The obvious thing staring us down that we’re not talking about — it’s ‘time.’
Our obsession with time is hurting us. We either don’t have enough time or we’re running out of it and are rushed to action. Or we have too much time, don’t know what to do with it, and are hard-wired to fill it with mundane and meaningless tasks, often just distractions.
Time stresses us out: the looming deadline, the rush to be prompt for the next appointment, the fear of missing out on something by not being fast enough. Rush, rush, rush — it seems to be the way in 2023 USA, our elephant in the room.
On the contrary, there are other cultures where time takes a standstill approach. Picture yourself in a little village in the South of France, where people gather for a cup of coffee to discuss seemingly unimportant issues for hours without any intent of resolving anything whatsoever. Time is standing still there.
Fast or slow, we all have a finite amount of time on earth. Assuming a lifespan of 80 years, we have about 4,000 weeks. That’s it. Some have a few more, some a few less, but by and large, that’s how it breaks down. Considering that 520,000 weeks have passed since the beginning of the agricultural revolution, 4,000 weeks doesn’t seem all that much. The hourglass filled with sand representing our lifespan is running at the same speed for all of us. At some point our impermanence will catch up with us.
Morbid, you think? What is she talking about? Death?
Yes, time is inextricably linked to death. Your death. My death. The universe is bound to continue, regardless of what happens on earth or with us. So, in a sense, our existence here is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. And yet we treat our lives as if they have a ton of meaning. Everything we do matters. We want to lead a meaningful life. We want to lead organizations that solve big problems to advance our species. We want to lead a meaningful existence to demonstrate our productivity and progress.
What if none of that matters? What if even when we have crossed off all the to-dos on our list (we’ll never get there) or we have reached the leadership position we have been seeking or the status we have been craving or the amount of money we wanted to feel secure, we are still not feeling fulfilled? In fact, what if we are actually feeling quite miserable? What then?
What do we best do with this finite amount of time?
Work until we drop?
Work until retirement (sort of an outdated concept at this point)?
Volunteer in our communities or be an activist around a specific issue we feel strongly about?
Lounge around like the ancient Romans did? The frescos in ancient Pompeii of Romans lying about and nourishing themselves with grapes and other delicacies come to mind. Were they feeling fulfilled?
Is an Elon Musk or a Warren Buffet or a Bill Gates fulfilled? Can one ever be?
Let’s delve deeper.
If you never had to work a day in your life again, what would you be doing?
Some say the same as they are doing right now. That’s a bit shortsighted since they really don’t know what it would feel like to have all the time in the world, so they would revert to what they know, the work they are doing right now.
Some billionaires fall into the same trap. Out of boredom, they start yet another business, acquire another business, or advise businesses.
Inevitably people engage in wanting to make the world a better place or they just want to make their own world better by living a luxurious lifestyle.
So, what is a life well-lived? And how do we best spend our time to accomplish this?
Humankind has fought wars out of the need to control land and energy. We are still doing that. We have made scientific progress out of the need to control diseases. We are still doing that. We have gone back and forth between autocracy and democracy, mercantilism and capitalism, futurism and history out of the need to control the narrative.
To what end? What is the point? And what is leadership’s role in this?
What if time is about the delicate balance of being curious about what is and not minding tomorrow? Being open to what we might discover and also not be stifled by what we might discover? What if we could lead ourselves in the process of BEING the best version of ourselves for the 4,000 weeks we have? As students, parents, leaders, or any other identity we take on.
In their book “The Art of Possibility” published in 2000, authors Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander described how Ben would instruct his musician students to not beat themselves up about mistakes and instead tell themselves ‘How fascinating!’ when things didn’t go their way. This is the entryway to inquiry about what happened there. Being fascinated by our own selves and curious as to how we are responding to setbacks is a wonderful leadership trait that warrants daily replication. We can be as easily fascinated by boredom as by speeding demands on our time. Taking a step back and observing what is happening with an open mind might be the best use of our time.
Not Minding Tomorrow
Western societies are driven by growth and progress. It’s always about tomorrow, sometimes rooted in history and past experience, but often not. Humans tend to worry. Leaders are no exception here. They worry about their performance, their next vesting period, their next promotion or election. The list is long. It’s always about tomorrow.
What if we were to not worry about tomorrow? We can’t control it anyway, despite our endless attempts to do just that. What if we could simply enjoy today as part of the roughly 28,000 days we are given? What if we could simply marvel at being alive today, during this time, in this way? What if?
What if leadership is first and foremost about one’s relationship with oneself, with sustaining oneself, and with understanding the systems one is born into and subjected to?
With all this in mind, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
How would you describe your relationship with yourself? Where is it working for you? How do you fit in the context of the universe?
What will it take to sustain yourself — fully?
What does it take for you to see the bigger picture while tending to the details at hand?
“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” — Mahatma Ghandi