Chief Executive Officer
Forgetting to Remember
Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Take Control: The Career You Want, Where You Want.
Ask me the ages of my five children and I’ll probably have to do some calculations.
Ask me how long I’ve been CEO and I’ll definitely have to think about it.
But ask me where I was standing when that first plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11 … and I can tell you. No doubt, you can too.
Neuroscientists call this a “flashbulb memory.” We can remember these events so easily because of their emotional intensity. In fact, the more traumatic the experience, the more clearly we recall it—as painful as it may be.
It’s simply the way the brain operates.
That’s why I can recite, with shocking clarity, what I was thinking and doing nearly every day in March and April 2020—at the very start of the pandemic.
This is probably a message that a lot of people might prefer not to think about. It’s understandable. We’ve tried to bury this period of time.
However, when we look back, we can still feel those dark days of April 2020—when we faced our fears of the unknown.
Now, it’s three years later.
A lot can happen in that amount of time. Think about it. Three years is almost long enough to complete a college education. It’s enough time for a baby to be born, learn to walk and talk, and be ready for preschool.
That raises the question: What about our own growth and learning during the last 36 months and counting?
The truth is, no matter how much we’d like to put the pandemic behind us, the far bigger danger is in forgetting to remember. As counterintuitive as it may seem, out of the most traumatic events can come the most tremendous gifts:
The importance of others. That became more poignantly clear in our social isolation.
While driving just the other day, I spotted a faded sign in a window: Heroes Work Here. In some other space or time, those three words could mean almost anything. But not now. We know this sign could only be a tribute to frontline workers—doctors and nurses, first responders, and so many others who kept us safe, fed, and comforted.
The sacrifices of so many bring to mind the words and music of David Bowie: “We can be Heroes. We can be Heroes. Just for one day, we can be Heroes.”
History can bring humility. History is just that, history. But it sure can provide context—and inspiration. When we think back to spring 2020, we remember how surreal it felt. So much uncertainty. So much darkness. People were wiping down groceries and crossing the street when others were coming their way. Isolation, despair, paranoia….
Even as we see that life goes on, history can provide an anchor so that we don’t forget. It’s not about how strong we are—but just the opposite. We see how fragile life can really be. And that brings a dose of humility—and also of hope. And only history can provide that context.
Ambiguity is OK. I’ll never forget the story told to me in May 2020 by an executive at Prudential Financial who described how, in normal times, transitioning to a 97% remote workforce would have required “an 18-month project … and at the end the conclusion would have been, ‘We can’t do that. It’s too risky.’” But when the pandemic struck, that goal was accomplished in 24 hours. After all, it takes courage to challenge old ways of thinking and a willingness to embrace ambiguity.
It’s a journey. The fact is without sadness, we may never fully recognize joy. Without darkness, we may never appreciate light. And with hardship, we can rise above.
Several years ago, devastating wildfires near where I live destroyed millions of acres and countless homes, and lives were lost. Then, after the fires came heavy rains. In time, the canyons turned green, and flowers bloomed where there had only been charred earth. Then one day as I drove to the beach, millions of butterflies filled the air. I slowed the car and watched with amazement as they sailed over the windshield, never striking it.
Had I somehow forgotten those horrific fires, I might have viewed this as simply a wonder of nature. Instead, I found deep meaning: a sea of butterflies—the ultimate symbol of metamorphosis.
Indeed, that’s what—and why—we remember.