Business? I Give It 300 Weeks
The average lifespan of a U.S. company is about 300 weeks. And humans? 4,000 weeks (for the lucky ones).
That isn’t much time, it almost sounds absurd. But it’s also very palpable—because we all know how long a week is. We can feel it. We’re in one now. We have plans for tonight, for the weekend, for next Monday. It seems like our handiest measure for work and life.
Our goal for the week is…
OMG, the week’s almost over!
Next week will be our fresh start.
But our weeks are like aerosol cans stuffed with objectives. And the pressure of our to-do lists is killing us. When we know that our business may only be around for 300 weeks, are we really framing things the way we should?
Let’s talk about “time” first. It’s now the most often-used noun in the English language because we’re obsessed with it and how to cope as it goes by. Yes, we could argue that the fear of losing time is as old as Porter's Five Forces model. And as humans, we live through time in different ways as a product of our different cultures. Look at the Amazonian Amondawa tribe who don’t have the notion of “time” as a framework for how events occur. Or the Calabrian dialect in Southern Italy that doesn’t even have a future tense.
But the business world is different. For some reason, our working selves all seem to hold the same leaky compass when it comes to dealing with the mismatch between our business objectives and the duration of time that surrounds us. So we all crowd around the same apps and conference talks and bestselling books to form some invisible boardroom of Pomodoro-powered Frankensteins programmed to deliver the latest growth hacks. How are those working out? Are we getting anywhere faster? At what cost?
It’s as if we’ve lost respect for time in the workplace. We’ve forgotten that innovation and creativity often follow a very slow process. Sure, serendipity is nice and beautiful and makes us remember that we’re alive and open to miracles. But so does remembering the eventuality of our slow-creeping death. Ours and our business’. Can we sufficiently detach from the end of our business to bake that paradigm into our day-to-day?
“Time management as we know it has failed miserably, and we need to stop pretending otherwise.”—Oliver Burkeman
In his book Four Thousand Weeks Burkeman describes the ridiculousness of measuring our life against a never-stopping clock and our obsession with ruling and controlling it—only to fail at it, over and over again. Think Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, but on steroids, or rather, on algorithmic platforms fed by, you guessed it: your time spent on them. Time isn’t even engraved in our minds from birth. When the psychologist Janie Busby Grant asked a group of three-year-olds about their plans for the following day, only a third was able to give a plausible answer. We could say that time becomes inseparable from our understanding of the self, which is invariably measured against the backdrop of others around us. So essentially, time is a social construct, fed and fueled by how our societies deem it best to be spent.
Let’s take a moment to ask ourselves whether:
Our business is a collection of the ideas we had, or the outcome of the time-based decisions we took?
We’re postponing our true desires to some future self we know doesn’t exist in order to protect ourselves?
All this planning is just a device to distract us from the things we want the most?
But in a world where we look to startups boasting popcorn stands and playground slides for signs of happy workers, we’re generously dosed with the idea that today is all that matters—the YOLO and FOMO and “don’t-put-off-until-tomorrow-what-you-can-do-today.” How does this stand up against a framework where we have an idea of how many weeks we have left? And why do we keep pushing off the projects that are dearest to us, the ones we never have time to start? Tomorrow is tomorrow until there aren’t any left.
In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of the Humankind Yuval Noah Harari points out that if Homo Sapiens could exert dominance over other humanoid species it’s “because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money, and human rights.” Another such entity is “future.” Neanderthals could only set up their goals and expectations for hunting successfully today, but they couldn’t imagine investing in tomorrow, building up a team, achieving better results together. Do we sometimes forget about this superpower?
Perhaps because of this fear we get so caught up on packing “to-day” to the brim with to-do lists, experiences, results, positive accomplishments, and, to top it off: work-life balance, that we ignore the ultimate purpose and find ourselves alone, facing the dreadful perspective of 4,000 weeks? We need to get better at making an accomplice out of time. We need to use those 300 business weeks to unite ourselves through stronger emotional bonds, help each other out by knowing who our colleagues really are, and delegate based on interests and craft instead of marching to the clock of competition across our own teams, pushing for results, and terminating projects that haven’t had their rightful time to flourish.
A business has many ways to end. It can close, fall apart, it can be bought. In the New Yorker, Nick Romeo writes about a founder of a digital-consulting firm who was considering retirement. She realized that selling her business would be a very comfortable possibility, but it just didn’t feel right. She founded the company, and she had been “swimming upstream against the imperative to maximize profit,” donating a third of the company profits to the local nonprofits. So the question was: How could she preserve her business culture after she was gone and tap into another dimension of “business time”? New owners would surely abandon her values.
She found out about the possibility of creating a perpetual-purpose trust, “a trust that exists not for the benefit of particular individuals but to fulfill some purpose.” Such trusts become new business owners, and as such they have a fiduciary duty to protect businesses’ pro-social values—company’s social consciousness, or hiring values (like prioritizing hiring workers with barriers to employment). Nick Romeo continues, “By preserving fragile goodness in a lasting institutional form, the Purpose Foundation offers a kind of corporate therapy. It rewrites the psychology of companies, changing the deep structures that shape their behavior.”
Because we all know how it works. Legacies are not built on profits or business conquests, they rest on the values we leave behind. Remember Alexander the Great who wished for his both hands to be kept hanging from his coffin: “I spent all my life earning riches but cannot take anything with me. Let people know that wealth is nothing but dust. I wish people to know that I came empty-handed into this world and I will go empty-handed.”
If we’re terminal both as humans and businesses, what do we really leave behind if not the beauty by which we behaved? Perhaps this is the best way to prevent succumbing to the pressures of time—the conscious, collective memory to live and work beautifully today, and trust that it will still be here tomorrow.