62. What Your Business Can Learn From The Bubonic Plague
The Black Death wasn't just a deadly disease, it was also a great learning opportunity.
The Bubonic Plague plagued Italy from the years 1347 to 1350. It killed about 1/3 of all Italians (and 50% of all people in Florence).
You may know it by its other names: the Black Plague, the Black Death, the Blue Sickness, La Pest, The Great Mortality or The Killa in Medievilla. All the names refer to the same thing. Choose whichever one you want. Except for the last one - I completely made that one up.
As for me, I think the word “bubonic” is the most fun to say. It’s like a cross between boba, bubola and tonic, but not nearly as sweet, loving or good with vodka.
Apparently the Plague began with merchants from Genoa, Italy who were selling their wares in what is now Russia. When they were attacked by the bad guys, the Genoese fled in their ships back to Italy. However, their ships were infested with black rats who were infested with fleas who carried the disease.
The merchants get back to their highly populated cities in Italy and blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda, everybody dies.
Good news though… if you don’t like rats there’s another version of the incident that has become popular. It’s this:
Fleas and ticks that lived on humans were infected with the virus. Due to the impoverishedness and overpopulation of Italian cities like Genoa and Florence, these fleas and tics ran rampant and spread the disease amongst humans en masse.
Feel free to choose whichever explanation you like best: rats, ticks or fleas.
Either way, the people in the crowded cities of Italy were already hungry due to famine, cities were disgustingly dirty due to, you know, it being the year 1347, immune systems were fragile, so enter the bubonic plague and the population of Italy started dropping like fleas (see what I did there?).
People felt like the world was ending so, naturally, they crowded into taverns and pubs and partied like it was end of days. That, I’m sure, didn’t help matters with the contagion. As it turns out, it was a party for the ticks and fleas as well.
So anyhow, a massive amount of people died and the economy shut down over the three years of the Bubonic Plague . But the interesting thing, the reason why I’m giving you a history lesson on 14th century Italy, is because of what happened after the Bubonic Plague and how it relates to you.
After The Bubonic Plague And How It Relates To You
Italy in the early 14th century was run by fiefdoms. Peasants were the laborers who were owned by the Lords in exchange for protection. The peasants had to pay their way to freedom (if they wanted it) - which was a price most couldn’t afford.
Once all the people died during the Plague and the economy started picking up again, there wasn’t the amount of labor available as there was pre-pandemic. Much of the peasants, who made up the Italian labor force, had died since the most poor were the ones most prone to disease.
The result was your basic Econ 101 case of supply and demand: a lot of laborers are needed (demand) but not a bunch are available (supply) so the wages paid per laborer increased.
With increased wages came greater wealth. In fact, many of the peasants could purchase their freedom and, on top of that, they could even purchase some land. (The Plague was the beginning of the end for fiefdoms).
With greater wealth there became more disposable income. Add to this the fear of death always lurking in the shadows, combine it with a questioning of God and a movement away from the church, and what you get is a people who paid more attention on enjoying their current life. That enjoyment of life naturally led to greater interest in culture, science and the arts.
It was within this rebound from the plague, in 1360, that led Giovanni de Medici to start a bank.
That bank changed everything.
Una Familia Di Pazzi
The Medici family made a lot of money through their bank. I mean, a LOT. They were the Bezos’ and Gates’ of their time, but with arguably more corruption, murder and mayhem.
Understanding the public’s emerging interest in culture and science, the Medici family used some of their wealth to become patrons of artists and scientists. They found rising talent and invested in them. It turns out that they had a pretty darn good eye for rising talent. Like maybe the best eye ever.
Among those under the Medici patronage were Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci and Galilei Galileo.
And so began the Renaissance, funded by the Medici family, thanks to their bank (plus a little corruption on the side).
The Bubonic Plague, one of the darkest events in human history, tilled the soil from which flourished one of the greatest eras in artistic, scientific and economic advancement.
