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What Hemingway and Eisenhower Teach us About the Corona Crisis

The future is uncertain, but that does not mean we can't look ahead and try to make sense of what little we see in the distance. People much greater than ourselves have done so in the past, with tremendous success.

Over the past few years, making informed guesses about how the business world would evolve has become somewhat of a hobby for me. I’ve been worryingly wrong very (very) often, and right on point more often than not. This doesn’t matter much, of course : the fun is in imagining what could be and what this would mean, not in being right.

I’ve nevertheless learnt a couple of lessons by making those educated guesses, then regularly looking back on them a year or so later. I mention this regular exercise because many “thought leaders” (urgh) on Forbes or BusinessInsider do not hold themselves accountable for their words/work, and often do not take the time to review their analyses in hindsight. If there there is no accountability, what’s stopping anyone from claiming any preposterous future as their own?

Of course, this is already the case : anyone with a blog is going left and right making uninformed guesses. Except that this time, it’s different. Accountability and hindsight is particularly important in a time of crises. As we continue to live through one of the most systematic global shake-up since WWII (thanks Corona), we need to listen to people who are clear-minded about the future, and who have learnt from mistakes of the past.

As such, I highlight below three useful rules to keep some healthy skepticism when reading anyone’s “predictions”, from people who knew how bad a crisis could get before it got better.

1. Changes happen gradually, then suddenly

There’s a passage in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises in which a character named Mike is asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he answers. “Gradually, then suddenly.” Granted, bankruptcy has little to do with crisis analysis (or does it), yet a parallel serves our purpose beautifully, and is especially relevant in times of crisis. Worldometer's coronavirus graph exemplifies this concept perfectly : there were few cases in the world for 3 months... then there were millions.

What this concept means for the world at large is simple : gradual shifts that were happening over time will now accelerate to become more immediate behavior changes. In other terms, we will not come out of this crisis entirely different from when it started. All will be the same, except… more so.

Workers will not magically all work from home (this is not the way companies are equipped to operate), but this practice will be seen more emphatically. Telemedecine will not be the only way people see a doctor, but a conversation on the matter will have begun. Robots will not suddenly fill all stores, but the automation of many roles will accelerate. Handshaking will not suddenly stop, but restaurants might become less crowded…

This coronavirus crisis will only make existing trends gain momentum to do in 6 months what could have taken 5 years to achieve had we continued the course. Anyone claiming otherwise is dealing in hyperboles, and is no friend of mine.

2. Plans are useless, planning is key

Eisenhower was many things :

  • President of the United States (two terms) from 1953 to 1961

  • Five-star general in the Army and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during WWII

  • Responsible for planning and supervising the invasion of North Africa in Operation Torch in 1942–43

  • Responsible for the successful invasion of Normandy in 1944–45

When such a man speaks, you listen.

The coronavirus is a once-in-a-lifetime event (except for this absolute legend), and could not have been planned for (give or take a few weeks which will still cost the lives of far too many people who could have been saved) : the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.

Yet, this should not stop us from making informed plans about the future, as long as we’re prepared to throw them out the window quickly and efficiently. The details of a plan are often incorrect, but the planning process demands the thorough exploration of options and contingencies. The knowledge gained during this probing is crucial to the selection of appropriate actions as future events unfold. Nevertheless, planning allows us to set goals and performances measurements, which can then be managed and updated with time. It also helps picture potential futures, and create playbooks for a wider range of options.

No “prediction” made today will be accurate. But it doesn’t matter, and that’s just fine. What matters is the process (and the friends we make along the way). Anyone claiming otherwise has a hidden agenda, and is no friend of mine.

Hemingway versus Eisenhower Cuba

3. We tend to overestimate trends in the short run and underestimate them in the long run

The actual phrase, known as Amara’s law, is slightly different : “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” The lesser known of the 3 great minds highlighted in this article, Roy Amara was an American researcher, scientist, and futurist. Oh, and he was also president of the Institute for the Future, and debuted what is now known as the Gartner’s hype cycle.

The man knew predictions.

His law highlights, in our case, the fact that it is unlikely that 6 weeks of confinement will have the massive effects expected by many so-called “thought leaders”. What will however usher the most changes are the months of aftershock that will follow March/April 2020. Said aftershocks are likely to include, for example, the return of the virus in November, and with it the realisation that what is happening today might happen more regularly over the next few years, though to a lesser extant. Another aftershock will, of course, be the recession that comes with this virus, and from which many household will take years to recover, hence impacting their spending.

6 weeks is not enough to make a habit stick. A year of eating potatoes and pasta, however, is.

Anyone looking at the changes today and claiming that they will stick is either a fool, lying to you, or both. And those people are no friends of mine.

At the end of the day, no one knows what the future holds. This shouldn’t stop any of us from trying to figure it out; it’s human nature. But in these hard times, let’s be responsible about it (looking at you, Forbes).


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