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"Mistake" by Benjamin Marshall (1768-1835) via Wikimedia Commons, Copyright Public Domain

See like a horse

It looks like there is light at the end of the 2020 tunnel after all. Change is coming to the White House in January, and the UK is doling out much needed Covid-19 vaccines to the high-risk population. Does this mean we can once again look at reality the way we did before Donald Trump and the pandemic came along? Not quite.

Now more than ever we need to learn to see reality like a horse does. What does that even mean? Horses, unlike humans, have great peripheral vision. We can see a maximum of 45 degrees on either side of our noses – or a total of 90 degrees. But horses’ eyes are located on the sides of their heads, which gives them a 360-degree view (yes, that’s insane). Humans are always focusing on what is ahead, and neglect the extremes. In other words, we need to keep our eye on the fringes of society, politics, and business, to anticipate upcoming adversity and innovation.

The past four years have been a time of deep disruption, which often brings change. Working from home most of the time was a crazy idea for most of us less than a year ago. The same goes to wearing a face mask. And we never imagined the entire world would once again be fearing the same illness. Politically, Trump has done things that we found equally unimaginable coming from the leader of the free world, like meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, encouraging white supremacists, undermining institutions, and ignoring science. This period of trauma should have taught us that we need to look at the borders of our current reality to understand what the future will look like. So what does this mean…

For business: In a post-pandemic world, consumers will become more health conscious, and they will rely even more on delivery services. A new generation of cash-strapped consumers will also want cheaper, simpler goods with a reduced carbon footprint. Look for any left-field ideas companies are coming up with in your industry to save costs, become more resilient and engage new, younger consumers. In pharma, expect new drugs, especially anti-depressants. In luxury, companies will seek fresh, unusual ways to engage the young (just like tobacco companies invented vaping as a cool alternative to traditional smoking). Cleaning products companies and near shoring supply chain support companies with innovative solutions will thrive.

For politics: If you thought political disruption will leave the scene with Trump, think again. In a world where the pandemic has revealed and deepened inequality, progressive and even radical leftist politicians will gain more ground. Keep an eye on socialists, communists, anarchists, radical environmentalists, and other fringe social groups to become politically viable. In some countries the radical right may gain strength. However, most young people who have lived through several crises and have less material security than their parents did at their age will likely embrace the proponents of an aggressive redistributive, interventionist, and anti-capitalist ethos.

For everyday life: Many people will seek more work life balance and ways to live more simply. In some countries this will mean some will step away from the “rat race” reality that brings poor quality of life. People will seek more emotional, mental and financial resiliency over a life of luxury and excess. Questions people will ask themselves: Can I still live well and content with less? How can I become more resilient in the event of a future job loss? How can I diversify my sources of income in the future? Many may choose to save more and even change their living quarters. The tiny house movement may get a boost (google it).

Looking at the extremes is seldom comfortable, but it is needed. Adversity and innovation rarely come to you from the front. These changes sideswipe you when you least expect them. Learning to see like a horse will help you anticipate, become prepared for and, eventually, succeed in a new reality.

What I’m (Re) Reading 

The ultimate example of keeping our eye on the fringes is DARPA, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It is known as the most powerful military science agency in history. DARPA is notorious for having funded the precursors of what would become the Internet, GPS, and drone technology (which DARPA began working on during the Vietnam War).

In her engaging book, The Pentagon’s Brain (Back Bay Books, 2015), Annie Jacobsen weaves the fascinating, colorful, and secret history of this agency which was founded in 1958 in response to the USSR’s launch of the Sputnik satellite. Back then, the US feared it was falling behind the Soviets in military knowhow, science, and technology.

At 552 pages, this best-selling, Pulitzer Prize finalist is no quick read, but it’s nonetheless an engrossing narrative of how America’s military establishment stretches the limits of human ingenuity to remain ready for adversity. As Jacobsen tells it, preparedness has led DARPA to explore the viability of an “Astro-dome like” anti-missile shield over the US, ponder the military use of a “death ray” laser, study the use of brain-washing techniques against enemies, work on developing smart bullets that pursue their victims, and explore ways to reduce the fear of soldiers on the battlefield. The book lays out in a simple phrase the justification for such controversial endeavors: “America needed an agency that could visualize the nation’s needs before those needs yet existed.”

The story of DARPA makes clear that, as usual throughout history, the future will eventually be dominated by what we now consider weird, extreme or fringe.