It’s become quite common to find silver linings to the pandemic. We’re all quite sick of doom-and-gloom stories of how everything is terrible and disrupted and strange and uncomfortable, and how we want to get back to some pre-pandemic bliss.
In this search for silver linings, many people talk about the liberations of working from home – at least among the chattering and privileged-slash-elitist classes that can do so reasonably well (the students, professors, journalists, accountants, lawyers, politicians, etc). We immediately cut out the commute, a necessary ill that most people have long complained about. We can work from our beds if we wish, or attend Zoom meetings wearing nothing but our PJs. We can spend more time with our loved ones, and walk the dog on our lunch break.
All of these benefits we didn’t think about and we’re just now realizing were always available to us. Simon Kuper of the Financial Times writes about the “blessed solitude” that we’re both allowed and encouraged to pursue:
“Last Saturday, I got coffee outside with a friend whom I’d barely seen all pandemic. Straight after bumping elbows, he proudly took out his phone to show me his latest medical tests: his bad cholesterol had plummeted because he had stopped eating out. He was happy not socialising. Invited to two illegal dinner parties the previous night, he had told each host that he couldn’t come because he was going to the other gathering. He then sat at home and watched Netflix. We enjoyed seeing each other, but in less than an hour we were both done, made our excuses and each retreated home to blessed solitude.”
Lots of people who have been fortunate enough not to lose their jobs (and even some who have) are richer today than they were before the pandemic. Household savings rates are through the roof and aggregate net wealth is higher than ever.
The message is pretty stark: if we haven’t gravely fallen victim to the disease or had loved ones suffer (or been depressed, or stuck home with abusive partners, or been lonely, or seen our grand youthful goals destroyed, or any number of ills the pandemic policies have unleashed on us…), we’ve actually had a pretty good pandemic.
Something is really weird about this take, and others like it. Many were indeed shoved into a new normal that initially felt uncomfortable and strange, but that they grew to like. As with many arguments that point to suboptimal actions and irrational humans, they rely for their existence on a combination of ignorance and malevolence; If something is less great than it could be, that can only come about in these two ways. Either you weren’t aware, which straddles the definition of ‘suboptimal’ – if you weren’t aware that there were proverbial hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk, it’s not clear that you were suffering from the “suboptimality” either – or you knew, but were prevented to act on it by someone else.
But malevolence, and power to enforce it, are unstable traits; they gradually fall apart, as technologic change undermines the obstacles put in your way, and innovative human beings search for greener fields and greener tools elsewhere. At any given time some inconsiderate boss can refuse your want to work remotely, but over time it’s not clear that they can: bosses move on, information can be exchanged, negotiation takes place, and you can vote with your feet and simply leave for a less narrow-minded employer. It’s not like remote work was unheard of before the pandemic, and if your employer stubbornly refused, there were plenty more fish in the sea.
The thing is, most people who – before the pandemic – tried remote work or working from home, returned to the office. Remote work is hard: it’s often quite lonely; it takes mental work and discipline, and often a certain kind of character to do it for long. Most people who try find that they miss the social banter, the change of scenery, and the natural winding-down period of that ostensibly horrid commute. Everyone loves to complain about the commute and dream about a world without it, but it was never clear in practice that they actually dislike it – commuting comes with underappreciated benefits too.
Martin Wolf, a longstanding journalist also at the Financial Times, was astonished early in the pandemic that perhaps the world’s foremost newspaper could be run with no more than about five people on site. It’s unlikely that they’ll go back entirely to the way things were only a little over a year ago. Sometimes technology can advance quicker than we realize and undermine some of the reasons that prevented us from replacing previous routines with alternatives.
But the mistake is to attribute this change to the shock doctrine of the pandemic: if we truly do not value the physical nature of the office – including all what comes with it, from the water cooler chats to commuting, social events, or lunch with colleagues – once the technology of Zoom and internet and Trello and shared folders were widespread enough, we’d gradually see this change anyway as people voluntarily substitute towards what suits them better. We don’t need to be abruptly shocked into doing what we already, intrinsically, want.
Similarly, when we are abruptly shocked into different behavior, like during the pandemic, it’s not clear that it’s an improvement even if it might feel that way at first. It takes time to discover the full bundle of such a change and what you’re actually giving up: It’s naïve to think that just because some isolated aspect of our new lives, a mere tumultuous year in, seems not altogether terrible, that it’s therefore a move from suboptimal to optimal.
Here’s a counterintuitive conclusion that you, Jordan Peterson-style, can think about for a decade: most things we do, do more than the things we think they do. Institutions don’t just do one thing; incentives don’t just matter in one predictable way; activities, behavior, transactions, and beliefs are bundles of values and social interactions, the sum result of which we can rarely discern. When you buy your morning coffee, you don’t only mechanically do it for the coffee, but also, in part, for the barista’s pretty smile – perhaps the friendliest thing anyone does to you that day.
When you block out that smile with a piece of cloth and inconvenience yourself with mumbling into a mask of your own, you’re not maintaining your caffeinated beverage – you’re giving up a cherished routine, a social interaction, a small sliver of beauty. It might not be obvious yet that you’ve lost that until you feel depressed and lonely but can’t fathom why.
We almost never know the full bundle of what we are giving up. Individual, social, and professional structures are evolving processes, trial-and-error, where we only find out what works over time. “The only effective judge of things is time,” writes Nassim Taleb energetically in his excellent essay on the Lindy Effect – the tendency of things that have been around for long to stay around even longer. There’s wisdom in what works, what’s been time-tested, and what has been around.
Kuper tells of people who would rather spend an evening in front of Netflix than at dinner parties or pub rounds with friends. The strange thing is that that action was always available to you in the past, but you almost never chose it: that tells us something about your full, honest judgment and makes it hard for me to believe that the new state of things is really something you prefer.
“I’d like to retain some of my pandemic habits,” Kuper writes at the end of his piece, “such as spending one day each weekend entirely at home. But I suspect I’ll fall back into the unwanted pre-Covid whirl.” And in that sentence alone we find all that’s wrong with his approach: if it’s unwanted, why are you doing it? What could possibly pull you in, against your will – kicking and screaming, I’m sure – towards a “whirl” of friendships and events and social gatherings that deep down you really hate? Perhaps you could have claimed ignorance in the past, but after this year of trying you most certainly cannot. If you truly value that day at home every week, you’ll do it: “Do. Or do not do,” our beloved Yoda says in Star Wars, “there is no try.”
Align your actions with your values; and if you find that you routinely do what you profess not to want, perhaps it’s time to update the stories you tell about your wants. In what’s probably the favorite thing I ever wrote, I said that it’s fine to want any number of things, but “it’s not fine to delude yourself that you want those dreams if you don’t act on them. Dreams unaccompanied by action are empty wishes, deceitful words.”
For someone, somewhere, I’m sure the pandemic may have shocked them into a better path – That much is at least conceivable. But it’s naïve to believe that it’s true for most, or even many, of us.