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Our experiment

We ran an experiment recently and there’s a simplicity and beauty to the results that I think can truly help us shape the future.

I put a call out on LinkedIn asking two deceptively simple questions:

–      What have you lost?

–      What have you gained?

Responses could only be in the form of one word, with the aim to distil the answers into their purest form in order to get to the heart of things. I wanted to try this experiment because I believe we are at a unique moment in time where we have the opportunity to reflect and hopefully learn from it. (If you missed the original article, see:

What did we find out?

Well thankfully over 225 people took up the challenge and responded. (Thank you! You know who you are.) Just over half the respondents (55%) were from around the globe including Spain, Singapore, the US, Canada and beyond, and the remaining 45% were from Australia.

What have you lost?

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The first question was: what have you lost? The chart above breaks down the results into the top five most common responses. (Bear in mind that people could write any word they wanted). Interesting isn’t it?

The most sobering element is that nine respondents stated they had lost a family member, be it a brother, mother, grandfather etc. That breaks my heart. I want to give you a hug whoever and wherever you are.

Interestingly, only six people (or 3% of all respondents) said they had lost money. Now I’m sure that in reality, many more than six people will have actually lost money, but what’s telling is that such a small number of people placed that at the top of what they had lost.

The standout response? Freedom. 23% of respondents placed losing freedom as the top of the list. Followed next by a loss of contact.

What have we gained?

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Now, this is where it gets interesting. The second question was: what have you gained? The chart above outlines the top five words people used to describe what they had gained.

Absolute top of the list is family (26% of responses) followed by time (19%).

What does this all mean?

One of the most compelling things to me is what isn’t there. Note that power and money don’t rate. The three most critical things are freedom, time and family.

It’s amazing how a global threat like COVID 19 has been such a great leveller. Suddenly all of those things that seemed important six months ago are suddenly irrelevant.

We seem to have had a collective, global moment of clarity about the true nature of our priorities and it has changed dramatically from what it would have been if we asked the same questions six months ago.

It sounds obvious, but in the past we were so caught up with being busy, spinning on the hamster wheel trying to achieve everything on our to do list that we didn’t make time to ask ‘what really matters?’. 

It’s time to flip it

So if our priorities have changed so much, perhaps it’s time to flip our approach.

For many years business articles and reporting have revolved around the concept of the triple bottom line. It’s a noble idea, but there’s a problem.

John Elkington, the guy who first coined the concept of the triple bottom-line in 1994 could see it a couple of years ago. He wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2018:

‘Fundamentally, we have a hard-wired cultural problem in business, finance and markets. Whereas CEOs, CFOs, and other corporate leaders move heaven and earth to ensure that they hit their profit targets, the same is very rarely true of their people and planet targets. Clearly, the Triple Bottom Line has failed to bury the single bottom line paradigm.’

I think the triple bottom line in practice looks more like this:

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It’s out of balance. Economics are the first and most dominant priority. And this is the case not just for business, but for politics and society more broadly. We’ve been prioritising money over everything else – even our day to day lives, our connection with our families and the use of our time. We’ve all been busy, busy, busy in pursuit of the dollar – not much time for anything else.

If the economic side of things is going OK, then we might just throw a bit of effort into caring for the environment, and then if things are going particularly well, we might just do a bit of social responsibility on the side

So if it’s so out of whack, and based on the insight that our priorities have shifted, what if we flip the triple bottom line to look something more like this:

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Let’s place the social aspects first, and from that environmental and then economic elements will flow.

Sound crazy? Well remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? (Here’s a quick refresher if you haven’t seen it in a while)

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As a human, if you don’t have your basic physiological and safety needs met, it is very hard to do anything other than just focus on those needs – let alone doing anything like caring for the environment, helping others etc. If you don’t have enough food to eat, or if you don’t have a roof over your head, it’s impossible to focus on the higher needs of our society and the environment, because you simply don’t have the headspace for it. As Maslow states:

“When people appear to be something other than good and decent, it is only because they are reacting to stress, pain, or the deprivation of basic human needs such as security, love, and self-esteem.”

In contrast:

“Self-actualizing persons’ contact with reality is simply more direct. And along with this unfiltered, unmediated directness of their contact with reality comes also a vastly heightened ability to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy, however, stale those experiences may have become for others.” (Toward a Psychology of Being, 1968)

And that’s the point! We need to work on the social aspects first, and then the other elements will flow more naturally. If we focus on ensuring that people are well, physically and mentally, then those people will then be able to care for the environment, have the headspace to prioritise differently, have the time to come up with great solutions and new ways of doing things, and as a result, the economic benefits will come. Not the other way round.

And that’s the insight I believe our experiment provides us.

Freedom, time, family. Social elements first.

If freedom, time and family are the most valuable, then living a rich life doesn’t necessarily mean power and money anymore. It’s about having freedom, time and the ability to spend that time in meaningful connection with the people you love.