I have been planning to write a blog about the lessons I learned from my mother’s stories for a while. Now, with Europe gradually loosening the strictest of the COVID-19 lockdown measures, the time seemed right. The ultimate push to start writing came from a column in the Belgian newspaper De Standaard by Ive Marx, professor in socio-economic sciences at Antwerp University. Roughly translated, it asks “Who are the children that pay the Corona bill?”. In his article, Marx sketches a typical ‘victim’ of the ongoing lockdown: headaches from all-day online meetings, tanned from the abundance of walks and bike rides to break up the day, worried whether the upcoming summer holiday will be cancelled. While I do not completely fit the stereotype he puts forward, I cannot deny a passing resemblance to my own situation. It again made me realize how privileged I am (and most of us are), and how I had been drawn into the addictions of our Western society. Looking back at my youth and upbringing, I had been taught a rather different set of ethics and values. As a reminder for myself, this blog puts them down on paper, and I hope that they might be valuable for some of you as well.
Lockdown, the new normal, the never normal
Just a few days ago, I told my wife that lockdown is not much different to the first sixteen years of my life at home with my parents. And, before you feel bad for me, let me just say that I cannot imagine a better childhood than the one I had.
To give it some more context: I grew up in a small village in a rural area in Belgium, together with my sister and parents. A place where everyone knows everyone. Our house was small for family of four, but we had a big garden. And, while double-income families were already the norm, my mother quit her job when we were born, because she felt her priority was to be with her children. As a result, we lived a ‘simple life’ with lots of emphasis on spending time together and little material luxury. Cable TV and a microwave only entered our home more than a decade after they had become mainstream. And we never had a dishwasher.
“Doing the dishes is the only time you and your sister talk to each other,” my mother used to say when we were teenagers. And while most of my friends went on at least one annual overseas holiday, I only boarded my first flight when I was sixteen. Holidays were spent at home, and trips to the seaside or to amusement parks were limited to one or two per year.
For some this might still sound like decadence and unnecessary luxury, while others will wonder how I could ever have grown up happy. In fact, when I told a good friend that I will be not teaching my children to ski, he exclaimed, “What!?? You are not taking your children on skiing holidays? You can’t do that to them!” And if you had told me the same thing in my twenties and early thirties, I might have agreed. So, what changed? I will come back to that later, but first, here are my mother’s three pieces of wisdom.
Be happy with what you have
I have already mentioned this story in one of my previous blogs but will repeat it here. When I was a small child, my grandmother gave me a piece of chocolate. I was over the moon until I discovered that my grandmother had given my sister two pieces of chocolate. Well, as you can possibly imagine, I was devastated and began to cry. My mother asked me what had changed that in my situation that made me unhappy. After all, I had been happy with the piece of chocolate I had received so why should I be sad that I ‘only’ got one piece.
I don’t actually remember this happening, but I have heard the story so often that I believe it did. In any case, it does not really matter as it is the message that is important and is still valid: be happy with what you have. For example, if you are happy with your salary but then find out your colleagues are earning more, would it bother you?
This story came back to me when we went into lockdown and I was forced to live ‘a small(er) life’ again, just like those first 16 years of my life. To be honest, I adapted to it immediately and rather enjoyed not having any pressure to keep up with society or my peers. After all, who needs the biggest or most expensive car, when you cannot go anywhere? I also had more time to spend with my immediate family, as we were all stuck at home. And fortunately, the weather was good.
I know that in some ways I was lucky. I had already been working from home and had enough work to keep me busy. Obviously, some meeting and speaking opportunities were cancelled but hopefully they will pick up again as lockdown eases. As restrictions are slowly being lifted, I want to keep that sense of living ‘small’. But I worry that as things return to ‘normal’ that I may feel the social and peer pressure to go on that vacation or buy that fancy car.
Help those who are dear to you free of charge
This is a story from mother’s childhood. A neighbour had pile of sand that needed to be moved from front of the house to the back garden. My mother helped move one barrow-load and the neighbour gave her a few cents, a lot to a small child back then. My mother rushed home and showed her mother the money. However, rather than being pleased for having earned some money, her mother told her: “Well done, but now go back, return the money and help to move another barrow-load.”
The morale of the story is that we should help others, not because we want to get paid but because it is the right thing to do. One of the positive things to come out the lockdown is that many companies have been doing just that. From fashion outlets making masks to breweries making alcohol for hand sanitizer. In the whole spectrum from individuals to big corporates, there are plenty of examples out there. And many are doing these at cost, so they are making no profit, but are simply doing it for the common good. I have often talked about how we need to look into new types of collaboration based on trust and how unpaid work can bring benefits later.
As we move forward, I hope that more companies will see that it is in their best interests to do the right thing. And not just as a PR stunt to boost their brand or sales, but in an honest and thorough way that makes the world a better place.
Just because you can, does not mean you have to
At the beginning of this blog, I mentioned that we rarely went to theme park or even day trips to the beach. While this was partly because we were a single-income family, it was also because of my mother’s last piece of wisdom: just because you can, does not mean you have to.
Let’s take one of the biggest examples of this: the moon landings. John F. Kennedy committed the USA to going to space in the sixties “because it was there”. Now, the space program has resulted in many huge leaps in technology, but did we really need to go if we were happy down here? Did the Americans only want to go because Russia was also going to space? I’m not sure if I agree or disagree with this decision, so let me give you another more relatable example: cheap flights.
I have already said I won’t be taking my kids away for skiing lessons, but what about that cheap holiday? Might it be better to just go to the nearby coast, instead of racking up all those carbon miles flying to go lie on a different beach. Just because I can get a cheap flight doesn’t mean I should.
In a society driven by mass consumption, lockdown has given us an opportunity to pause for a moment and think about what we really want or need. Do we really need or want that holiday, a new car, the latest fashion, or is it just the pressure of society and our peers? Where do we draw the line? I personally believe we are still far over the line and will be considering new purchases much more seriously as we enter the post-lockdown world. What would our society look like if we all did the same?
Principles to live by
My mother has told me these stories thousands of time. So much so, that they are hardwired into what I do and how I think. And, until I finished university, I lived by those principles. However, once I started working and had a salary, I kind of forgot about them and got the nice house with two cars out front and the annual ski holiday.
But in recent years, I have been rethinking my priorities and adjusting my habits accordingly. I thought I was making changes at an acceptable pace. Yet, the first week of lockdown made me experience the speed at which I can really change. It pushed me into the life I might have had if I had stuck closer to those principles. Less materialistic, but also one with less stress. The pace is slower and daily life is good.
Now, as we move out of lockdown, we can choose what to allow back into our lives. So, what will be your new normal: the flashy car in front of the big house, fancy restaurants and foreign holidays, or will it be just you and your family sitting in the garden with a cold drink?
For organisations, it is also an opportunity to rethink your priorities. Will you go back to way you worked before, or move forward on a new path in the post-crisis world?
As always, if you want mentoring or advice on how to implement changes, please reach out to me. Also, I would love to hear about the stories your mother (or father) told you that influenced how you have lived your life.