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Seneca’s lament

My last post was written in the magical city of Rome, that wonderful nexus of the old and the new, bustling with noisy life yet infused with the calm perspective of ages past. That city above all, confronts me with the dialectical worldviews of old and new, the paradoxical emphases of the ages, the cultural drivers of successive generations.

Perhaps it is the academic within me that is always driven when in Rome (Athens, etc) to immerse myself in the diverse cultural manifestations and explore the synergies and contradictions of those places. Most often this plunges me into the various ancient writers who, over the centuries, have captured and shaped the zeitgeist of that place.

On this occasion, it was Seneca who beckoned. I feel duty bound to admit, to my shame, that my Latin is too rusty to engage in the original language (a stretch target for another year) but the translation still held insight and provocation.

I was taken afresh by his macabre sounding letter De Brevitate Vitae, better known today under the title On the shortness of life. It sounds like a depressing read, but this opinion is coloured by our modern sensibilities about finitude and death. Seneca’s insights are profound and remarkably pertinent to we time-obsessed inhabitants of the 21st Century.

This space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live,” lamented Seneca.

Or was it a lament? Or perhaps just an ironic observation about the human attitude towards time. Perhaps just a wistful reflection of the tendency of humans to approach time on the unspoken, arrogant assumption that it is, if not infinite, plentiful, and therefore to overlook its preciousness. The realisation of scarcity promotes the perceived value of every commodity.

The misassumption of plenitude can evoke a tendency to under-value every precious moment. Or, perhaps worse still, to over-value other things. As ironic as it might seem, it could be argued that our modern obsession with busyness and time-management tools is one consequence of this misassumption. Ironic because it would appear prima facie that our fixation with time-management originates precisely from a realisation of our finitude.

However, that argument is weakened if we reflect on ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’. Who could argue, not least those of us charged with the onerous task of ‘getting stuff done’ (to use the polite form), that efficient use of time is critical to efficient resource management, thereby increasing the return on investment. But therein lies the rub! The underlying assumption is that purpose is driven by ROI. But, to use a common aphorism, there is more to life than that.

Oliver Burkeman in his famous book Four thousand weeks has some profound observations in this regard. A quick bit of mental arithmetic will reveal the inspiration for Burkeman’s title – the realisation that four thousand weeks is the average human lifespan. That focuses the mind somewhat!  Driven by this striking calculation, he observes that “the world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.

An instant response by many a modern interlocutor would be that they don’t have time to be mystical and obsessed with wonder. It might work for those of a spiritual or metaphysical disposition but it doesn’t deliver the OKRs nor satisfy the CEO. But that mechanistic view of humanity misses the point.

Burkeman goes on to comment critically on the contemporary approach to time management. “The problem isn’t that these techniques and products don’t work. It’s that they do work – in the sense that you’ll get more done, race to more meetings, ferry your kids to more after-school activities, generate more profit for your employer – and yet, paradoxically, you only feel busier, more anxious, and somehow emptier as a result.” Perhaps this is what the writer of the Game of Thrones books George RR Martin meant in A dance with dragons by being “trapped in an eternal present.”

As someone whose profession as a leadership coach brings me daily in contact with the pressure on senior leaders to deliver ROI, the above might seem antithetical. On the contrary. In this regard I would make two simple observations.

First, all the evidence suggests that Martin was a wise observer. The psychological (if not spiritual) impact on those leaders trapped in the hamster wheel of productivity regimes precipitates emptiness and entrapment, and often burnout (which is not just a physical phenomenon). The result is inefficiency and impaired ROI.

My second point is, perhaps, more consequential. I return to Burkeman’s point about wonder. My observation is that a disengagement with wonder precipitates a diminution of curiosity and an impairment of imagination. Both of the above threaten the creative potential of a leader and their ability to lead innovation. Paradoxically, a closedness to mystery also threatens ROI.

I’d be the last to argue that an efficient use of time is unimportant to the modern leader, though I’d be inclined to use ‘wise’ as an adjective rather than ‘efficient’. But that wisdom will compel those deep moments of reflection which, while appearing on the surface as wasteful of the leader’s precious time resource, lead ultimately to those intentional judgments which enable the leader, in Drucker’s famous phrase, not only to do things right, but also to do the right things.

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