View Full Version : Investing our time right - Atle Hetland - 22nd November 2012

22nd November 2012, 08:37 AM
None of us live forever. We all have a very short time on this earth. Psychologists say that we only have a sense of time till we are about 30 years of age, and from then on, time begins to run fast. Women are, probably, more aware of the concept of time because of the limited years of their reproductive capacity, and they know their biological clock keeps ticking.
But how do we use the limited time we have? What competence do we gain in young years, and how do we make the best of our skills and knowledge? Do we waste much of our time?
We should not always be calculating as for how we spend our time. In Africa, it is often said that nothing is as important as being with a friend. But at the same time, we need to economise our time so that we do what is best for ourselves and our surroundings in our private, work and public service spheres.
A few weeks ago, I came to think more about these issues after watching a BBC interview with Nicolas Berggruen, a French-American billionaire, who at the age of about 50 began questioning how he was spending his time and competence. He sold his homes. Now, he only lives in hotels because he claims that he feels freer that way, and it does not take away time and attention to maintain his homes. He was quickly named the “homeless billionaire” by the media. But it should be added that he did not give away his bank accounts and credit cards, and ownership in numerous companies. Also, if he had been a family man, his priority might have been different.
Berggruen is teaching us all a lesson: think over how much time you have before it is too late, and try to do what you really think is important and where you can make a difference. True, many cannot choose what to do and have to labour from dawn to dusk, day in and day out, to make ends meet and fulfil their social and other responsibilities. But we also have a certain say over part of the time we have at our disposal, not all the 24 hours a day (minus rest and sleep), but perhaps a quarter of the time in a day.
Maybe, too, we could spend less time working to make money to obtain items we don’t really need - sometimes just to increase our status. Some people don’t have to work to make a living, and they would have quite a bit of time on their hand and greater responsibility to spend it right. But do we know what we want to do? Do we invest our time right?
When I was a young staff member at the University of Oslo, I was always overworked, often behind with research reports and articles, and worrying that the quality was not good enough. Then a group of brainy colleagues at the private Institute of Management (BI) released a report, made into a bestselling book later, where the theme was “Work Less and Live More.”
We were all taken off-guard and didn’t quite know what to say. It became comforting when we got to know that the young gang also worked too much, but then they argued that they at least enjoyed what they were doing. That, of course, is a key point!
In addition, they also explained that as students, researchers and bureaucrats, we had to learn to say “no”; we had to learn that we don’t always have to be at the top of every little detail and write a report or memo about it. That was again a very good piece of advice.
When I worked at the Norwegian Embassy in an African country some years ago, our boss told us that it seemed that we had glue on our fingers so every letter or other paper we touched got stuck and needed all kinds of serious response. We should learn to say “no”, he said, and we should become better at prioritising. We were overworked aid bureaucrats in a country with poor civil service and implementation capacity, and somehow we wanted to “save the whole world.” We had the heart in the right place, but we were also unrealistic. And since we were often tired, our performance and our capacity for creative and alternative thinking always suffered. True, most conscientious people behave like we did, and in a way, they should also do so.
Then the crucial question: what would we use the extra time for if we had more of it? No, it would only be temporary that we would do what a primitive tribe in the mountains of South America did when they got seeds giving food in abundance. They simply slept more!
What does Berggruen do now when he doesn’t need to blow up time on maintaining his homes? He has considered seriously what to do; he has found his calling, to put it solemn language. He has established a future-thinking institute of governance, and a large charity supporting worthy causes. He has analysed his own competence and skills, not only what money can buy. He shares his thoughts and ideas on governance issues, and he takes part in research and debates about it.
Berggruen emphasises that we should spend most of our time on what we think is an important issue and what we are good at. Then we can contribute to the common good. In his case, he is particularly concerned about governance issues, and he works with Michael Spence, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Sciences in 2001. They are both concerned about the political awakening of developing countries and that the Western dominance recedes; they are also concerned about the creative, but disruptive modern technologies that change the way we live. We must all adapt our societies to the new realities or we will face stagnation, they say! It becomes essential to find new ways to govern at micro and macro levels so that all human beings can be involved, rich and poor, specialists and laypeople, politicians and CEOs.
Let this only be an example of the duties of one man, Berggruen. He wishes to spend his time and competence in one field, which is both broad and complicated. He must have felt that his work as a successful “money-maker”, becoming a billionaire over a couple of decades, was quite meaningless. Yes, it has given him the luxury of independence so that he can do what he wants to do; it has given him a seat on corporate boards and the ear of influential people. In his successful time in the corporate world, what did he really do and what did he create? Maybe employment for some people, well, maybe layoffs too?
It seems that Berggruen found his earlier life meaningless. Maybe money was as cold as the metal it is made of? He had to turn around and do better. His real calling is what he does now. He may be homeless in the physical sense - just living in hotels, but he has indeed found a home for how to spend his time; how to be a better custodian of what God gave him, notably ideas, compassion, contacts and cooperation with friends and colleagues, sharing questions and answers, being inspired and inspiring others.
It is up to you and me to search our souls and find out how we can best spend our time and competence. Have we found our calling? Are we as good human beings as we can be? Are we investing our limited time right?
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.