Gas is cheap but nobody’s filling up.

Houses are full but streets are empty.

Businesses are dying while others can hardly keep up.

We’ve gone from juggling millions of things to the experiential austerity of the 19th century only with wifi.

This is our new normal.

It happened so quickly and so drastically we talk about time in new ways. Language like “Quarantine Day 15” or “Virus Day 85” to acknowledge the before and afterness.

How high will the days count before we go back to the old calendar?

Will we go back?

Screen Shot 2020-04-04 at 9.24.56 PM.png

Functioning in a crisis

The state we’re in now is one of crisis.

In a crisis reality changes. The normal ways stop working. You must match the strangeness of the situation with changes of your own.

We all react to a crisis. It’s another thing to act in a crisis. Everybody runs in an alien invasion. But while most people run from the aliens, a much smaller number run toward something with a plan in mind. The difference between those groups is their degree of awareness.

Everyone has a passive awareness of the world. This is the instinctual, System 1 thinking that helps us respond to our needs on a moment to moment basis.

A smaller number of people develop what I’ll call an active awareness. By this I mean consciously operating within a broader arena than their immediate desires. Having an active awareness means being able to see the bigger picture, think conceptually about future events, and consider the needs of others. An active awareness creates a larger perimeter of self-interest.

We all move through life with a passive awareness. An active awareness is something that has to be cultivated. Through experience, structured thinking, meditation, or other methods of self-reflection.

To grow my own active awareness I use the “bento” framework, an acronym for BEyond Near Term Orientation. It’s a simple 2×2 chart (or bento box) that breaks life into four dimensions, each representing a different space of my self-interest.

Bento 1.png

Now Me is what I want and need right now.

Now Us is what the people closest to me want and need right now.

Future Me is what the older, wiser version of myself wants me to do — my inner Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Future Us is the world the people I love and care about — kids especially — will inherit.

My choices impact each of these spaces. Each of these spaces is in my self-interest. But most of us struggle to see the whole picture on a consistent basis. Myself included.

A passive awareness means being aware of just part of the picture:

Bento 2.png

An active awareness means seeing the whole thing.

Screen Shot 2020-04-04 at 9.25.06 PM.png

Active awareness in a crisis

What does it mean to have active awareness in a crisis? It means viewing the event as not just something to survive, but as a new reality in which goals and needs must still be met.

Two examples.

In her 2007 book Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein explores how companies and governments have used crises to advance their interests. Under the fog of emergency they’ve seized land from indigenous people, pushed through totalitarian rules (as happened in Hungary this week), and found other ways to use the crisis to do what would otherwise be much more difficult. Klein calls this “disaster capitalism.”

On the flipside is a famous crisis: when someone poisoned Tylenol bottles in 1982, killing seven people. When news broke, the makers of Tylenol didn’t play down the crisis or declare they had it under control. Instead they pulled every bottle of Tylenol from shelves and offered to replace any bottles people had already bought (at a cost of more than $100 million). This crisis moment demonstrated their core values and kept the brand alive (despite many writing its obit).

Though at either end of the moral spectrum, Shock Doctrine and Tylenol are both examples of active awareness in a crisis. These institutions had an active awareness of their larger goals, and continued to pursue them in the post-crisis state. For Shock Doctrine’s offenders the goals were money and power. For Tylenol the goals were public health and regaining trust.

In our current crisis the quarantine is the passive response. The steps China and South Korea have taken to manage the epidemic through wide testing are examples of an active response. Without that second step, the virus will hold society under house arrest indefinitely.

Active awareness isn’t just critical for nations and organizations. People need it, too.

Here’s a quick thought experiment.

Imagine it’s April 2022. The lockdown is finally over. You walk out of your house elated. The worst is finally behind us.

It was a tough time. Like everyone, you lost someone you love. Still, you feel especially grateful because you made the most of the experience, all things considered. How? By making sure these three things were always true…

So what are those three things?

This thought experiment develops your active awareness by asking you to step into your Future Me self and look back from the future. When I did this, my Future Me answered:

  1. Caring and providing for my family
  2. Making the lockdown and homeschooling a fun/epic family adventure
  3. Focusing my work time on a single project

Since coming to these answers I shifted my time and energy. Even while I’m doing the day to day, I’m inching forward on larger goals. My actions have purpose. My time has meaning.

The Great Reset

From the start my wife has called this “The Great Reset.” The moment when we would connect with the larger Us of our families, neighborhoods, shared humanity, and even with ourselves.

You can imagine what such a moment might look like. A tech-scientific-logistics Olympics as the world unites against a shared enemy, fully activating our global consciousness for the first time. As the world watches from their homes, we all discover a new appreciation for how interconnected we all are.

This timeline is possible. We’re still at the beginning of the crisis. But this won’t just magically happen. Things won’t get so bad or amazing that there’s some Big Bang of Wokeness where everyone changes their minds to your preferred political preferences.

During the early stages of the crisis in the US we can see how deeply our systems are biased towards financial value (as my book argues). Some politicians have suggested that dying for America’s free market system is a form of patriotic sacrifice, like giving your life in war. In which case most small businesses are on the beaches of Normandy right now. Hundreds of thousands of them will close in the coming months while Wal-Mart and Amazon hire a quarter-million new workers. The same day markets learned 3.3 million Americans lost their jobs, stocks were up 6.6%.

But it’s not all bad news. The other day I spoke with a CEO who said the crisis was giving them and their team newfound purpose. She’s experiencing a personal awakening, finding the work the most meaningful it’s been in ages. I’ve heard from a number of people who feel the same.

There are lots of little things too.

It’s weirdly nice knowing where everybody is all the time.

We’re talking to family and friends more than ever.

Twice last week we traded cookies for homemade sourdough bread with a friend across the street. We swap a yellow pot with a surprise dish inside back and forth with a friend who lives walking distance away. We buy delicious Chinese and Korean home food from a woman who accepts payment via Venmo and who leaves the food in tupperware on a bench down a dirt road in a California canyon. We started planting a vegetable garden.

Every night the three of us have a five-song dance party, moving freely around the house, feeling liberated by the volume and the darkness. Or you can dance with neighbors in front of your houses or on balconies, as keeps happening around the world.

Compared to the immensity of what we face and what we’ve lost, these positive changes sound puny. They might be. Getting people to lock themselves in their homes with an invisible killer on the loose was the easy part. The hard part is finding and capturing the killer so the hostages can go. This extremely difficult task is what Americans are relying on Donald Trump’s administration to execute.


I digress. And a particularly unhelpful digression as we mistake staying up on every breaking news alert for having an active awareness. It’s not. The news distracts us from our actual needs. Being informed is good, but being over-informed turns us into passive receptacles of opinions rather than actors on our own.

Our best tool in this crisis? Active awareness. Everyone has access to it. It doesn’t cost anything to use. Practicing is simple. I grow mine by meditating and making a weekly bento. It doesn’t take much.

Without active awareness, we’re prone to fall back on our old patterns. In a post-crisis world this is especially costly because the old ways no longer work. This is the beginning of a new era. Get ready.