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Essential Reading

My friend Bill is a financial analyst for an investment bank. He says he's busier than ever thee days, working from home, "sheltered in place" in Brooklyn, New York. When his firm published a list of "essential workers," those allowed (or required) to come into the office, his name wasn't on the list. "I get it," Bill said. "I'm not on the trading floor. But still, it was a gut punch; I'm not 'essential.'"

Another friend and former colleague, Eriko, is now an in-house corporate trainer for a major tech company. When about a month ago her firm informed staff of "travel deemed not essential," at the top of their list was "Training." She laughed as she told me, and pointed out that in her case, the reason was that most training could be done over video conference, "But still.." she said.

"But still... " With much of the world in "lock down," or "shelter-in-place," or whatever other new-phrase-of-the-day we're supposed to use, I can't help but notice that every local and national government agrees that certain "essential" work must go on: hospitals (of course, this is a health issue first), grocery stores ("we gotta eat!"), fire and police departments are all considered "essential." But what of those who support them? Deliveries, hospital administrators, telephone operators, all "essential," right?

I agree they're all essential work. So is Eriko's. So is Bill's. Without analysis, traders have only guess work. Not every service is directly saving lives, but we're all interconnected. And often it's just a question of framing, as I learned from Tom Peters years ago. He was explaining how some services, like hotel housekeeping, might be lower on the "status chart" of a hotel; after all, a hotel is not in the business of housekeeping. But if you run a housekeeping company, "Housekeeping" is the cores service you provide.

In business, I've learned, "The most important job is the one that's not getting done." Right now we're told to "Just stay home," as if binge-watching Netflix and eating chips is our civic duty. Balderdash! There's more to be "done." I'm taking the time to reflect, especially on what's "essential" in my work, in my personal life, and in the world. Who knows where the next great idea is going to come from? It might be (y)ours! I'm also going outside, even if just to my balcony, as much as possible. Physical distance, yes, but under the sun!

Mark Cuban (billionaire, "Shark Tank" star, owner of the Dallas Mavericks) was being interviewed the other day and after several interesting, thoughtful and thought-provoking observations, he said, "We need the NBA." Now, I've always been a sports fan, and I love the NBA (more when the Warriors were winning). What he meant was, as he also said, "We human beings need entertainment." "We need community." But do we need the NBA? We need food, but do we "need" every item in the grocery store? As much as we need our WiFi to stay up and running? Now no WiFi would really leave us all in a lurch. Who's planning for that?

Numbers and statistics can boggle the mind. The U.K.'s Guardian projects that the current economic shock could knock 500,000,000 (1/2 a billion) people back from "poor" into destitute-level poverty. It could turn the clock back 30 years. Are those people any less "essential" than the thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) we may (hopefully) save by implementing these economic measures? I don't know. Maybe you don't know either. Nobody knows.

But I do know that if you're reading this, you have essential work to do. We all do. It doesn't matter if your position in your company is deemed "essential" by someone else, or if your company or industry is one of the "protected few." To see how capricious such judgements can be, let's compare two industries in California and Japan. Here in Tokyo, as of today, hair salons are not facing recommendations to reduce hours or close. In San Francisco, those same salons would be closed and you would be fined for trying to stay open. A bit of a contrast, yes? Here's a bigger one: In San Francisco, cannabis dispensaries are considered by the government to be "essential businesses."

Beyond the work you do, you're "essential" for who you are. It doesn't matter if your work or position has received the "Essential" stamp. If you can't think of anything in particular to do, I suggest studying up on the power of practicing mindfulness and gratitude. There are a lot of tools available. Three of my favorite apps are Calm, 10% Happier, and Waking Up. Great interviews, stories, exercises in all of them.

Or just listen. On April 12, Sam Harris (who offers the Waking Up app) interviewed Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale, on "The Science of Happiness" on his "Making Sense" podcast. Some of the interview is behind a subscriber paywall (but waives fees for anyone under financial stress). I highly recommend that interview as well as the sources quoted in it. Professor Santos has her own podcast, "The Happiness Lab," and was also interviewed by "Choiceology" (from Charles Schwab) in a podcast called "Coronavirus BONUS: Laurie's Personal Tips." I'm about to listen to that one now!

Staying positive isn't always easy, just as "Life isn't always equal" (one of my dad's oft-repeated phrases. I truly feel for those who have been directly affected by the virus and by the economic shock, as well as for those feeling any and all the frustrations related to what's going on right now. My grandfather and father (both surgeons) used to say, "The mortality rate of the human race is 100%." Hardpressed to find a truer fact than that. But while we're living, there's work to be done. After all, we are essentially human beings....and all "Essential."

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