A commemorative beer bottle from the celebration marking the day the country Sierra Leone was declared ebola free. Founder Chris Anderson saved the bottle from the celebration parade and parties which our workshop attendees documented. The label says “Bye Bye Ebola” in red and the back label reads, “Cheers to the resilient people of Sierra Leone. Let’s celebrate our freedom and a brighter future.”
Whew, ain’t this something else? This situation is equal parts expected and breathtaking, all at once. Certainly something we’ll be telling to the next generation.
Despite the disease known as COVID-19’s persistent presence in our lives, we have been waiting to publicly respond to unfolding events for a few weeks now. Personally, I felt like our Momenta community needed another “be safe, wash your hands, watch our videos for helpful tips” newsletter just about as much as they needed a reason to get day-drunk and have a mid-afternoon romp with the dog.
Frankly, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out hunkering down, washing your hands, not touching your face, and monitoring your health is the priority at the moment. You don’t need us to tell you that.
Going along with this, anyone who’s probably reading this knows how strongly we care about our community and stakeholder’s well-being. It’s no surprise to anyone we think of the Momenta community as “family”. The health and security of everyone is constantly on our minds; at home or abroad.
No, what we decided to do was wait, watch, and see if there was something meaningful we could add to the dialog. The signal-to-noise right now is bad enough. Being that restraint is the Momenta approach to most things regarding its mission and business practice, it was a comfortable place in which to fall back.
Now that we have collectively arrived to where its time to start waking up from the initial shock, I think we have some helpful tidbits of value we can distill from our experiences over the last 12 years.
Hopefully these pointed suggestions can help those who are uneasy about the future or lost as to how to plan for the inevitable march back to normalcy.
1. The path forward isn’t going to be easy, nor will it be clear, but we will get through this. We will even be better for the experience.
This isn’t our first rodeo when it comes to the complicating aspects of economic turmoil or of the emergence of infectious disease.
For us, the Momenta journey started with the rewarding, but highly questionable decision to quit our jobs and start a business in the economic chaos of 2008. In addition to a near-constantly changing economic landscape, it seemed like every couple years we’re dealing with things like Ebola, Influenza, Norvo, or some local wee beastie in one of our workshop locations (not to mention yearly hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and God only knows what else).
In all of these various instances, as a background to our mission of documentary outreach, one fact is universally present. Following the shock which comes from the event and the uncertainty of the aftermath, life goes on. This isn’t panacea, so much as it is the reality of human resilience.
Moreover, humans usually group together in communities to surmount challenge. These communities offer us collective strength, wisdom and understanding. When the unfortunate events of the present recede into memory, these communities largely remain intact. As individuals, we harden and grow wiser; as communities we multiply this value into a future we create for ourselves.
You can bet this will occur with the present situation. We’ll reconnect with old friends, be inspired by shared connections, and emerge from this optimistic for new beginnings. A little afraid maybe, but less so if we are surrounded and inspired by our communities.
2. “Every day is a new surprise.”
Thank you Johns Hopkins for stating the obvious but necessary sentiment. There isn’t some predictive model we can rely on to tell us who lives, dies, loses their business, or comes out entirely unscathed. If there was, this sort of experience would be nearly devoid of experiential value and all the news channels wouldn’t be arguing about whose version of consensus reality was valid.
No, we need to embrace the uncertainty. That is what will offer an opportunity for comparative analysis, providing us the most insight later. We can work very hard at being more awake and adaptable to the reality that surrounds us. At times, we may need to embrace the consensus and take comfort. Other times, we might need to struggle against it by charting our own path to new perspectives. This will fluidly change throughout the aftermath of the event and into the recovery. Much of what we “know” will either be tested or augmented by the experience.
My grandfather had an oft-repeated motto which is particularly valuable in this moment. On good days and in the face of challenge, he would always repeat, “You have to live a little every day”.
For a guy who survived the Depression, World Wars, diseases aplenty, and raising a family of seven children in a tiny logging town, this axiom reminded him to take everything a little bit at a time and remember each day starts fresh. This motto gave him the strength to persist and experience a long life, beloved by many.
3. Where do you stand right now and what’s necessary to keep from falling down?
Boy, I’ll tell you what. The full measure of starting a business on the eve of a giant global recession was an experience that will teach you a few things about optimism and pragmatism. It taught Momenta to be agile, streamlined, and controlled in its business overhead like a religion.
Most poignantly, it taught us there was nothing wrong with “small” business, as long as you were moving things forward for the right set of reasons. Noted economist E. F. Schumacher, in his book entitled “Small is Beautiful”, outlined this very concept by referring to “enoughness” as a rational measure of growth.
With this approach, we were able to assign real value to our own goals of nurturing a community who felt passionate about documentary journalism, volunteerism, and humanist outreach. The scale of this goal came with an inherent set of limitations and challenges.
In short, we had to embrace the fact it would take years to create sustainability, we had to internalize the needs of others as if they were our own, and all of this would be pursued by forcing introspection and innovation on a craft with deeply embedded norms.
From this, a framework could be built, listening to the expectations of our stakeholders, and constantly innovating past challenges over the next twelve years. This slow path to modest growth isn’t for everyone, but we found value in trust, strong relationships, and being the agents of lasting change where we could help it along.
