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Rethinking time and inactivity in order to thrive

In her latest book, Thrive, Arianna Huffington tells us that we need to change and that, with our frenetic work schedules, 24/7 connectivity and all our other sources of stress, our current model for success is simply not working. Having worked hard for her own success, which has also brought her great popularity and wealth, she is now taking advantage of her critical skills and showing us how to move beyond power and money. And we should listen to her carefully, as we should the others who are advising us to rethink how we have been organising our time through these hectic years of globalisation, digital revolution and financial boom.

“Nowadays, we’re always in a hurry, and we need quick thrills,” lamented Roberto Vecchioni, an Italian singer-songwriter and author with a sensitivity for relationships, whether it be with other people, with places (and with Milan in particular), or with social settings.  So it’s time for change to avoid becoming overwhelmed, as discussed by Brigid Schulte, a journalist for the Washington Post, in her book recently published by Sarah Crichton Books: Overwhelmed. Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. In short, we need to stop being too busy, overwhelmed by our commitments in life, no time for a break or for a bit of quiet reflection. We’re living lives dominated by a fear of empty space in our agendas, doing everything we can to make sure they are packed full of appointments, meetings, trips, deadlines and commitments. We need to find new balance and take heed of the advice found in an Italian blog by and about women, La 27ORA, hosted by Corriere della Sera and edited by Barbara Stefanelli, which talks about the relationship between work and personal life and other issues of great relevance to our modern lives.

We need to rethink time, both in business and, above all, in our personal lives. The financial folly of the 1980s and 90s was driven by an attitude of wanting everything and wanting it now, by an obsession with quick return on investment, by business and investment valuations driven by the opening and closing of the world’s financial markets and by the publishing of quarterly reports for impatient analysts (and holders of stock options valued on the basis of the performance of their companies’ stocks). No long-term vision. No far-reaching strategies. Not until the imbalance and neuroses of “the Great Crisis” when we finally begin to talk about the “real economy”, the renaissance of manufacturing, smart manufacturing, and the “new factory”, and start rethinking how we make use of our time – to “thrive”, as Arianna Huffington would say. Thank you, Arianna.

Of course, it’s more than that. “Modernising is tiring”, as a wise philosopher, Franco Cassano, had warned back in 2001 when he explained how the expressions “wasting time” and “making time” are relative terms, how fundamentalism in modernisation (keeping busy as a philosophy of life, productivity as a value and not as a tool or an indicator, and so on) can keep us from achieving our goals of sustainable economic growth, whether it be for a business or for a nation as a whole. He was right, but it was more or less a case of “a voice of one calling in the wilderness”.

In a time when most of the business world was rushing headlong into the disaster of 2007-2008, in certain circles we were, fortunately, beginning to see another culture of enterprise, one focused on human and social capital, sensitive to the teachings of Nobel prize winner Gary Becker about the ethics of business and the protection of the environment as a guide for new business, and about the values that can lead to a “new wealth” for a community, for a nation, or for a continent. Sustainability.

And so we come back to time, because “sustainability” has at least two implications: both that of balanced development that can be environmentally and socially “sustained” by a community and development, therefore, that can last over time, development that is neither rash nor greedy. To reach this objective, we need a better, more human approach to business – more reflection and less focus on productivity at all costs.

Creativity, the driver of innovation, requires the freedom to wander before setting off on the path to a concrete result. Research, as Karl Popper has taught us, takes time, time for a certain result to be “falsified”, for the claim to be refuted and for the error to be found. Our minds must be free to follow their own paths in order to uncover ideas that can then be translated, in business, into actual products and services and to be ready to keep on innovating. Years ago, Domenico De Masi, a sociologist with a passion for originality, coined a nice expression,  ozio creativo (creative inactivity), and it’s an idea that remains relevant to this day.

Inactivity is anything but a failing. It’s the attitude of making time for everything, including making time for nothing – for complete inactivity and silence – because time filled with nothingness is time for reflection, time for our minds to wander, to be creative, and to ponder concepts like love and spirituality. There can be no civility without silence, no new ideas without freedom. No art. No culture. No interpersonal relationships. No morality in social and economic relations. And it’s worth taking a look back at the founders of economics, such as Smith and Keynes, for some essential thoughts on these points.

In this renewed quest for work-life balance and for sustainable wellbeing, this rethinking of time is crucial. If indeed development is freedom (as taught by Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel prize for economics), then we need to have a serious, critical talk about time in order to achieve what an overwhelmed person never could: a goal, a project, a dream, an enterprise. Our use of time is a key part of finding new balance between work and life – both quality time and the quantity of time ¬– time for thought, for conversations, for research and – why not? – for meditation and contemplation. Time for a new culture of reflection, of speech, and of action.

So time, place, culture, and values. In Italy, this good use of time is a part of our heritage. Without it, our society wouldn’t have so much art or so much culture on which to base its programmes for development (and Symbola, a foundation that promotes a more “Italian” approach to business, is a great proponent of this). It is a heritage in which we must continue to invest – to invest in reflection and in time, to learn to let time slip through our fingers, to relax. Sooner or later, something will come back to us, and it will be growth.