Imagine there was an activity that every CEO agreed was critical to maximizing their success and that almost none of them did. And imagine that this activity cost absolutely nothing, took just 10 to 15 minutes per day, and brought about obvious and even immediate benefits.
Now, imagine that when you asked those CEOs why they didn’t do this particular activity, they shrugged their shoulders and said things like “I don’t have time” or “I don’t enjoy it” or, in a moment of greater honesty, “it makes me uncomfortable.”
Okay, it gets worse. Imagine that those executives regularly lectured their children about doing that activity and lamented young people’s inability and unwillingness to do it!
What I’m referring to here is the simple act of contemplation, sitting in silence, without distraction, thinking—doing nothing. Alone.
I know. I know. There is nothing even remotely novel about this. For centuries people have understood the importance of contemplation. Aristotle wrote, “The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.”
And yet we don’t do it, which is what makes all of this so amazing, and why we need to step back and look at it within a larger context.
It is no exaggeration to say that in the entirety of history, human beings have never been so easily and readily distracted, occupied, entertained and inundated with information. We’ve all heard this before, but most of the chief executives I know haven’t come to terms with why this happened, and what it costs them.
Contrary to popular belief, the root of this problem isn’t that we have access to information all the time. Information itself is a good thing. The real issue is that we no longer want to be silent; we do our best to avoid it because it makes us uncomfortable. Thousands of years after Aristotle, the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel said, “Contemplation and wisdom are highest achievements and man is not totally at home with them.” And that was 100 years before smartphones found their way into our pockets. See, it’s not that we have too much to distract us, but rather that we have come to prefer those distractions to being alone with our thoughts.
The cost of avoiding silence and contemplation is as undeniable as it is varied. On a personal level, we lose our peace, experiencing much greater anxiety than we should or that circumstances warrant. That alone should provide enough incentive for us to make a change.
Beyond that and related to it, we aren’t optimizing our decision-making. It is ironic that with all the data and information available to us, our lack of thoughtfulness and reflection prevents us from fully using that information. In essence, we’ve become smarter but less wise. Finally, as a result of all this, our organizations suffer. When a CEO lacks peace and wisdom, no amount of knowledge can sufficiently make up for the frenzy and confusion that comes about.
So what is the answer? Well, it won’t be found in a theoretical column—like this one— about the dangers of over-stimulation. After all, we’ve been hearing about and talking about this for years. The only solution lies in a chief executive’s simple discipline and willingness to stop, at least once each day, and sit in uncomfortable silence. Thinking. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Over time, muscle memory will improve, and a leader will start to crave a half-hour here and 20 minutes there. But more important than their desire to satisfy that craving will be their practical understanding of the benefits for themselves and the people they lead that comes from peace, silence, contemplation and reflection. Perhaps we can start right now.