TAKING LIFE FOR GRANTED
9 March 2021, 11:00:00
A discussion linking our assumptions of the past with our desires for the future.
As children, having to live our lives at our parents’ pace time seems to drag on and on. School days last an eternity, and our lives seem certain to last forever. When we’re middle-aged with careers, children and ageing parents there doesn’t seem to be enough time for anything, and we’re confronted with the realisation that life does not, in fact, last forever.
”Crikey, am I halfway through already?”
And, I am told by my retired friends that time speeds up even more the older you get. However scary this maybe this isn’t the type of taking for granted I’m talking about.
The world has been changing with increasing rapidity for some time and Covid-19 has only increased this. When the pandemic hit us in spring 2020 I predicted that the world would hunker down, batten down the hatches and ride out the storm; effectively slowing the rate of change as people waited to see what would happen. I was completely wrong. If anything, the world has gone the other way. It’s like the entire world has undergone a massive, big shakeup and re-distributed people, jobs, events and even entire industries. People have either been forced to rethink their lives, or thought to themselves “To hell with it!” and made a change anyway.
And no one, regardless of how smart you think they are or how confident they sound has a clue as to how this is going to work out. This leads me on to the kind of taking for granted I do want to talk about.
I believe that for most people, the world is a much more fantastic place to live today than it was in the past. Any history book will give you endless facts, figures and stories about how awful, violent, unfair, unjust, disease-ridden, scary and desperate the historic world was. Wars, famine, genocide, slavery, little or no law enforcement, no human rights, no health care; the list is endless. Take London of the 1850s as just one example. The average life expectancy was 27! There was no sanitation, clean water, law and order, education, disinfectant, medical care or regulations of any kind. There was animal and human waste in the streets, all slowly making its way into the Thames, which provided the city with its main source of water. The entire place stank, and so did you. No soap, no showers, no washing machines, no deodorant, shampoo or over the counter fungicidal cream. No toothpaste! How we ever managed to stomach procreation goes to show what a powerful drink gin is.
How wonderful it is to live in today’s society with all we take for granted. Clean, safe homes and washed clothes. Easy access to the best health care ever. For the most part a fair and just legal system and reams and reams of regulations covering all aspects of our lives ensuring we’re as safe as possible. So good are we in fact at keeping ourselves alive that the main cause of death for men under 50 is suicide. This is of course dreadful, but another way of looking at it is we live in such a medically advanced world that we have effectively reduced the unnecessary death of young men to such an extent that the rare event of taking one’s own life has hit the number one spot!
One of the key principles to this amazing progress is challenging what we take for granted. Which we’re going to have to do more than ever in this current epoch. This isn’t as easy as one might imagine. Part of the problem of identifying the things we take for granted is that we don’t know what they are because we take them for granted in the first place. They quickly become basic assumptions, that neither need question or elaboration because they are simply the way things are. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Guernsey, where I live, has a fortification called Castle Cornet overlooking our lovely town of St Peter Port. From this castle, we have a quaint tradition of firing a cannon every day at noon. We imaginatively call it the Noon Day Gun. The damage done to our historic harbour town is deemed a price worth paying for knowing the time (I’m joking! The gun is fired using a saluting charge…obvs!).
Before the advent of watches, clocks and smartphones the only way to tell the time was by the position of the Sun in the sky. When the Sun rose in the east it was morning, as it set in the west it was evening and when it was at its highest point in the sky, right over our heads, it was midday, or 12 o’clock.
So, my question to you is what time of day is it when the sun is directly over St Peter Port..? If you answered 12 noon you’re dead wrong and have fallen foul of a basic assumption we have about time. A moment’s thought will remind us that Guernsey sits within the Greenwich Mean Time time-zone and we set our clocks by the position of the Sun in relation to Greenwich. Guernsey is about 250 miles west of Greenwich. It’s noon for Greenwich (and Guernsey) when the Sun is directly over Greenwich. So, when the sun is at its highest point over Guernsey, it’s about 14 minutes after midday. This whole point is entirely moot of course, as twice a year we either knock our clocks forward or backwards an hour to accommodate Daylight Saving Time, which of course is completely arbitrary too.
Time itself is, after all, an entirely man-made creation and only has a weak link with the rotation of the planet and day and night. In a sense, it doesn’t exist, in the same sense as a tree, the sea or you and I exist. It is a concept that is entirely fictional and created to ease our way of life and allow society to run more smoothly. And we all 100% believe in it 100% of the time. Even to suggest that time isn’t real is probably shaking you as much as suggesting that 12 o’clock isn’t always when the Sun is directly overhead.
Let’s try another one. Have you ever seen any money?
You instinctively said yes right?
Wrong again, I’m afraid. No one has ever seen “money”.
We’ve all seen coins and banknotes which represent money. We’ve all seen numbers on a computer screen which represent money too…. but none of us has ever actually seen money. Why? Because it doesn’t exist. Let’s take a moment to explore this as I know it’s very difficult to jolt away from something that you have believed in your entire life.
Paper money (let’s focus on this for now) has no intrinsic value. It is, after all, only a piece of paper. A £10 note is not actually worth ten pounds. What it does is allows you to convert it for something that is worth ten pounds. If you look at a ten-pound banknote you will see on it words to the effect of “I promise to pay the bearer (that’s you, the note owner) on demand (when you want it) the sum of £10.” This never made any sense to me when I was a young boy. Why on earth would I be interested in buying another £10 note with my ten pounds? But, of course, I didn’t understand money.
Everything has value and as such everything could be used as money. It just so happens that paper money is very convenient. When you go to the shop with your banknote the shop-keeper is very happy to convert the value of your paper, which represents an amount of money, for stuff in their shop that represents a corresponding value. Money is actually a converter of wealth. And it works because we all believe in it. The shop-keeper is happy to accept your money, because they know their bank manager is happy to accept it, and the bank manager is happy to accept it because they know their customers will accept it too. We all believe in money because we all believe in money. It is all about confidence and trust.
Money is also debt, just to make matters even more confusing! Imagine that you came to my house to paint my shed. You did a great job and you tell me it costs £100. A price I am happy to pay, but I don’t have any money on me. I suggest that for the time being I provide you with an IOU for the hundred pounds. Because we know and trust each other you accept, knowing that I will pay you back in the future.
Now, what if I was admired and trusted throughout our community? The IOU you have received from me might be considered as secure as actual money. So, when you go out for dinner with your wife the following evening and you don’t have any money (due to the fact I didn’t pay you) you’re left having to write an IOU to the restaurant owner. But as you pull out your wallet looking for a piece of paper, the owner notices my IOU to you and because I am so well-known and trusted he’d prefer to have an IOU from me than from you. And so the debt travels around the community and everyone is buying stuff using my original debt that I never have to pay back! You can see why governments like it so much.
It is examples like these that I am talking about when I say we must be careful what we take for granted, what we assume and what we believe. And there are many, many more examples. For centuries we thought the world was flat, we’d burn people at the stake for suggesting the Earth travelled around the Sun and accept that slavery was fine. Today we laugh at flat-Earthers and jail people for keeping slaves.
As we move into a post-covid world we have to be more aware than ever of our biases, assumptions and misconceptions. We must learn to question everything. Never allow ourselves to say, “That’s how we’ve always done it” or “Well, it was good enough in the olden days.”
If we are to provide sustainable societies which promote long-term well-being for the greatest number and provide safe, nurturing, resilient and loving communities it’s time to take nothing for granted anymore, however difficult that is.
This blog was written by John Hibbs. John is one of the Founders of CoSteer and has two decades of experience in leadership positions.