2020 has been a whirlwind of worldwide events, with the coronavirus causing nations to close their borders and slowing economies to a crawl. This year has brought high levels of uncertainty into our lives, with all the job losses, the possibility of getting COVID-19 and unknowingly infecting a loved one with it. On top of that the political state of the USA sparked a global conversation (including Nigeria, where I am). It’s a lot to process, especially as we try to stay safe and fight for social justice at the same time.
As a realistic optimist, it’s hard not to see all the pain in the world, but in this instance, we have a great opportunity before us. For the first time in a long time, we get to decide what’s important in our lives and in the culture we live in. However, it can be difficult to take steps toward creating a space for ourselves and our families while also being pushed by the zeitgeist, movements, and social pressures.
I have a lot on my mind and the best way to put them down is to break them down into three parts talking about my experience with being creative in uncertainty, staying true to yourself during a political movement and finding opportunity in times of crisis.
Creating in uncertain times
The last 18 months have been a personal journey for me. I spent early 2019 dealing with grief about leaving China before I was ready, struggling with my self-worth, struggling to see the impact of my work, and having a difficult time finding remote industrial design work. By the end of 2019, I regained confidence in myself and my work, and decided on a business plan that allowed me to take more responsibility in my life and career by licensing my work and shifting gears away from client work. I became a lot more comfortable with the uncertainty around my career.
Then 2020 hit.
6 months in and 2020 is already an historic year. The Coronavirus and the lockdowns it birthed led to millions of people around the world losing their jobs, and businesses shutting their doors which may never open up again. The world also saw fires ravage Australia, saw our broken medical systems, saw our failing education systems, and saw the institutional racism around us. The first positive event this year is seeing the uprising against racism–and we’re only halfway through the year.
The virus and related events haven’t affected me in the same way it’s affected other people. I launched Object Dreams at the start of the year, developing a business plan with zero active clients, while I was working part-time from my family home with Spitfire Industry, a different design studio creating concepts to enhance the Brooklyn Bridge experience for commuters and tourists. When the lockdowns started, the pace of projects I was on slowed down, as people I worked with learned to deal with the realities of remote work. Though I didn’t get fired, I was starting the year from zero, so I could empathize with people who lost their jobs in the crisis.
The worldwide lockdowns felt like a possible opportunity, but I wasn’t sure what that was at first. Then I noticed some designers around the world reacted by creating objects to aid medical workers and bring us into a new hygiene-conscious lifestyle. Some designers and artists capitalized on the opportunity to create trendy speculative (and totally unhelpful) work. A whole group of businesses jumped at selling products that fed off people’s virus fears, most of them not actually meeting the baseline requirements for protection against the coronavirus. And a few creatives put out projects to make life at home for people more bearable and entertaining.
I considered working on a respirator project but decided instead to keep focusing on personal and partnered projects that I felt were important to our lives and culture, even though they were unrelated to the pandemic. This decision came easier than it would have last year. You see, a big part of the time when I felt uncertain about my work was filled with low points. Whenever I had any creative juice, there was a desire to chase anything that seemed shiny, like a project or interesting non-design gigs. But that never worked for me, because I always knew I was ignoring what I was meant to be doing… creating objects I believed in instead of waiting for someone else to tell me what to make.
Coming out of my dip wasn’t easy. It took difficult questions, an online mastermind group and supportive friends to dig deep enough to see my worth and set a trajectory for the impact I wish to make with my career. Knowing what my goals are helped me stay focused on what’s important to me during our global crisis, and my creative energy has never been higher.
You may feel anxious about your life, your status, or your business right now, and that’s okay. Know that this is the perfect time to take a deep breath, find what’s most important to you or the work you do. Ask yourself if at its core the work you do aligns with your core values, and has a place in the post COVID world, then keep at it and nurture it, whether it’s raising your kids, launching your startup or being a comedian. If the work you’ve been doing doesn’t fit with what’s now important to you, then now’s the perfect time to explore what matches your values better. It’ll be difficult, but your friends and families all have a lot of free time now. Use them as a support group if you need one, while you spend time working on something meaningful to you.
Working through a zeitgeist.
A zeitgeist is the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time; and we are smack in the middle of one. The targeted acts of brutality from police force toward Black Americans and institutionalized racism against black people and other non-white have been more public in the last few years but hit a tipping point this year. People can no longer hold their anger in silence. People can no longer be complicit in accepting systemic racism as just part of life. The great thing is, because of all the new free time people have, we can actually put time and effort into dismantling some of the racist institutions, starting with the US criminal justice system.
