I'm okay. But you're definitely not okay.
That's not me speaking. That's society. In particular, that's today's society.
You see, you're in the middle of a particular social cycle, one that comes around approximately every 40 years, and toward the middle of our current cycle people are beginning to point fingers at each other for not toeing the line. Or for not fitting in. Or for being a little different.
That's where we are now. It's getting testy out there.
I'm the co-author, with Roy H. Williams of Pendulum, a bestselling book that explored the shifts in society in over 3,000 years. You see, society shifts from an individually minded era, which we call a ME Cycle, to one that focuses more on community, which we label a WE Cycle. The title of our book refers to the way that society swings every 40 years or so, as if it's on an invisible pendulum.
We move back and forth from that ME Cycle – when the emphasis is on individualism, hero-worship, larger-than-life egos, free expression and a kind of egocentrism – to a WE Cycle – when people are more inclined to work together for the common good, to prefer the truth to empty slogans, to crave for things that are real, raw and relevant, to be spoken to as adults. (We're currently in a WE Cycle, by the way, in case you hadn't noticed.)
We arrived at our findings by sifting through historical events, literature, visual arts, politics, religion, and by poring over works as disparate as the Bible, the Commentaries of Caesar, Le Mort d'Arthur, England's Magna Carta, America's Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, among many other examples. We listened to music from Bach to the Beatles to Beyoncé and beyond. We tried to figure out why certain aspects of society seemed to resurface time and time again.
And you know what we discovered? That society is predictable in the way it changes every few decades. That what becomes important fades as new concerns arise. We used to look up to a certain type of person as a hero. Then we realized heroes were often self-centered and so we began to prefer people working together. And then – and this is the surprising part – we sour on that concept as we look ahead to the next cycle (without being fully aware of it).
We found out too that in the middle of a WE Cycle – in fact, just about where we are today – things begin to go south. Idealism turns to cynicism. Cooperation turns to suspicion.
Look around you and see: we've become a society that looks over its shoulder. We're anti-immigrant, we're increasingly intolerant of free speech, our spoiled children are demanding so-called safe spaces so they don't have to hear differing opinions, we blame everything on invisible terrorists, and we look at our neighbors – people we used to welcome with open arms – as if they might be dangerous.
And just a few years ago, everything seemed so rosy.
You see how things change? This sort of thing doesn't last forever, but it does go on for a few years. So you need to be prepared for a shift in how people view the world.
What does this mean for business?
Well, it means you can't take anything for granted. Your customers don't trust you. They think you're going to rip them off. They think you're in it for your needs, not to serve theirs. In a previous ME Cycle, it used to be about branding. But today, in our WE Cycle, it's about relationships.
And as our current cycle turns more suspicious, it's still about building relationships. You've got to carefully engage your clients and customers by paying more and more attention to their needs and concerns, not just what you want to sell them.
And you know what else? In today's age of information overload, people are also more distracted than ever, and their attention spans are increasingly shorter. Most of your audience is highly skilled at paying attention to distractions, flitting from one thing to the next approximately eight seconds at a time. So you don't have much of a chance to get them to look at you.
How do you capture the attention of a person with an attention span shorter than a goldfish? You spark curiosity, strategically. You surprise them. At the same time, you assure them you're there, warts and all, to serve them. You may be flawed, but you're real and relevant – and you can help them.
It isn't always easy – true engagement never is – but the reward is a more committed customer, someone who looks for a lifeline of honesty in an ocean of suspicion.
Welcome to the pendulum: we're swinging into an interesting time.