The Paradoxes of the 2020 Pandemic

Grey Swan Guild
12 min readSep 24, 2020

“The paradox of our time is that we spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more comforts, but less time. We have more information, but less knowledge, more questions, but fewer answers.” — Bob Moorehead

M.C. Escher “Day and Night” 1953

Look up the word “paradox” and you will see “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.” Paradoxes are maddening. They defy and resist sense. Commentary and headlines around paradoxes are usually preceded by or followed by — “every insanely mystifying….”, “weird, crazy, bizarre…”, “…that will make your head explode”, or “…that will boggle the mind.”

Paradoxes challenge our collective sense of reality, our understanding of the natural order of things, and a pandemic appears to be a fertile breeding ground for them. This coronavirus version is a doozy — full of riddles, pockmarked by enigmas, enslaved by paradoxes. Compared to previous global crises and macroeconomic breakdowns, the COVID world defies recognizable patterns or following even semi-straight lines.

The exciting part is in figuring paradoxes out, at least for the critical thinking and obstinately curious among us. Paradox unravelling is akin to my ascetic holiday tradition of conquering jigsaw puzzles. Somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s, I end up finishing one of those insanely difficult 2,000 piece burdens. The enigmatologist in me ends up the Yuletide season resilient but broken. During the quest, I am at various points confounded, dissonant and overwhelmed by the enormitude of the challenge. Small challenge won, corners pieces put together, main image settled … you can begin to win back your mood and see the proverbial “picture at the end of the tunnel” forming. In finishing, you can look back and feel rewarded by the process (i.e. stubborn stick-to-itness, intense sprints of energy) and the final outcome (i.e. a well-formed, aesthetically pleasing picture).

The Paradox Process

So it is with paradoxes. If you apply enough sweat equity and hold a paradox long enough in your cranium, and mull the apparent and real contradictions, and what they mean, you may come to a hard-won burst of insight, a revelation (or foresight, a revelation about the future). These revelatory breakthroughs can only be found through your ability to hold these two seemingly contradictory but true opposing forces aloft.

The paradoxical mindset often produces far better improvised solutions to what came before. The exercise reconciles the opposing forces and removes perceived blind spots to arrive at a higher plane of truth about the real needs of a market, a culture or a society.

At no other time have we needed talented people who can keep these opposing critical thoughts in the air and make sense of the world. Rare talents are able to provide a well-rounded and balanced perspective and go beyond the surface or polarized level to understand some of the key aspects and meaning of identity, environment and context in times of change. The best can braille this current generation-defining pandemic and discover the seeds of tomorrow’s new norms. To critically think the world with an openness to its contradictions. To make sense of our life’s paradoxes.

Grey Swan Guild was built with the notion that we could sensemake the world around us better, understand patterns quicker, emerge new bolder perspectives and consider alternative futures as possible. We could be the gathering area for paradoxers. Our intended goal as a global think tank is to de-stress individuals, unclutter organizational thinking, clarify & shape policy making and make a positive impact on the world by developing new & emerging and less cloudy views of it.

Source: Grey Swan Guild — The Global League of Sensemakers’ Sensemaking Dictionary

Why Do Societal Modern Paradoxes Happen:

Although the year is 2020, the irony is not lost on us that we hardly have sharp acuity about our futures. A paradox of paradoxes — the more access to information and mediating technology, the less we understand. Many of today’s apparent contradictions are rooted in seven different forces that are putting new pressures on all forms of historical paradigms, strategies, systems, process and tools.

#1 Temporal paradoxes — the pace and agility of modern life is both quick in reality and quick in expectation; the rush to find fast answers creates ripples in time, where our current understanding can blur and lag behind the fast approaching future reality, creating liminal spaces of incongruity.

#2 Connection paradoxes — we have so much powerful technology & omniscient connections at our fingertips that many of us can explore problems now in a span of seconds that might have vexed people previously for years. This rapid comprehension capacity creates a mismatch of people equipped with different tools operating at different speeds. The gap in between creates a chasm of anomaly.

#3 Expectation paradoxes — in a recent study I conducted called The Customer Zeitgeist — above all else, customers wanted their brands and products to be smarter, customized to them and faster. In essence, they want the solution yesterday, tailored to them and dynamic, even though humans are wired with millennia of DNA to resist change and lean back on steady wayfinding patterns of trust. This impatience-resistance schism creates breaches in our reality continuums.

#4 Cultural understanding paradoxes — with a solid base of knowledge and understanding of history, curated by a more-than-capable internet, we see the world and its inefficiencies and unfairness more than we ever have before. This openness of information to the masses creates different interpretations of the societal knowledge bank. Cultural paradoxes turn up as opposing thin slices of people’s many varied and splintered experiences.

#5 Cross-dimensional paradoxes — sophisticated configurations of understanding are now more commonplace — where technology can be added to anthropology, data can be added biology, economics can be added to ethnography. We no longer stay in our sensemaking swim lanes, thus leading to new-to-the-world epiphanies that challenge status quo thinking.

#6 Purpose-driven paradoxes — we have a much wider gamut of drivers and variables to run our businesses, careers and lives. People operate up and down Maslow’s pyramid, vacillating on what they might consider fundamental and important. Depending on whether you see the world through an economic, political, humanistic or planetary lens may shape your perspectives very differently.

