What It’s Like Being A Canary

Breaking free from your cage when you’re dying to feel alive and learning to fly to craft your own nest—your newer vantage point of your world.

In reflecting upon my last post, I was reminded of how someone once described me as a “canary in a coal mine”. In effect, I have the ability to see social patterns (i.e. culture) that can be jeopardizing to an organization and its people in turn but are often invisible to them because they don’t have the sensitivity and awareness to see them.

Of course, they joked, the canary unfortunately “dies” in the process.

And for the most part, that was symbolically true with regards to my own life, as I often reached a point where if these negative patterns weren’t addressed by the company, I found it soul-crushingly hard to stay there and see how it was affecting people, so I often quit because I couldn’t take feeling and sensing that pain on a daily basis.

In other words, the longer I stayed there, the more I had to internally shut down and compartmentalize almost my entire self, my humanity, otherwise I’d go nuts in the process. It was like being on a raft on a river approaching a huge waterfall but the people steering the raft were “navel-gazing” to a specific point in the distance, completely unaware of what was happening right under their very noses.

For the most part, this is what the past two decades have felt like for me, not just with regards to being within organizations, but with regards to being within society as well. Reality has been changing continuously, giving us warning signals, but many of us have been stuck in our bubble of beliefs, our constructed reality, oblivious to what’s been going on under our very noses.

Nevertheless some of us have been seeing these signals for some time that a new world is emerging, and communicating with others of similar vision that we need to update our maps and social constructs (i.e. institutions) to better align with the present reality of this new world arising before us.

That’s why we all need to start breaking free from our own constructed cages now, no matter how safe they may seem to be, and start learning to independently fly into the greater wilderness of the unknown.

That’s because life is no longer scripted like a superficial TV commercial but rather is now a deep, unscripted adventure. We each need to craft our own nest now, a safe sanctuary within the wilderness which we can launch our explorations from to get a broader view of this new world’s landscape before us.


Getting Real

How the social foundations of our world are being shown to be visibly outdated by an invisible virus.

Social contracts are just social constructs that we’ve collectively created. They are often invisible to us, working within the background of our lives, providing us with a stable foundation that allows to makes sense of and navigate our world collectively together.

Yet when our world changes around us, we need to update these social constructs we navigate by or else risk going off course and crashing into a reality we didn’t see in front of us. In effect, our world has changed but the maps we’ve created to navigate them by haven’t.

And just as we have created them before, so too can we recreate them again. We just have to make the conscious choice to do so.

The hard part is recognizing and realizing that these social contracts aren’t permanent truths of reality that are sacred and untouchable but rather social constructs crafted to help visibly manifest our collectiveness within reality. Until we can make these seemingly invisible aspects of our lives visible, shifting them from something we’re subjectively immersed within to something we can stand back and objectively reflect upon, we won’t be able to let go and unlearn them, allowing us to construct newer ones in their place.

And of course, even more difficult to recognize and realize is that our perceived identities are entwined with these social constructs as well, being social constructs themselves. In effect, we are not our jobs. We are something so much larger than what we currently believe we are. We just need to see that our perception of ourselves is just a belief, one that once empowered us long ago but now limits us today. By letting go of that old belief, as a relic of our past, we can learn to step out of it and see a larger belief (and Self) we can step into in turn, thus empowering us once again.

To sum up, we’re in a time now where so much doesn’t seem real anymore because we actually lost touch with reality a long time ago. To realign ourselves once again, we need to get real, seeing and listening to reality as it truly is now rather than how we once believed it was and expect it to be. This is how we will collectively traverse and converse our way into the new world emerging in front of us.


Reintegrating With Real Work

But, just as thinking about postwar planning started as early as 1940, we should already be considering how to reintegrate people into work in the medium term, for example by lining up training for new jobs and helping revive suspended businesses

We cannot just allow people to fester at home for anything up to six months under, the flimsy pretence that they are ‘working from home’, and then expect them to slot back into the economy with ease. Let’s get real.

Len Shackleton, Coronavirus will only ‘revolutionise’ the working habits of the privileged

Taking Back Our Work

Pull the emergency handbrake on business as usual and, individually and collectively, accept the choice of hitting one of two buttons: the panic or the pause. Let’s embrace the pause.

