PORTRAIT ILLUSTRATIONS BY KEITH WITMER
Is the worldwide pandemic a lesson in global empathy? Technology writer and MIT professor Sherry Turkle thinks so. A New York Times review of her memoir, The Empathy Diaries, says she hopes “that the pandemic has afforded us a view of one another’s problems and vulnerabilities in a way we might not have had as much access to before.” With Zoom as a constant companion, we have been able to see inside dorms, homes, and lives in ways that were previously hidden.
University life has become very strange, like many other places. Physical Facilities projects ramped up, and the Kennedy Center benefited from new lighting, restroom renovation, and other constant construction activities. Other things stopped: there was no study abroad, and classes were taught in hybrid mode—with some entirely online and others in person but tentative and cautious.
The review says that Turkle sees this period, which we are still experiencing in our own different ways, as “a ‘liminal’ time, in the phrasing of the writer and anthropologist Victor Turner, a time in which we are ‘betwixt and between,’ a catastrophe with a built-in opportunity to reinvent.” Turkle sys, “In these liminal periods are these possibilities for change. I think we are living through a time, both in our social lives but also in how we deal with our technology, where we are willing to think of very different ways of behaving.”
We reached out to see what alumni experiences have been from Norway to New York in these very strange times.
(Very) Northern Perspectives
As a Church member and entrepreneur living in literally the world’s northernmost town in Norway’s Svalbard islands, life has always been unique. Spiritually, we have lived with two hours of Zoom church for many years. So COVID ironically did not change much for us in terms of church meetings beyond having the rest of our small branch on the Norwegian mainland experience what we long had. Indeed, having some of them join our existing Sunday evening “family church” has been a way to build stronger bonds with our branch 1,000 kilometers south across the Barents Sea.
The ability to empathize with their struggles and work together to get through was a true indicator of whether one sees money as an end in itself or a stewardship to lift the lives of God’s children and care for the planet He has entrusted us with.
I am an entrepreneur selling a beverage to markets around the world, and COVID has introduced a need for greater flexibility and understanding. Our sales were initially damaged, but they then recovered and ran to new records as we found innovative ways to connect with our customers. While social media messages and arguments grew more uniform across the world due to big tech, reactions to them varied widely. Lockdown measures in London were different from those in Hong Kong. Government support programs in Florida were different from those in Taipei. People were not receiving and discussing the same media and cultural messages about the pandemic in Barcelona as they were in Warsaw. Disposable income was not being impacted the same in Oslo as it was in Johannesburg. And as customers and suppliers faced new hardships, the ability to empathize with their struggles and work together to get through was a true indicator of whether one sees money as an end in itself or a stewardship to lift the lives of God’s children and care for the planet He has entrusted us with. I know of no better place than BYU and the Kennedy Center to begin one’s career with the principles that have been helping our international business navigate the pandemic.
Jamal Qureshi, Founder, Svalbarði Polar Iceberg Water // Longyearbyen, Norway
A Personal Pandemic
Recent uncertainties have had a profoundly personal cast for me. Two months into lockdown, my family and I had a bout with COVID-19. My son and I simply never got better. We are some of the estimated 10 to 30 percent of COVID patients known as “long-haulers,” who suffer from debilitating fatigue, brain fog, and other symptoms long after the initial infection is gone. For us it’s been over a year now. I’ve lost count of the number of specialists I’ve seen and tests I’ve been through, but I count my blessings when I see others with worse symptoms or who have lost loved ones.
The uncertainty can be overwhelming though. My son and I have adapted and found ways to manage most of the symptoms so far, but we are still not sure how this will work when the rest of the world is back to their pre-COVID lives and we can’t spend hours resting on a couch each day. Normal expectations for my professional life, my son’s academic future, and my ability to function as a single mom are no longer reliable. My sense of self has become as slippery as time in a pandemic.
In the middle of this profound unsettledness, I ran across one of the last things theologian and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer ever wrote. In jail shortly before being executed in Nazi Germany, he ended a poem with the line “Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.” For months I kept that sentence on the lock screen of my cell phone. I may not know who I am or what will be, but I know whose I am, and that suffices.
