webinar in our community last week and was overwhelmed with the response. Non-cookers have started to experiment with a few dishes. Some have taken up learning to play a musical instrument. My brother managed to use the travel time saved to get some paintings done.

Life needs to be more than our career and profession. Covid has helped us put things in perspective. We need to learn, we need to grow, we need to build our relationships, we need to build that personal balance sheet that goes beyond work. Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk and mystic, wrote that all we really need in our lives, is already in our lives. He called it “hidden wholeness”. Covid has given us much to complain about but if we can use the opportunity to grasp this ‘hidden wholeness” — ours is a healthy balance sheet indeed.

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