Able to Pause

Random thoughts from COVID-19 — the bright side of sorts. Hopefully, as a society, we come out of this situation and realize that the true bliss is not about having more, but actually less.

As most of my country fellows, I’ve also spent the last week shut down at home, under the strict quarantine enforced by the government. However, this post has nothing little to do with the news itself, but a random thought I just got out of this state of affairs.

To set the stage, I summon Jeremy Irons at Margin Call, on the verge of a financial crisis:

I’m here for one reason and one reason alone. I’m here to guess what the music might do a week, a month, a year from now. That’s it. Nothing more. And standing here tonight, I’m afraid that I don’t hear — a — thing. Just… silence.

Despite differences in their nature, both the 2008 crisis and today’s COVID-19 unveiled themselves to be what Nassim Taleb would certainly depict as Black Swans.

It has caught us all off guard. Flipping an over-confident, unprepared society on its head. It is precisely this over-confidence, this “societal arrogance”, that I want to revisit under the lens of Jeremy Irons’ music.

The inner mechanics of our entire socio-economic apparatus is built upon a simple assumption: the music won’t stop. It all depends on it.

We like it or not, the “impossible” has happened. At the very beginning of 2020, the music has stopped.

The silence emerging from this new situation has surfaced a purposely ignored truth: while it lasted, the music generated such a momentum that allowed us to carry on. Now that the music has stopped, we have found ourselves standing still. Holding on more weight than we could actually lift.

The weight of the largest uber-connected network ever built, the result of an incessant process of globalization, has fallen upon ourselves.

So now, what? Truth is that nobody knows. We are still figuring out what it all means. Most things will certainly default to “normal”. However, we are starting to become acquainted with the idea that the world will never be the same again.

And here it comes, what I presume to be, the good news.

Note the subtlety in the previous paragraph — pointing out to a retreat to the “normal”. I deliberately alluded to the “things” that have changed. Nonetheless, the aftermath of this crisis will bring along a more profound, yet less apparent, change.

Our values will change.

This whole music schema was reliant on a society running on top of an hedonic treadmill. Leveraging what Danny Kahneman would later refer to as Anticipated Utility: we fail to learn from our past errors in projecting the future of our affective states.

To some extent, this phenomenon has been modeling our definition of success all along. It shaped our aspirations, even society’s role models. We used to compare ourselves with look upon the ones who relied upon and had mastered the tune. Those were the ones who made it.

However, we are growing comfortable with the idea that true luxury might have nothing to do with “more”. Under such stress, true luxury has instead become the ability to pause. Stand still with no debt weight.

We might realize that the true bliss is not about a bigger house, a fancier car, or the shiniest diamond.

It is rather the ability to take our headphones off, and let the music stop without breaking apart. Being able to live by our own rules, without relying upon disposable externalities. Achieving true independence from the system.

I hope that if when we come out of this, we write down the lesson. We look inside, learn to live with fewer dependencies on the outside; we re-calibrate our values, embrace what is truly important.

So, the next time you feel the “urge” to acquire the latest gadget, take a deep breath, and think of Derek Sivers’ parrot yelling at you:

It won’t make you happy, it won’t make you happy!

First published on March 21, 2020