Lisa Richardson, Communications Strategist, Arc’teryx

This is a moment where the source code of capitalism can be reworked.

Max Levine, CEO, Nico (Neighborhood Investment Company)

The idea that companies, markets, the capitalist system could ever stop, change course, and focus on what matters seemed absurd just a few weeks ago. The question for business becomes: What’s possible for companies today that was impossible, and what’s impossible today that was once possible?

Some of what was accepted now seems absurd.

Almost all of the advertising on TV seems absurd—messages imploring consumption for a lifestyle that doesn’t exist right now. Relics of a past era that look naive — simple optimism and individualism from an era that feels ancient already.

After that, we will need a time of massive reconstruction. We will need to reconstitute careers, teams, companies, and communities. But having seen behind the curtain, and now knowing that the old premise of radical individualism and relentless shareholder primacy are mirages that don’t stand the test of time or strain, companies will be called to operate radically differently.

The social contract that applies to capitalism has been rewritten. Creating value for shareholders at the expense of everything else will seem radically out of touch. Creating value for the world now seems the only viable thing to do.

Perhaps in that, we can find the inspiration and agency to take back to our work: We can achieve what previously seemed impossible. This mind-set shift could create the next era of great leaders, companies, and massive value for the world.

Sebastian Buck, The Impossible for Capitalism is Suddenly Possible


The Everlasting Present

Research does show that when you take people away from the things that are familiar to them, it’s surprisingly easy for people to lose track of themselves—their identity, the things that are important to them.

Most of us have not faced a situation even remotely like this. So we have no previous experience that we can use to interpret it. We have no guidance about how we should be responding.

I think it conveys a sort of dreamlike quality. It doesn’t feel real because we have no points of reference.

Susan Clayton, Psychologist, College of Wooster

Our routine is the scaffolding of life. It’s how we organize information and our time. And without it, we can feel really lost.

Adrienne Heinz, Clinical Research Psychologist, Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD

Precarity comes from uncertainty, by having to deal with challenges that are bigger than ourselves. Now we’re facing a pandemic we cannot face on our own.

Part of our surreal situation, I feel, is that this coronavirus—we cannot see it. But it’s dangerous, and people are dying from it.

Elena Portacolone, Sociologist, University of California

Right now, many of the patterns we know and love have been obliterated

What she meant was we can’t plan for the future, because in the age of the coronavirus, we don’t know what we’ll be doing in six months, or even tomorrow. We’re stuck in a new kind of everlasting present.

Matt Simon, Why Life During a Pandemic Feels So Surreal


The Ever-Changing Career

Even before the coronavirus crisis, there were clear signs of workers around the world feeling anxious about navigating the future of work and staying relevant in a changing economy.

But it’s not all about hard tech skills. Equally as important are human-centric and soft skills.

The reality is that career decisions will happen more spontaneously, and through happenstance, amidst uncertainty and rapid change.

What this means for career management is that individuals need to be in a state of constant readiness, and flexible and spontaneous in their career decisions.

…a protean career is one where the individual drives their own career based on personal values, and where success is based on how satisfied you feel with life and work, not necessarily how much money or power or fame you obtain.

Tomoko Yokoi, There’s never been a better time to build a “protean career”


Listening To The Signal Within

Depression and anxiety are signals telling us that our needs are not being met, and I would say the single most helpful thing we can do going forward is to allow ourselves to hear the signal. What we’ve done for a really long time in our culture is either insult those signals by saying depressed and anxious people are just weak or feeble. Or we’ve pathologized the signals by saying they’re purely biological malfunctions. What we need to do is hear and respect the signal.

Once you hear the signal and you respect it, you’ll start to think differently. First, it means that your pain makes sense. So don’t judge yourself. Don’t shame yourself. There is nothing “wrong” with you.

And secondly, it means that when we begin to rebuild after coronavirus, we’ll have learned something really valuable about the kind of society we want.

Johann Hari, Coronavirus, Anxiety, & The Profound Failure of Rugged Individualism

Grieving Your Lost Identity

Psychologists note that losing a job often equates to the grief of losing a loved one; the emotional trajectory can include any of the stages of grief, which run from shock and denial, through to anger and bargaining, and eventually to acceptance and hope.