As a black man, not currently living in the USA, who has felt the effects of institutional racism, not just in the US, but in parts of Asia and Africa as well, this is a great change I’m extremely optimistic about. I admit however the realities of living in a time as charged as this can weigh heavily on the heart, and on the mind.
I think we should all do our parts to bring down all racist systems in the world. It’s long overdue and should have been a stronger part of the sustainable development goals. However, as much as we as individuals have different realities and needs, it can be overwhelming to see guilt-tripping activism on social media. It can also be trying to want to participate without being sure how you, your business or your goals can align with the movement, or any other movements going on (here in Nigeria, rape issues are more pressing at the moment).
In response to Black Lives Matter, I’ve seen companies give out grants to black businesses, award black artists, invite black speakers to events, and fire racist employees. I’ve seen individuals make donations to anti-racism institutions, spread awareness, and educate those around them. All good moves in my opinion. Yet, it’s possible none of these practices fit your current situation, for geographic reasons, financial reasons, or comprehension. That’s totally okay, unless you refuse to acknowledge your racial biases, which build up systemic racism and make you an unassuming racist.
There are other ways you can make an impact as a person and as a business. You likely have a lot of preconceived notions about black people, formed by stories you’ve heard from the media, your parents and friends (this applies to black people too). Try to let those go. Watch some “black” films; films with black leads, films with black stories, films created by black creatives. Try out a black recipe or black-owned restaurant whenever you can’t quite decide what to eat. Read some black stories. Give the black job applicant a fair chance. This last one is tricky, because you may think you’re already doing it, but it’s worth taking a moment longer to ask yourself why you want to hire them, or why you don’t want to hire them. This also applies to promotion opportunities. Take a moment to ask yourself if that tick they have that makes you feel uncomfortable affects their ability to do the job. Is it cultural? Does it bother you because it’s actually rude, or is it because it’s unfamiliar?
You may feel that you need to talk about race every time you go on social media. You don’t. You can talk about everything you usually do, but be aware of the zeitgeist and be kind in your communication. If you want to use the black lives matter movement as a marketing opportunity, don’t do it! Find a more meaningful way to support or serve the black community. Involve them in conversations creating and marketing your product or business and give black voices (and other ethnicities) a seat at a decision-making level. Your business will be better for it.
We have an opportunity for the first time in history to not just give black people civil rights, but to remove, or reduce, racial divides on a worldwide scale. It’ll take some time, but it’s important to work that would benefit all of us more than we can imagine.
Opportunity in Crisis
We’ve gone through 2 opportunities that the 2020 crisis has birthed; the opportunity for you to find what really matters to you and create it while at home, and the opportunity to dismantle racism. Yet there’s a whole host of other opportunities. Some have been acted on and others are still waiting for us to decide what to do and how to do it.
Because of the global lockdowns, some factories have stopped, and others have slowed down, probably for the first time since the industrial revolution. Fewer people are using their cars, commercial air travel is almost at a standstill and commercial sea travel has stopped. These are all unfortunate states for anyone who owns or works at a factory and anyone who loves to travel. But this is also great news. Due to air pollution being at its lowest our generation has seen so far. For the first time, marine biologists can study ocean animals without interference from ships. Environmental scientists can precisely track and isolate the largest causes of pollution. And oil companies had a crisis with oil prices dropping under $0 a gallon. It’s time we stopped relying on oil as much as we have in the last century.
I even think watching our medical institution struggle during the COVID-19 crisis, is an opportunity for us to invest more in our healthcare systems. Additionally, watching universities struggle with teaching digitally, while trying to justify full tuition, is an opportunity to change how we educate people. We can challenge the justifications for a 4-year bachelor’s degree costing over $240,000 per student when you can find comparable courses for under $200 online. Even the way governments handled the lockdowns and communication with their citizens can show us holes in our political systems.
The important thing about the opportunities from this crisis is we get to decide where we want to go next. We’ve decided we no longer stand for institutionalized racism. After the Australian fire this year, and the Amazonian fire last year, we need to make stronger choices on global warming and decide if we can keep drilling and using oil or embrace a better way. We can challenge systems that see healthcare as a luxury instead of a necessity, and shift our culture so children no longer need to go into debt for an education.
We’re only halfway through the year and I’m sure we’ll have more decisions to make before the year is over. But we can no longer let other people make them for us. For the first time since the world wars, we can course correct. We get to form the culture we want after this crisis, and we get to choose what isn’t worth bringing with us into the future.
What opportunities do you see in your life coming out of the lockdowns? How can you leverage them to make your life, company, or community a better and more inclusive place?