#7 Polarization paradoxes — as a holdover from 2019, our #1 metatrend that year was “polarized viewpoints, income and classes” (Source: Futureproofing : Next). In the Western world, we have not seen such diametrically different values and situations within countries for the last two centuries. These divided states of mind, values and dispositions propogate the idea of multiple realities, reinforced at every turn by our social and media touchpoints.

Futureproofing : Next — What’s Changed about the Future

What Elements of the COVID-19 Pandemic Enhance the Likelihood of Paradoxes:

The creeping global coronavirus and all its pernicious tentacles has surfaced the conditions ripe for “a paradoxical society” — a multiple set of lived realities shaped by geography, individual economics, age, political ideology and values. Your pandemic is not my pandemic, and vice-versa. The only real reality is that we are all not living through this pandemic with the same speed, risk, impact or stresses.

So why have new paradoxes taken shape in this pandemic:

Accelerative conditions — many of the changes we are observing are not new, but existed pre-pandemic and have merely been pulled forward faster, in some cases, at a breakneck speed faster than our ability to understand what has happened, never mind their implications.

Multiple orders of impact — while it may be convenient to call this a health pandemic, it really is a life pandemic, affecting a full range of first, second and third order outcomes across ecological, income, financial, technological, leadership, consumer, collaboration and ownership structures. The mash-up and confluence of factors makes it difficult to tease out the biggest story threads.

Paradigmatic conditions — the appearance of new solutions, models and portals to a future, that are entirely different methods from what we might have previously imagined, have developed, causing a difference in thinking and reality between the pioneers who embrace and the laggards who resist.

Uniformity conditions — as governments and businesses have operated from the same global playbook (to not risk being called out as different, with notable exceptions), we have seen less variety of experience to consider the value and learning of alternate approaches.

Safeguarded conditions — strong public responses, empathetic commercial reactions and solid civic responsibility has blunted the initial force of the pandemic with the true impact of this crisis perhaps seen only months, if not years from now.

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher once stated, “change is the only constant in life.” However, the types of change that give people the most difficulty are unexpected changes, and the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in many.

Consider a sampling of 20 paradoxes related to the COVID-19 pandemic:

Source: NextAdvisor — Federal Reserve Data
Source: The Precipice, Toby Ord — Estimation of Natural vs. Anthropogenic risks (caused by human action/inaction)
Source: GlobalWebIndex
Grey Swan Guild - Leadership Meta-analysis
Source :Share to Buy, U.K.

What gives?

Answer — The world needs more sensemakers. That may be a trite simple answer. We’re ambitious but we’re not that crazy to try to unravel and arrive to some consensus on all the paradoxes above too soon. That is the work of the next few months and a number of waves of sensemakers who can peel the paradox onion on the most interesting of these. We’ll be doing just that in our Wave II production entitled “Catching our Collective Breath”.

Actions We Need to Take:

We have framed nine activities (visual below) that our guild will end up doing, aimed to make better sense of the world.

Beyond these physical outputs fron our future work, we need to shift mindsets and move from:

  • teaching to imitate to learning to innovate
  • coming up with one solution to being comfortable in the grey
  • learning before and after doing to learning while doing
  • leaning on deep experts to relying on sensemaking networks
  • extrapolating the slope of best fit to considering the early signals of something quite new and different
  • resourcing the known and knowable to investing in the unmanageable and unthinkable
  • landing on definitive paradigms and operating code to multiple scenarios and paradoxical mindsets

What’s Next? — The Global League of Sensemakers, Weathervane Panel and The Great Grey Swan Debate Coming Up:

If you like this type of open minded consideration, you should join our guild of paradox hunters, curators and lion tamers — submission form here:

We are also looking deeply into the problems, breakdowns and obstacles posed by the pandemic. Please lend us 10 minutes of your wisdom here on our Weathervane Panel:

Grey Swan Guild Weatervane Panel — Sept/Oct’20

On October 8th, we are hosting a fun edu-tainment event with Team Purple against Team Gold as we ask four team members to consider either side of popular pandemic paradoxes and debate the merits and their future trajectory. We’re calling it The Great Grey Swan Debate and we hope you will be able to join us. Event registration form:

The Great Grey Swan Debate

Signing off this post with a double of a paradox joke:

A linguistics professor says during a lecture that,

“In English, a double negative forms a positive. But in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, in no language in the world can a double positive form a negative.”

But then a voice from the back of the room piped up,

“Yeah, right.”

Faciens sensus mundi!

Author Profile: Sean Moffitt, Managing Director, Futureproofing : Next and Co-Founder, Grey Swan Guild — Sean lives and breathes bringing the future forward and seizing & sensing on signals and opportunities before they happen. From a mid-March blog post attempting to process the pandemic from 50 different angles, he has seen the open guild grow to 50 countries and the recent launch of The Global League of Sensemakers — a collective of expert thinkers, analysts and synthesizers with the mission to unravel the world’s biggest challenges. His new book “Futureproofing : Next — The Future Beyond Innovation” comes out this month.



Grey Swan Guild

Making Sense of the World’s Biggest Challenges & Next Grey Swans — curating and creating knowledge through observation, informed futurism, and analysis🦢