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How Bad Times Can Bring Out the Best in You

About Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor pronounces that “We live in a world where playing it safe may well be the most dangerous course of all.” He shows business leaders a path to go from now to next in a world filled with non-stop disruption. As a young entrepreneur, Bill co-founded Fast Company, the bold business magazine that redefined the genre and chronicled the tech-fueled revolution that transformed business and work.  He’s written three best-selling books filled with examples of new ways to innovate and succeed: Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary WaysPractically Radical, and Mavericks at Work

If you’re like me, your inbox is filled with reassuring messages about the Covid-19 crisis from every restaurant at which you’ve eaten, every airline on which you’ve flown, every website from which you’ve purchased a gadget or widget.

This is not one of those messages.

I wanted to take a moment and share a few thoughts (and resources) about the right ways to cope with these tumultuous times, the best ways to lead your companies and colleagues, the smartest ways to process the rush of bad news and dire forecasts. So here are my thoughts, along with two book recommendations for all of you sheltering in place…

It’s easy to look around and see how this crisis has brought out the worst in some people — from a screwball entrepreneur hoarding thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer to revelers crowding bars and restaurants despite public-health guidelines. But such irresponsible behavior, I believe, is more the exception than the rule. Time and again, individuals, organizations, and communities have demonstrated that the worst situations tend to bring out the best in people and the organizations to which they belong. In every moment of darkness, it seems, there are countless moments of light — small gestures of compassion and connection that allow people to show who they are, how they want to live, and what matters to them.

That’s the message of my most recent essay for Harvard Business Review, in which I make the case that small, practical, useful acts of kindness are good for humanity, and good for business. Acts of kindness are also good for the people who do them — and the more tangible the act, the better. Academics who study “prosocial” behavior (as opposed to “antisocial” behavior) often note the power of “helper’s high,” or what is less charitably called “impure altruism.” The satisfaction that comes from doing things for others benefits us as well. “It’s hard to do something truly altruistic,” argues University of Houston professor Melanie Rudd, “because we always feel good about ourselves after we’ve performed that act of kindness.”

My HBR piece shows what those acts of kindness and connection look like, and why they are so powerful. So don’t be afraid to let bad times bring out the best in your organization—and in you.

Of course, there is one big problem with all this bad news—unless we’re careful, it can warp our outlook on the future, sap our resolve to act, make us less confident and compassionate. Even in good times, bad news can be dispiriting and debilitating. But in truly dark times, we have to work hard to avoid succumbing to negativity.

That was the message of another essay I wrote for Harvard Business Review, based on eye-opening research and analysis from John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister. We humans are wired in such a way, Tierney and Baumeister argue, that there is a “universal tendency for negative events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones.” We are “devastated by a word of criticism” but “unmoved by a shower of praise.” We “see the hostile face in the crowd” but “miss all the friendly smiles.”

And that’s during normal times! Tierney and Baumeister offer a collection of tools, tips, and tricks for staying positive amidst bad news, including their Rule of Four—“It takes four good things to overcome one bad thing.” These days, with all the bad things all around us, be sure to search out and celebrate the good.

Let me make one last point. Sometimes it takes a catastrophic turn of events to remind us what’s important at our companies, with our careers, in our lives. For so long, the business culture has been fixated on strategic disruption, digital transformation, and the meteoric rise (and disastrous fall) of venture-backed unicorns. Maybe this crisis will persuade us to take a moment to think a little smaller, to act a lot more humbly, to elevate the person-to-person interactions that lead to more meaningful relationships.

I wrote an essay for HBR on this theme months before coronavirus had become a household word. Sure, successful companies and leaders think differently from everyone else. But they also care more than everyone else —about customers, about colleagues, about how the whole organization conducts itself when there are so many opportunities to cut corners and compromise on values. In a world being utterly reshaped (and often disfigured) by money and technology, people are hungrier than ever for a deeper and more authentic sense of humanity—and this crisis will only feed that appetite.

I’m guessing that many of you, like me, are spending more time in your home offices than you ever thought you would—and maybe reading more books (and streaming more movies) than you every expected. In the spirt of this newsletter, allow me to recommend two truly fantastic books that will encourage you to let bad times bring out the best in you, and provide tools and tips to help you cope with all this bad news.

My first book recommendation is A Paradise Built in Hell, by the celebrated nonfiction writer Rebecca Solnit. She studied impromptu, spontaneous, bottom-up responses to some of the world’s worst natural and man-made disasters — deadly earthquakes in San Francisco and Mexico City, the Halifax Explosion of 1917, the September 11 attacks. “The history of disaster,” she writes, “demonstrates that most of us are social animals, hungry for connection, as well as for purpose and meaning.” A truly dire situation, as tragic as it is, “drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative in order to survive or save our neighbors, no matter how we vote or what we do for a living.” It is a brilliant and uplifting book set in some of the worst challenges humanity has faced.

My second book recommendation is The Power of Bad, by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister. Every so often, you encounter academic research that snaps into place a whole bunch of tensions, issues, and problems that you’ve noticed but haven’t been able to understand. That happened to me when I read this book. The authors offer lessons from social science about life, love, parenting, even politics—all about the best ways to handle bad news and tough times. This book, which came out a few months ago, would be of great value at any time, but is especially relevant in these times.

I hope you find a some of these messages and resources helpful. Thank you, as always, for your interest in my work. Please stay healthy and safe!

To Learn more about Bill contact [email protected]

Derek Sweeney is the Director of Speaker Ideas at The Sweeney Agency. www.thesweeneyagency.com. For 15 years Derek has been helping clients find the right Speakers for their events. Derek can be reached at 1-866-727-7555 or [email protected]