Furthermore, this same philosophy offered a path to measure “capital” as anything which can not be easily renewed, subject to depletion over time or exposure to risk. This offered us an additional framework of value assignment, exceeding the acquisition of resources whose simple value was producing economic utility.
As human relationships and their collective aspirations fit into this expanded definition of capital, this approach helped us sense possible growth passed that of notoriety or monetary abundance.
This all might sound like meaningless self-serving palaver. However, our experience leads us to believe that charting a path forward from here, most everyone will need to get into a habit of assessing what resources (and relationships) they have available, taking particular care to protect that which is not easily replaced. Realistically, we’re all in this together, working toward far more than toilet paper or fleeting opportunity.
Consequently, take stock of what you have, envisioning where you want to go. Start looking past the first bump in the road, focusing on what’s in the distance. Most importantly, remember that fast is slow, slow is fast. It takes a lot longer to pick yourself up off the ground than simply avoiding running into the wall in the first place.
4. Who are you, really?
Two variables are unbelievably relevant at the moment, in the backdrop of a situation most people aren’t accustomed to.
The first is a disturbing reminder of inevitable mortality or future uncertainty, and how we as individuals process it. The second relevant measure is one’s sense of pervasive optimism, of which my wife and business partner Jamie exemplifies.
Most of us, myself included, rarely take a minute to recognize how amazingly lucky we are in this modern age of abundance and security. For the least optimistic of all of us, these moments of clarity tend to be profound.
In particular, I recall being in Freetown, Sierra Leone on the eve the country declared itself “Ebola Free” in November 2015. This societal inflection point took place after a lengthy period where the very fabric of society and community had been almost completely destroyed by civil unrest, natural disaster, and finally a disease epidemic. Entropy, harm, and death were measured and experienced in far greater scope than those who simply contracted Ebola.
At the height of the outbreak, one’s sense of mortality and profound loss were literally measured moment-to-moment, day-to-day. Uncertainty and fear accompanied nearly every daily decision. People died or contracted Ebola simply by going to a hospital to deliver a baby or appendicitis. Social and economic instability claimed countless others. This context of persistent uncertainty is something I’ll never forget. Equally, I will never stop being amazed by the outpouring of overwhelming joy and optimism on the day the country declared it was exiting its national nightmare.
This moment was fleeting, as two months later a new case was discovered in the country. One can only imagine the effect that discovery had on each and every individual who had previously celebrated their resilience in the face of tragedy.
As lucky as we are, others live and aspire to prosper under a far heavier weight of concern than most can imagine. If we continue to remind ourselves optimism is not a measure of circumstance but consciously-chosen state of mind, we can use this knowledge to bridge life’s challenges.
It comes down to how we choose to navigate the dark periods of life and says a lot about who we are. For some, it’s expressed as, “This too will end”. For others, it is knowing there is always optimism to be employed as an antidote to the unsettling reality of things we have no control over.
Collectively, we are stronger than an invisible pathogen. If we express optimism within this collective experience, it will give strength to those around us, even if their path is more difficult than our own.
…which brings me to the final thought.
5. Where will you be when this is all over?
Annually and usually monthly since 2008, my co-founder Jamie Rose and I sit back and take stock of where we are as leaders and as a company. It might be seen as a little self-serving but it helps center us mindfully for the next set of challenges. Everyone needs a break to take a breather and assess.
Usually, the conversation settles on our examination of the original goals and mission for Momenta that we laid out at its inception. Jamie’s friend once said we have lived “seventeen lifetimes” after all the many-varied experiences we shared. For those who have accompanied Momenta on this journey, there’s truth to that phrase in the sense of fullness of our shared experience. Our travels have found us in many irreplaceable and historical moments over the years.
There’s more to it, though. We have also found ourselves blessed with a family of peers, numbering in the many thousands, who share our love for documentary journalism and helping their fellow man by virtue of their creativity and volunteerism. Through our work, Momenta has donated more than a million visual assets, hundreds of thousands of man hours, and tens of thousands of dollars to helping global outreach organizations do incredible work around the world. Nearly 1,000 organizations continue to include the work from our programs in their outreach or keep us abreast of their successes over time.
Every additional day we move through life is a bonus round we get to play without regret of loss, knowing Momenta brought so many people together to find a concerned and mindful path into the future.
Collectively, we made a difference, brought about happiness to others, and the community we call “family” will persist beyond our time at the helm of Momenta. In 2008, those goals were what we set out to accomplish. In 2020, we know it will still remain as the path and constantly receding destination off in the distance.
For those currently uncertain or uneasy about what the future holds, we recommend taking a minute to think about where you want to be when all this crazy shit is past. What do you want to do with that item on your bucket list you’ve been meaning to try? What is important you’ve been neglecting? What have you made yourself believe was impossible? Where do you want to go, and whom do you want at you side when travel there? How are you using your skills to create your story?
Authentic experience is the cure for existential anxiety; its only possible if you embrace optimism in the face of uncertainty. Just remember, you get to choose how you end your own story.
If there’s one clear takeaway in all these words, it should be: don’t wait to face the decision of what comes next. The answer will bring you joy in its discovery.
We know where we will be when this is over: serving our clients and the global network nonprofits who form the community that is the Momenta family. If you decide to come along on a journey with us, be certain we will equally value the experience as a shared companion in Momenta’s collective journey.