This morning I woke up groggy from a 12-hour sleep to a flurry of messages on my phone – half a dozen people in the cohort just tested positive for Covid. I got my second Covid booster on Thursday, and it knocked me out. Biking to my Friday MIT AgeLab class made me feel… aged! I hope the booster boosted my immune system. Turned out the friend I sat next to was among those discovering they had Covid. A strange feeling after all these years of hiding and avoiding this bug to feel it inexorably heading my way. It’ll be a miracle if I – and the rest of our group - avoid this round. I’ll keep you posted!
Then you sit there and start mapping out all the knock-on effects. Should Tim go to Toronto on Monday? If I get sick, he wants to be with me. If he gets sick, I want to be with him. If we’re contagious we want to stay away from mom – and planes and people. Like all the systems theories we’ve been studying over the past 3 months, everything is interconnected. We’ve cancelled all our weekend plans, which leaves me a bit more time to spend… with you!
I’ve been incredibly inspired this week by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who is the founder of Harvard’s ALI programme, and taught us several classes and cases. She has long been a beacon to many women of my generation with her seminal book Men and Women of the Corporation that she wrote back in 1977. It influenced a generation of change agents, including me, with her very early recognition that the challenge of gender balancing the workplace wasn’t about women – it was more about the systems in which they operated.
Now, at almost 80, Moss Kanter seems stronger than ever. Her latest book – and the focus of our classes – is Think Outside of the Building. “Inside-the-building thinking,” she writes, “is the hallmark of establishments, whose structures inhibit innovation.” The world’s problems, she has learned, are too big for any one person or organisation to tackle, so her research points to complex, multi-stakeholder partnerships that come together to address the seemingly insoluble. “Leaders must think far outside buildings to redefine neighborhoods, ecosystems, value chains, and communities.” Her invitation is always to think bigger and broader – and always well beyond what you can do alone.
I was equally impressed watching her teach. She literally buzzes with passion and excitement in the classroom. She runs up and down the stairs to draw in a question or press a point (and must get well over 10,000 steps in any class). She’s researched every person in the class and knows their background, expertise and cultural contexts. She brings them in on the relevant point in any given discussion, like an orchestra conductor inviting in each instrument’s voice with a point of her baton. It is a very particular art form, and she wields it as a master who loves her craft. She’s also rather tiny and formidable, and you really don’t want to get your answers wrong.
She also challenges my stereotypes about age, and makes me, at age 60, think again about what 80 can look like these days. The best academics, of course, like orchestra conductors, are probably our best current role models for ageing. They combine the key components of the recipe:
PURPOSE & PASSION: They are supremely passionate about their ‘music’ and have usually spent decades honing the mastery of their subject. They have little competition with as much experience and ability to connect a broad expanse of dots. Tim is taking a course on Human Trafficking from the 81-year-old Orlando Patterson. My friend Gilly’s dad, at 79, adores being invited back to Columbia to teach his super popular marketing class.
NON-STOP LEARNING: They keep learning and teaching and are in continuous feedback loops between the world and their thoughts. This keeps them relevant, ever-changing and growing. The thirst for knowledge is a totally intrinsic motivator. You don’t seek approval or applause – just more information and understanding. It’s endless and endlessly gratifying.
GENERATIONAL ALLIANCES: The best part about these roles is their natural, in-built ‘generativity’ – nurturing future generations and having an impact that will survive you. That’s the term Erik Erikson coined to describe one option for the penultimate phase of life. Its opposite is stagnation. Working and living inter-generationally is key to a happy old age, and the exception for too many.
Both my parents were academics (also true of the parents of two of my best friends). My mother worked well into her 70s. Add in the ingenious idea of sabbaticals, which should be added to the principles of a regenerative life. One year off every seven years. It will become increasingly necessary.
I’m reading a novel called The Ministry of the Future. It’s a not-so-sci-fi story of climate change in the near-future. There is a sub-theme that runs through it about today’s responsibility to future generations and how some cultures talk of their connections to the seven generations that come after them. Did you know that Wales in the UK passed the Well-Being of Future Generations Act in 2015? It obliges legislation to be designed integrating measures of its impact on future generations. The novel goes into some detail about the ‘discount code’ that economists currently use to decide the worth of today’s investments – and how this totally ‘made up’ number grossly under-values the lives of our descendants. Which leads me quite naturally to…
… a panel I participated in Tuesday, modestly titled ‘Reimagining our Economic System for a Post-Covid World’ hosted by Germany’s Minister of State for Europe and Climate, Dr. Anna Lührmann. It was part of the new government’s push to adopt a “feminist foreign policy.” A couple of eminent economists outlined what this might mean. (I was invited because of a Forbes article I wrote last year showcasing five brilliant female economists rethinking … everything). The idea behind ‘feminist foreign policy’ isn’t focused on women. It’s on using female brains to help redesign the whole system to care for everyone. Care for future generations would surely qualify.
Certainly, the amazing women I’m thrilled to be getting to know in my very gender balanced ALI cohort, will have an impact on the world (more about them soon). This quiet weekend, locked up isolating my bug from others’ bodies, I sit in gratitude at the amazing wave of women rising. Women like Moss Kanter who opened the first doors and are still showing the way. Like Ketanji Brown Jackson who are still breaking through them - despite the appalling
behaviour all around. Like all the courageous innovators and disruptors and carers out there who are trying to redesign systems to care for all – and for future generations. May they rise in time.