Our Generation’s Test
I’ve been through several crises.
1987: Dow crashes 22.6%. It was my first week of my first job after graduating UCLA. A bunch of the analysts went down from the 44th floor to the trading floor on the 17th, at 1251 Avenue of the Americas (Morgan Stanley), to witness what our boss said was a “historic event.” A low-carbonated crisis, really, as I didn’t have enough to worry about losing anything. That night we went to The Tunnel (NYC club in an abandoned subway station).
AIDS Crisis: I lived in SF from 1990 to 2000. I found out I had gay friends in college only after college. My freshman roommate — gone. Fear, suffering, and tragedy everywhere.
9/11: I had just moved to New York. I saw the second plane hit and both towers go down. I remember thinking, “I’ll never see anything like this again.” Rivers of people flowed uptown from the Financial District. A shocked, muted feeling the next two weeks in the city. Felt surreal, like watching a movie, but didn’t rattle me.
The Great Recession: I had something to lose. Instinct kicked in — felt responsible for my first son, who had the poor judgment to emerge from my girlfriend in 2007. Economic stress was, well … stressful. The markets bounced back fast, a speed bump. A big one, but a speedbump.
COVID-19. This is visceral on many levels. Being contagious without having symptoms. Hospitals already facing dire supplies shortages. Tests still unavailable. Doctors getting infected in large numbers. Ventilators being scarce. Younger adults accounting for 40% of hospitalizations. This being both a health and an economic crisis. Three years of a bull market wiped out in seven days. Unemployment claims up 30%.
We haven’t been tested the same way previous generations have. Poor leadership and the ability to outsource most crises to the young (the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan) has resulted in a collection of responses vs. a collective effort. Congressmen are telling you to go to the pub while young people are in ICU. The administration keeps giving V-Day speeches that should be D-Day speeches.
The Spanish Flu killed between 50 and 100 million people but received little attention. David Brooks wrote that we are embarrassed about how we behaved as a nation and, as a result, we don’t speak of it. We were feral, selfish, and apoplectic, and there (again) was a lack of trust in our leaders — they tried to quell panic via censorship.
Primal instincts compel us to behave differently at times of panic. Yet how you act when nobody’s looking, under stress or during a crisis, is the ink over the outline of your behavior when things are good. Remaining cool, calm, collected allows us to make strategic choices. During the Flu Pandemic of 1918, Philadelphia threw a parade despite the flu. Within 3 days, 117 people died. In contrast, St. Louis closed schools, churches, courtrooms, and libraries, and banned gatherings larger than 20 people. Death tolls were significantly lower.
A decent question: How do each of us want to be remembered, years after this crisis? Near all of us will talk about this in grand terms one day. This is historic. What will be each of our roles in this moment of history?
In my home state of Florida, this week, people were going to concerts, bars, and partying. It reflects a lack of comity of man. Admittedly, I’m not sure I would have behaved differently at that age. What I do know is that, looking back, young people will wish they were the concerned, uncool ones. The ones who decided any threat to the vulnerable and to our nation demanded an overreaction. I’ve been on 3 board calls in the last 72 hours, and I’m now “that guy” who may be having an outsized reaction. Fine then.
In my NYU Brand Strategy course, I teach these three pillars of crisis management:
The reason Johnson & Johnson is one of the most valuable companies in the world is in 1982 they didn’t say the poisoning of the Tylenol bottles in the Midwest was an isolated incident. They cleared all the shelves of Tylenol across North America. Was it an overreaction? Yes. Did it assure the health of the public and restore the credibility of the company? Yes and yes.
A World Health Organization expert put it well: “If you need to be right before you move, you’ll never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection. The problem right now is everyone is afraid of making a mistake.”
What’s difficult about overreacting is it’s disproportionate to the problem at present. It’s deeply uncomfortable, because you are devising a solution to a problem that doesn’t yet exist and whose future scale you are guessing. Throwing vast resources at a guess is risky and hard to justify, yet if you wait long enough for the scale to unfold, it will be too late.
A key issue post corona will be how our nation responded in time of crisis. It’s unclear what the verdict will be. I’m still hopeful. We may be the people who got their act together and drove the virus from our shores. We may be the nation that finds and shares a vaccine or a cure.
Aim to be the daughter, boss, manager, dad, government employee who is action-oriented, organized, and disciplined during this crisis. You’ll be one of the people, calm under pressure, whose actions helped beat back this American generation’s biggest test.
Life is so rich,
P.S. My new podcast, The Prof G Show, premiered yesterday — spoke to finance legend Professor Aswath Damodaran about the markets in a time of corona. Have a listen on Spotify, Apple, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.