Damien Fowler, Unemployment During Coronavirus: The Psychology of Job Loss

The Infinite Possibility to Play

The coronavirus as a catalyst of change.

Giorgia Vezzoli on not wanting “everything to go back to the way it was” before the coronavirus (resonating with my last post on how the side effect of the coronavirus is it’s giving us an opportunity, a time out, to reset ourselves societally).

And I don’t want to, I certainly don’t want to go back to a world of grown-ups.

I want to be in a small world for children, where life is an infinite possibility to play without leaving anyone on the sidelines.

Where nobody is another’s game but everyone is played and brings joy and their difference to make us learn.

Giorgia Vezzoli (translated by Massimo Curatella)

“Many Have Seen This Coming”

Transitioning and adapting to the New World we’ve all been teleported to.

Harold Jarche is talking about after the shit has hit the fan due to the coronavirus.

The network era starts in 2020. Everything before was a prelude.

The new normal, when it comes, will be different. Teaching will be turned upside down. So too will curricula, academic disciplines, and their institutions.

Work will change. Consider that at this moment our essential workers are cooks, cleaners, delivery drivers, and front desk staff. Non-essential personnel like executives, analysts, marketers, and programmers, can stay home.

Many of us have seen this coming. I have been writing about the changes to network era work and learning over the past 16 years. But now everyone can see it. We can reduce commuter congestion by 50% through distributed work. This will reduce carbon emissions as well. There was only one thing stopping it from happening before — management. A microscopic virus took care of that.

Now that management is no longer in charge, every worker has to take charge of their own learning. It won’t come from a program that HR will deliver, after 12 months of development. 

Many have been working on trying to make these changes to society for decades. But for the most part, it’s always felt like the work was always within the background of society, never really getting enough momentum to move into the foreground. Because of this, most people have had to be willing to be ignored and invisible, as Deborah Frieze describes these trailblazers.

‘Walk outs’ are the trailblazers. These are the folks willing to turn their back on the dominant system, eager to be free to experiment with the future.

If you’re ‘a walk out’, then you’re willing to feel ignored, invisible, and lonely a good portion of the time. That’s because what you’re doing is so new and different, people can’t see you work even when it’s staring them in the face. These can be difficult dynamics to live with, especially when you know you’ve done a good work, that you’ve already solved problems others are still struggling with. That’s why we, ‘walk outs’, need each other.

Deborah Frieze

For myself, it feels like a big flip has occurred. Everything that was hidden within the background of society is now moving to the foreground and everything that was in the foreground is now shifting to the background.

A quick example of this is how blatantly obvious and visible it is that certain people and businesses care more about their own economic livelihoods than they do about the lives of their own employees and customers. It’s really making people stop and question everything in their lives now (i.e. “Is it worth dying for a $15/hour job?”).

And I think that is what this event, more than anything, is affording us an opportunity with right now. It’s giving us a societal reset or time-out. One where we actually have the time to experiment and play with newer ways of being, along with newer social constructs, while we’re within this extended liminal space (since it sounds like it could potentially last for at least a few months or more).

It’s funny. I’ve always described this journey as if one was travelling to a new world. Within the span of a couple of weeks though, it seems like we all have been tossed into this new world, for better or for worse, and everything has changed, regardless of how unprepared some people are for it.

The only way forward is to adapt.

We’re in another world now.

Aaron Wherry, Parliament Hill Bureau, CBC

We’re asking our lowest-wage workers to get back to work while our shareholders jockey for handouts. Which ones do you think we should pay first?

Vince Mancini, Uproxx

If the future of work requires restructured workplaces, redefined roles, rapid learning, and reserves of trust—and it does, organizations are being challenged to do all that and more as they address the coronavirus pandemic. While we have long spoken about VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environments, we are finally and undoubtedly facing one.

Coronavirus, it turns out, might be the great catalyst for business transformation

In fact, where we once saw the future of work unfolding over years, we now believe that with coronavirus as an accelerant, everything we’ve predicted about the future of work will unfold in months. 

Heather E. McGowan, Forbes