Elizabeth Clark, Associate Director, BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies, and Executive Committee Board Member, International Society // Provo, Utah
Every challenge presents an opportunity. In the midst of last year’s uncertainty, we learned that times of unforeseen disruption can spur innovation. One of the key actions that allowed our teams to remain resilient was having a clear understanding of our clients’ evolving priorities. COVID has changed client preferences, and prior “nice-to-haves” have now become needs in our industry.
Staying close to our clients has allowed our teams to more clearly understand changes in the way our clients use our working capital products, it has allowed us to adapt our strategy, and it has accelerated innovation that has made us more resilient. We can apply these principles to our day-to-day. By staying close to the priorities and needs of those around us, we can also, in turn, look for ways to disrupt ourselves to better meet the needs of our family, community, and network in ways we hadn’t before the pandemic.
Times of unforeseen disruption can spur innovation.
Denika Torres, Director of North American Commercial Cards, Citi // New York, New York
THE PANDEMIC FROM PROVO
For the last 15 months I have watched our campus community manage in the face of uncertainty. Administrators tried to read murky crystal balls and make the best decisions possible with the verifiable knowledge available. Faculty faced switching to new techniques and strategies for educating students, often in modalities in which they had little experience. And students wrestled with an unpredictable future, wondering how they would learn, how they would prepare for the future, and how they would meet important human needs to be with others during COVID-19 restrictions. Uncertainty was the shared experience, from those responsible for supply change disruptions to those trying to hang on and graduate.
Yet in that pervasive uncertainty, our campus community found ways to cope. With international travel being canceled, program coordinators in modern Middle East studies moved quickly to arrange remote course work in Arabic from a school in Jordan. Students in Kennedy Center majors connected through Zoom and other applications to not only participate but shine in Model UN and Model Arab League competitions. Students in all our international and area studies majors and minors connected with and were inspired by scholars, diplomats, writers, journalists, and humanitarians through remote technology. Home-centered Church reminded us that there is one certain thing in our lives, our Savior Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice. BYU students rose to the occasion in championship form by reaching out to each other in creative and compassionate ways.
Sandra Rogers, former International Vice President, Brigham Young University // Provo, Utah
In 1986, my BYU days were coming to a close. The job market was tight, so finding the right position didn’t come easily. For quite a few months, I found myself overwhelmed by uncertainty. Where would I live? Would I be moving across the country to a place I’d never even visited? What small slice of my newly honed professional skills would I be using? With little actual professional experience, I found it difficult to envision what even the most minute aspects of my new day-to-day life would be like. As a single woman, I found the lack of a traditional or obvious roadmap unsettling. I would be doing all of this without anyone else with whom to brainstorm or commiserate. But with no other options, I jumped into the void.
The years ahead were sometimes complicated. It often felt like I was driving in a heavy fog, as the future always seemed to reveal itself only one step at a time. But as I navigated two major career changes, started a couple of businesses, and traveled the world with various jobs, not to mention marrying a widower with seven young children, I found that my life evolved in a way that I never could have foreseen. It was better than anything I could have planned with my 24-year-old “wisdom.” While ambiguity created a certain amount of anxiety, I also found if I exercised the patience to let the uncertainty resolve itself, it taught me to have hope and allowed me to enjoy awesome opportunities. Things almost always work out.
We’ve all recently participated in an advanced practicum in managing uncertainty that has been the pandemic. Some coped with the turbulence that came from having the props pulled out from under us by attempting to control what they could, even when it had little relationship to the actual crisis at hand (stockpiling toilet paper and bottled water, for example). And, truthfully, watching the chaos at Costco during the early days of the pandemic made it difficult to fight the powerful instinct to do something. Others addressed the global lack of clarity by creating theories that imposed a sense of control and definition on a situation where so much of the cause and the prognosis were just plain unknown—and therefore subject to constant change. If we could identify someone responsible for the disorder around us, then we should be able to hold them accountable and get back to normal. Whether we deliberately chose to or not, most of us also have coped by holding out hope and looking for the awesome opportunities. We found new, and in some cases better, ways to work, worship, and connect. We grew a profound appreciation for simple pleasures like hugging a grandchild or having dinner with friends. We learned that sometimes reinventing our lives is not necessarily a bad thing.
