I have been telling people that I’ve gotten through the five stages of grief over the last week. More specifically known as the Kübler-Ross model, it outlines a series of emotions people can feel when experiencing loss. The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first described the model (Denial—Anger—Bargaining—Depression—Acceptance) based on her experience working with terminally ill patients. It feels like this can be applicable to how people are dealing with the impact of the coronavirus on their lives. While I’m fortunate enough to be in a pretty healthy situation, I know that this crisis has affected our society both physically and psychologically.
David Kessler is an author and world renowned expert on grief who co-wrote two books with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, he described adding a sixth stage to grief that comes after acceptance: meaning. And one of the most uplifting stories I have heard about the coronavirus leading to meaning came from a recent podcast episode.
Acquired is one of my favourite podcasts. It’s a show hosted by two guys who work in venture capital (Ben and David) and in each episode they examine a famous company acquisition or IPO (anything from Huawei to Virgin America to Snapchat), go through the company’s historical context, and assess the success or failure of the acquisition/IPO. Sounds like a pretty basic formula, but these guys do a really great job and it’s better than 95% of tech podcasts out there.
However, last week they decided to change the podcast from Acquired to Adapting. The show is now about companies who are successfully making bold moves and adapting to the new business realities of the Coronavirus. And in the first episode of Adapting, they examined a local Seattle restaurant called Canlis. Under the leadership of Mark Canlis, the restaurant turned itself from a famous fine-dining establishment into three no-contact concept restaurants that were able to keep all their staff employed and still provide food to the city of Seattle. The entire episode is worth listening to, but the episode ended with Mark Canlis saying a few inspiring words. I’ve never heard someone better describe the existential zeitgeist of today:
I hope that what comes out of this is a visual reminder of how alike we all are. If there's anything that I think we've learned so far, it's that our understanding of the human spirit is limited at best. It's only when you come to me and say, "Mark, I think you got this, man," I reflect that back to you and say, "Look, Ben. You got this." That's what happens. Something really powerful happens there and the whole mission of this company, which is a really weird mission, is to inspire people to turn toward one another.
When we saw the disease spreading and I am not talking about COVID-19, I am talking about the amount of fear, the amount of discouragement. We saw that spreading, and often for really good reasons. These are not insignificant days. This is an overused but good word, but it’s unprecedented for the entire world to go through something together where no one gets to say, "Yeah, it doesn't apply to me." When something like that happens, I think we have a responsibility to remind ourselves of the truth.
The truth is, we don't know what we're capable of. We the Canlis team, we the city of Seattle, we the United States of America, we the citizens of this rock that we're floating on. I hope that we understand that better on the other side of this thing. That's what we're learning. That's what we're learning inside this building.
We might not be able to do this tomorrow. Maybe this will go for months. I don't know, but every day, I tell the team, you’re going to want to go home, crawl under your covers, and read your phone. It is important to do so. But when you wake up the next morning, you go outside. You physically go outside of your house, your apartment. You look up at the sky and ask yourself the question, “Is it still up there or did it fall?” If it's still up there, you can be thankful for that, and you start with what you're thankful for.
You say, "All right, the sky did not fall contrary to the way I feel having read all the headlines. It's still out there. I hear a bird tweeting, I see a neighbor walking down the street." You know what? Let's start with what we have, let's go from there, and let's ask ourselves the question, if this is what I have, what can I do with it?
Maybe what we get out of this whole thing is that as a discipline, as a practice, as a reminder. Maybe that's a reminder that we need right now. I think it's a reminder that I needed. I think it's a reminder that my team needed and I wish you could feel the difference inside this place, before and after we made this decision, before it was feeling of helplessness, and after it was a feeling of hope, before it was a feeling that the overwhelming weight of this thing was too much, and after, it was the understanding that I had a role to play. That even just enduring, even just enduring a little bit, might be my role.
I think when we tell those stories, then we start to remind ourselves of the truth of who we are as people. That's pretty cool. That's why we wrote on that website, “We got this, Seattle.” It was the most poignant way I could say to a city that needed to hear it, we are capable of making it through.
I do want to tell your listeners something. I think they have the ability, even though it doesn't feel this way, to make a difference. What we've been talking about here is my restaurant, and you know what you don't have? You don't have my restaurant and you probably don't have a restaurant to dismiss this as someone else's story in a city that you don't live in. I think it would be great or it would make me sad to hear this and to know that if we're crazy enough to give this a whirl, maybe some of your crazy is okay too, and I hope it gives them permission to think optimistically. I hope it gives them permission to smile at a neighbor.
Keep it six feet away, I don't care. You can still smile at them. That's not insignificant. It's important and it's going to take all of us remembering that about ourselves, remembering that that is who we are as a people. This is a story about our country and largely, this is a story about well beyond our borders and how alike we all really are.
Mark Canlis described something uplifting spirit that perhaps this crisis can awaken in all of us. He went through Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and made it to Acceptance and Meaning. And I’m starting to read more and more stories of people around the world going through something similar.
Not everybody needs to do something massive that will save millions of lives, but everyone should feel confident and empowered to do the right thing. That might mean just having more video calls with family members and old friends. That might mean appreciating what you have just a little bit more, being kinder to your neighbours, showing a little bit more empathy to your coworkers. Or it might mean chasing something you previously considered too big, audacious, and crazy.
We can all get through the grief of this moment and find our own personal sense of meaning. History will judge us based on what we do or fail to do in this time period. But more important than anything, you will judge yourself based on how you respond to the existential crisis and glorious opportunity we have before us.