December-January 2013

OPINION: It’s time to think

ThinkingI recently travelled deep into the countryside on a covert mission. I was to meet the semi-retired head of a hugely successful (in terms of long-term performance) fund management company. My brief was to scribble down his secrets for posterity. Having toiled over hill and dale (in a taxi), I found myself ensconced on a squashy sofa with a strong cup of tea and two rather jaunty spaniels. I began to pick the great man’s brains. What were his secrets? There were, as you might expect, many – most of which I cannot share because of the mysterious nature of my mission. But there was one harmless, completely non-confidential and in some ways quite banal piece of advice that stood out: give yourself time to think. So obvious. But how many of us follow this maxim? And, more importantly, how many of us work in environments that allow us to follow it? The advice became more interesting when my interlocutor began to elaborate on how his company had gone about giving its staff the head space it deemed necessary for success. Separation of work and private life was thought crucial. Thus, staff were not encouraged to check emails from home or to use Blackberrys and iPhones for work purposes. Now, to suggest to busy professionals that they should give up their portable devices is a kind of modern heresy one almost dares not utter. And, when I made this outlandish proposal to an over-stressed friend a few weeks later (I suggested she turn the thing off for a few hours), she began visibly to twitch and clasped it to her bosom, as if I might snatch it from her and grind it under my Luddite heel. There is no reason people should give up modern technologies that make their lives easier, and I’m sure my semi-retired spaniel-owning friend would agree. His was not a cry for some kind of neo-Luddism. What he did want people to give up is using those technologies in ways that actually make life much harder – and erode that crucial head space. Imagine if no one responded to emails when they weren’t at work. If when they were on holiday, they were on holiday, when at home, fully at home. What would happen? Well, I for one would be very happy never to receive another email from a public relations person that says, “I’m on holiday. John will deal with this. John, can you email Fiona? Sent from my Blackberry”, when I’ve already received an out-of-office reply pointing me in the direction of John. People send these emails because they think it’s expected. That’s the trouble with technologies that expand availability; they create an expectation. If we want to have time to think, we need to protect our head space and that of others by not meeting those expectations and not expecting. To be constantly available, always on, entirely unable not to respond to piercing little beeps from the darkest recesses of your handbag or briefcase, is to enter a brain-mashing, nerve-crushing nightmare that hinders rather than fosters creativity and insight. Nowhere is this more true than the fund management industry. The amount of information available to investment professionals is overwhelming and growing daily – and useless without being
in possession of a cool, assessing head. And at no time is it more true than in a time of crisis. The ability to keep one’s head when all around you are losing theirs is a skill not readily fostered by an umbilical link to a mobile phone. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu writes: “Silence is a source of great strength.” Head space, time to think, the possibility of switching off: we neglect these crucial variables at our peril. ©2012 funds europe

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