If I exercised the patience to let the uncertainty resolve itself, it taught me to have hope and allowed me to enjoy awesome opportunities. Things almost always work out.
Kathy Rowe, Financial Advisor, Rowe Financial Advisors // Orem, Utah
Startup Sink or Swim
In December 2019 I started a new role as the CEO of Canopy, a software startup serving the accounting market. Prior to my joining, Canopy had a very difficult 2019 that included two large layoffs and the shuttering of a critical product. When you work at a startup, uncertainty comes with the territory. But when you work at a startup that’s also a turnaround, uncertainty is the territory. The only way to inject more uncertainty in the mix? Work at a turnaround startup during a global pandemic. I can’t think of a more uncertain time in my life than the spring and summer of 2020. Were we on the brink of a depression? Was our country going to fall apart? What would happen to our small company that relied on venture funding to fund our operations?
I coped with this uncertainty in a variety of ways—some healthy (prayer, exercise) and some less so (bread, ice cream). But for me, the single most helpful thing came from reading the account of my great-grandfather George Bell, who ran a small seed and feed store in Ogden, Utah, at the onset of the Great Depression. I read of his fear and despair as the Depression threatened to engulf his business, and then I read of his resolution to remain calm and cheerful, ultimately fighting his way through. It dawned on me that the challenges I was facing were not, in fact, unprecedented. People just like me, including my ancestors, had faced similar uncertainty and much worse. And so I resolved to face my own uncertainty in the same way they did—by refusing to panic, by relying on God, and by getting to work. I am glad to report that that time-tested formula worked.
The single most helpful thing came from reading the account of my great-grandfather George Bell, who ran a small seed and feed store in Ogden, Utah, at the onset of the Great Depression.
Davis Bell, CEO, Canopy // Lehi, Utah
Uncovering Useful Opportunities
The COVID pandemic has been what Harvard Business School professors Max Bazerman and Michael Watkins might call a “predictable surprise,” a foreseeable crisis that everyone knows will probably happen but which few people and organizations plan for because details like timing, magnitude, and so on are unknowable. But the crisis eventually comes, and that lack of preparation leaves us facing a crisis that brutally exposes the flaws in the technologies, systems, and processes that we depend on to perform critical tasks. COVID certainly did that. It taught us a painful lesson regarding our technology, but painful lessons uncover useful opportunities.
The lesson was that uncertainty in a crisis can flip the relationship between process and technology on its head. Developing stable, user-friendly software, hardware, or networks as a whole takes time, but time is the first resource lost in a crisis. As COVID sparked national lockdowns, many institutions quickly realized that their IT systems were designed to support business models and processes that the pandemic had rendered unviable. Leaders desperately tried to come up with new processes, but because they lacked the luxury of time, their attempts to adapt available technology to changing processes often became a twisting of processes to fit the available technology’s capabilities. That process was extraordinarily painful, and many organizations didn’t survive it.
Crises don't just expose flaws, they also strip away uncertainties that hinder progress.
The opportunity is to use COVID’s exposure of those flaws to advance our technology. Crises don’t just expose flaws, they also strip away uncertainties that hinder progress. COVID was a technological stress test that offered a preview of the demands that the Information Age will increasingly make on individuals, institutions, and society. The software and other IT needed to meet those demands will have to be far more capable than what we have today. Entrepreneurial software developers now have a much clearer picture of exactly the software features that the world will need and hence the kinds of apps and features most likely to be successful in the marketplace.
That begs the question of who will build them first. The developer or company that does will have a significant advantage over competitors. The nations that adopt and integrate them the most widely will be far better positioned to weather the next international crisis than the ones that don’t—and the economic, cultural, and national security ramifications of those successes and failures will be enormous.
Mark Henshaw, Author // Washington, DC