2 lessons from 2020 and a spaghetti-bak chor mee theory
So how did 2020 work out for you? I suspect, save for a very few, not quite according to plan. Certainly not for me, and I do scenario planning for a living. Covid-19 wreaked havoc with lives and livelihoods, businesses big and small, education, travel, and the human condition at its most elemental, everyday level. But Covid-19 also proved to be highly instructive.
Do you remember what you were doing on Dec 31, 2019? Many of us were probably celebrating and ushering in the new year with friends and family.
And amidst all that revelry, we might even have waxed reflective as we anticipated all the joys and successes that the new year would bring.
I recall looking ahead to 2020 — that oh-so-evocative and magical-sounding number — with great hopes and enthusiasm. In fact, I even wrote a commentary about it in TODAY.
So how did 2020 work out for you? I suspect, save for a very few, not quite according to plan. Certainly not for me, and I do scenario planning for a living.
Covid-19 wreaked havoc with lives and livelihoods, businesses big and small, education, travel, and the human condition at its most elemental, everyday level. But Covid-19 also proved to be highly instructive.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “those things that hurt, instruct”. In which case, there is a lot to learn from life on Planet Covid-19.
The first lesson is that the skills and traits that we need to survive in a crisis like Covid-19 aren’t necessarily taught in schools. At least not explicitly.
I am talking about things such as adaptability, resilience, the ability to improvise — all of which we agree are indispensable prerequisites for a world fraught with uncertainties and disruption.
The ancient Greeks saw these qualities embodied in the hero Odysseus. They gave it a name: metis, or cunning. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin called it a flair for quickly grasping what made each emerging situation unique and responding accordingly.
Remember the lockdowns all over the world?
In every city, there were shortages of essential goods such as bread, canned food and toilet paper.
But we all know that one guy who can get anything, don’t we?
And of course he in turn knows another guy. As the rest of us were desperately trying to book a grocery delivery time slot, he’d already got delivery vans showing up at his home with his shopping.
The shops have run out of eggs and flour? Call him and he will somehow manage to get them for you.
No toilet paper and ketchup? Call “the guy”. He’s the one with the “lobang”.
Those traits that we talk about in exclusively conceptual terms — agility, improvisational ability, and so forth — are more often than not embodied in a person best described as part maverick, part hustler, part blockade-runner, and part fixer.
In (still) straight-laced Singapore, with its (still) by-the-book education ethos, “the guy” is often frowned upon as being on the fringes of respectability. But “the guy” will not only survive in such a messy world, but may well thrive and prosper in it.
Surely these qualities are better cultivated as part of the everyday lived experience? Picked up from the politics of primary school playgrounds, perhaps?
Educators will continue to debate how best to develop these traits.
What needs to be asked as well is how we might inadvertently kill off these nascent qualities.
Because of, say, an education system obsessed with grades and formal assessments and always jeopardising playground time?
To borrow from the Star Wars mythos, perhaps we need less of the rules-bound Jedi Knight and more of Han Solo in this volatile environment.
Or at least we need a better balance of the two, to mitigate our inherent societal predilection for order, predictability, and structures, which if taken too far risks making us rigid and sterile, if not already.
This leads me to the second lesson. Does this mean that plans are useless in such a world?
Well, yes and no.
Former United States President Dwight D Eisenhower, in reflecting on his military experience, observed that plans are worthless, but planning is everything.
In other words, it is the dynamic and continual sensemaking, questioning, and adjustments that lie at the heart of the planning process that matter more than the inanimate and static plan that decays the moment it is articulated.
And if in the past we could entertain the fiction that planning could lay out the direct and reliable path to some desired end-state, then Covid-19 certainly put paid to that convenient illusion.
Desired end-states can and will shift, as we are painfully discovering.
Planning with the end in mind in order to get from “here” to “there”, often with a false certitude and contrived precision, will be futile.
We don’t and can’t know where “there” is since it can shift, and we are not even completely sure where “here” is either.
But “the guy” intuitively already knows all this. He has no plan in the static sense I described above.
Rather, he is ever-sensitive to the myriad possibilities immanent in the present. By not fixating on some template end-states, he is open to serendipitous and emergent outcomes.
I have a theory about that: My spaghetti-bak chor mee (minced pork noodles) theory.
You decide to cook spaghetti bolognese. But when you go into the kitchen, you realise you don’t quite have the exact ingredients.
Instead, you have close enough substitutes that seem sensible. Instead of spaghetti, you have mee kia. Instead of minced beef, you have minced pork.
Pork lard instead of olive oil. Vinegar instead of red wine. Coriander instead of parsley.
The little compromises you made along the way resulted in a fundamentally different dish.
Now, does that constitute a planning failure?
Well, insofar as the actual outcome (bak chor mee) deviated from the intended outcome (spaghetti bolognese), then in one sense it is a failure.
But deviation from some pre-determined telos doesn’t always constitute failure.
It is just different, and different can be better. To a large extent, it is a matter of perspective and expectations.
And if the past year has taught us anything, it is to dispense with conventional wisdom and to open yourself to possibilities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr Adrian W J Kuah is director of the Futures Office at the National University of Singapore. These are his own views.