What Is Essential? Asking Big Questions during Difficult Times
In our future post-pandemic world, the careers, organizations, and societies we build will depend on what we consider to be “essential”.
What you don’t have you don’t need it now
What you don’t know you can feel it somehow
Beautiful Day by U2
The current COVID-19 pandemic has many of us thinking a lot more about existential Big Picture issues like life and death, family and tribe, hope and fear. We know that we won’t be in crisis forever, and we crave even a glimpse of what the future will look like, what the “new normal” will mean for our families, for our work and our careers and our ability to provide for ourselves in the future, and for our teams and our organizations and our collective missions with customers, members, patients, parishioners, students, and communities.
Here on Earth Day, in the midst of massive change and uncertainty, people are asking big, fundamental, philosophical questions like: how should we organize and conduct ourselves moving forward as businesses and as societies, to take better care of ourselves, each other, and the planet? What do we really need to survive and to thrive? What is essential in our lives?
Big Picture Priorities
At the heart of these Big Picture questions are values, morals, faith, and philosophy – our deeply held beliefs and principles that inform our behavior and our decisions and our interactions with others. Values are especially important during chaos and disruption when habits and scripts and our usual roles are no longer sufficient in the context of a new world and an uncertain future. Existential values-based questions like “what is essential?” are now in the public discourse as governments and citizens alike are having to decide: which are the essential businesses to keep open? Who are essential workers? What essential supplies do we need while homebound or quarantined?
Or even smaller things, like what are essential lessons and activities for homeschooling? In my household, we are two full-time working parents struggling to support three school-aged children spanning 1st to 8th grades, who are now learning at home. In resignation, we have embraced the elegant simplicity of the old “3 R’s” curriculum of yesteryear – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic (+ we added “recess”). Keep it simple, working parents!
Under normal circumstances, I am already prone to over-thinking everything, an occupational hazard of having a doctorate of philosophy (Ph.D. = Piled High and Deep). And these are not normal circumstances. Being a psychologist, I spend a lot of my time observing and appreciating (i.e., analyzing) human behavior happening all around us every day. So, at the same time that I am deeply moved every day by the stories I hear about the coronavirus pandemic and humankind’s adaptive responses, lately, I have become increasingly fascinated by the range of people’s views on “what is essential”.
Existential values-based questions like “what is essential?” are now in the public discourse.
At one extreme, “what is essential” = “what do you need to survive.” Here, we can just apply the Survival Rule of Threes (note: this is not medical advice!).
Humans can survive approximately three weeks without food, three days without water, three hours without shelter, and just three minutes without oxygen. Of course, it all depends – on climate, threats, supplies, capabilities, exertion, how long you can hold your breath, etc. But even if these estimates are approximations, it is still crystal clear from this mnemonic what is most essential and what your relative priorities should be for survival as a human.
At perhaps the other extreme, without picking on any mansion-bound celebrities complaining about disruptions to the world’s caviar supply chain, I can pick on my old college self. In my early 20’s, every weekend I faced the same difficult decision, one that required deeply held values to decide “what is essential”: I had to choose between (1) sleeping late or (2) going out to brunch. At the time, this felt like a consequential decision with difficult tradeoffs to consider. Of course, with the wisdom of age, I now recognize that neither sleeping in nor brunch out were truly essential. Only coffee.
Essential at Work
In the world of work, within US employment law and the professional practice of I-O Psychology, we have a few concepts that apply to “what is essential.” There are scientific protocols for studying jobs (job analysis) to determine what are the essential KSAOs (Knowledge, Skills, Abilities, and Other worker characteristics) that employers should assess and hire for. The idea is that employers should not hire based on skills or knowledge that can be easily learned on the job, so diligence is put into defining the essential Day One job requirements and the corresponding worker attributes required for successful performance.
In the US, we also have a concept called bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) that allows employers to hire people on the basis of worker characteristics that are usually illegal in employment decisions (e.g., gender, age) – if the employer can prove that these BFOQs are essential pre-requisites to successful performance in the job. Thankfully and unsurprisingly, in the modern era, few employers claim that being a particular gender or a certain age are essential job requirements.
Essential for All
What we each believe that we need in our lives is deeply personal. What we see as essential is based on our values, our needs, our relative resources or deprivation, our culture, and what we’re used to. Maybe not everyone needs a three-month supply of toilet paper… although, I think we can all agree on coffee.
As you reflect on life’s big questions and what is essential in your life, consider opportunities to help others where you can – and ask for help when you need it. We are all in this together!