Excerpt from the Introduction
We’re taught time is a reliable, relentless force. The sun’s progress across the sky and our seasonal orbit around the sun establish an immortal, uniform rhythm. However, our perception of time is not constant. As we age, our frame of reference (the past) expands, and the years move faster. This morning I kissed my son goodbye before his first day of kindergarten. This afternoon he came home from fifth grade. It’s the opposite for him. His school believes that same fifth grade should be a safe place to fail. His first Cs and Ds arrest time, frequently.
What we experience is change, not time. Aristotle observed that time does not exist without change, because what we call time is simply our measurement of the difference between “before” and “after.” Hence our daily experience of time dragging or flying by. Time is malleable, paced by change. And the smallest thing can create unprecedented change. Even something as small as a virus.
In early March of 2020, we were living in the “before.” The novel coronavirus was in the news, but just. Outside China there was little to suggest a global crisis was unfolding. Forty-one people had died in northern Italy, but in the rest of Europe life was unchanged. The United States reported its first death on March 1, but the big news was Mayor Pete suspended his campaign for the presidency. There were no closures, no masks, and most people wouldn’t have recognized Dr. Anthony Fauci.
By the end of the month, we were in the “after.” The world shut down. Hundreds of thousands of people tested positive for the virus, including Tom Hanks, Placido Domingo, Boris Johnson, and dozens of sailors on a U.S. aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
A virus one four-hundredth the width of a human hair grabbed a sphere weighing 13 billion trillion tons and set it spinning ten times faster.
Yet even as time (change) sped up, our lives felt static. Like my son holding his first bad report card, we lost our capacity to imagine anything beyond the present moment. No before or after, just Zoom calls, takeout, and Netflix. We checked case counts and deaths vs. game scores and movie times. The hit movie of summer was Palm Springs—a story of two people living the same day over and over again.
Having experienced fifty-odd trips around the sun, I know we are wrong about the persistence of this moment. I try to convince myself what I tell my boys: this too shall pass. This book is an attempt to look beyond our unprecedented present and predict the future by creating it; catalyzing a dialog that crafts better solutions.
When the only astronomical object known to harbor life reverts to its regular rate of rotation, what will be different about business, education, and our country? Will it be more humane and prosperous? Or will people prefer it just stop spinning? What can we do to shape the “after”?
I’m an entrepreneur and a business school professor, so I view things through the lens of business. That’s the core of this book—how the pandemic will reshape the business environment. I witness how the pandemic has favored big companies, and big tech most of all. A healthy portion of this book is a pandemic-era update to my first book, The Four, revisiting Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. I also look at the disruption opportunities outside the sectors dominated by the Four, and some of the firms poised to prosper.
Business doesn’t operate in a vacuum, so I connect the business story to our broader societal story. I’ve devoted an entire chapter to higher education, as I believe it is on the cusp of transformative change. I write about the ways in which the pandemic has revealed and accelerated broader trends in our culture and politics, why I believe that a generation of changes undertaken in the name of capitalism have undermined the capitalist system, and what we can do about it. This has been a worldwide crisis, and while my examples and analysis are rooted in a U.S. experience, I hope these insights will hold value for readers in other countries.
I begin with two theses. First, the pandemic’s most enduring impact will be as an accelerant. While it will initiate some changes and alter the direction of some trends, the pandemic’s primary effect has been to accelerate dynamics already present in society. Second, in any crisis there is opportunity; the greater and more disruptive the crisis, the greater the opportunities. However, my optimism on the second point is tempered by the first—many of the trends the pandemic accelerates are negative and weaken our capacity to recover and thrive in a post-corona world.