From darkness emerges light.
Ok, that’s your history lesson, now lets fast forward six hundred years to today cause this is the part that involves you.
The Covid Pandemic
It turns out we’ve got a pretty bad world pandemic happening right now that has lasted for over a year. With modern medicine and modern cleanliness, I highly doubt our world today will experience the devastation as massively impactful as the Bubonic Plague. However, our little pandemic here is still pretty darn bad. Over 130 million infected, nearly 3 million dead worldwide, vast unemployment, economies shut down, industries practically annihilated.
And here’s what I think - in the next years following the darkness of our coronavirus pandemic, we will see a rejuvenation in arts, science and business. A renaissance, if you will. And I know you will.
It is my belief that the renaissance train has already left the station. The question is whether or not you’re along for the ride.
But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Making Ideas Happen
When it comes to innovation, somebody once said:
“It’s not about ideas, it’s about making ideas happen.”
(I don’t know who said it, so howzabout I just take credit and we can pretend I’m smart)
The thing about making ideas happen is that it’s really tough to do when you’re in the throws of a growing business. Sometimes just retaining customers and growing your core product takes all the energy of a company’s employees. Sure, a couple of decades ago Google encouraged their employees to spend 20% of their time on whatever innovative side project they wanted, in order to advance Google. But as the company grew, even Google couldn’t maintain that policy. Innovation time was exchanged for get-your-job-done time.
But here’s the thing... when an economy shuts down, all of the sudden there is extra time available for many peple. And that time can be used to make those innovative ideas happen.
Musicians and actors who had previously been swamped with tours and plays and TV and movies, suddenly they have more time to create the things they may not have had time to do before.
Take Taylor Swift, for instance. Love her or hate her, she’s one of the best pop songwriters of our time. She released a massive record (“Lover”) in 2019 which was the best selling record of 2019 and earned 3 Grammy nominations, including Best Pop Vocal Album. But, alas, the pandemic caused her to cancel her world tour before it even started.
Did she sit around and wait to get back on the road? No. She made her ideas happen.
Taylor put together not one, not two, but three new albums in 12 months, each one better than the last - earning 6 Grammy nominations among the first two and one of them winning the Grammy’s Album of the Year. I’m not sure a major artist hasn’t been that prolific and successful since The Beatles pumped out 13 albums of timeless hits in just 7 years.
Similarly, Justin Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes have used their spare time to create “Smartless”, one of the most refreshingly addictive, laugh-out-loud, interview-based podcasts since Marc Maron decided to discover himself. I sure bet this wouldn’t have happened had there not been a global pandemic.
What Did You Do On Your Pandemic Vacation?
Over the past 13 months almost every industry has slowed down. Suddenly, thousands of businesses had time to build something completely new, in some cases by necessity and some by opportunity.
The smart companies - the ones with vision, the ones with strategic leadership, the ones with enough capital to survive - they have taken advantage of the past year to make their ideas happen.
For many of these companies, they’ve spent the time building the infrastructure for new revenue streams. Other companies have developed completely new concepts to capitalize on new trends. And yet others have used the time to expand their velocity, preparing themselves for the post pandemic rebound.
Unless you’ve been paying attention, you may not have noticed it yet. You may not be in one of these companies that have used the time to valiantly innovate. But you will see the change. I guarantee that. The economy is recovering and, as we learned from the Bubonic Plague, when there is darkness soon there will be light.
Whether you believe it or not, the innovation train has left the station. The engine didn’t stop when coronavirus began. To the contrary, it’s picked up speed and if you’re not careful, if you’re not looking towards a renaissance-like tomorrow, you will be left standing at the station of yesteryear as the high speed train of innovation powers forward, zipping past you like a whooosh into the future.
Since you’ve read this far let me know your thoughts in the comments. And why not click the like button. Sure would mean a lot to me, little buckaroo.
Has your company been innovating during the past year?