Life’s a Beach… and then you land up on one!

Why we need our rest.

26 November 2009, by Tracey Swanepoel

Johannesburg - It's the time of year for getting merry (so they say) rather than heavy. Judging by the sighing, fraught, exhausted shadows of our former (January) selves that we seem to have become, it has indeed been a hard year and there's an almost desperate "can't waitness" in the air.

What exactly is it that we "can't wait" for: the traditional family gathering? The madness of Christmas shopping (particularly the 24th, late afternoon)? Unlikely! I think what we really can't wait for is to stop doing what we HAVE to do and do what we WANT to do (yes, the last time I checked that's called a holiday). What's great about December in Joburg is that most people are actually on holiday at the same time. Not great if you are heading for a crowded coastal resort. Fabulous however if you are counting on not having to check your e-mails every five minutes, download your Blackberry or miraculously get connected even though you happen to be in the last outpost of civilization. It's like an unwritten, commonly agreed shutdown - for these few weeks we are all off!

The best thing about this is that we get permission to take a break from ourselves. There's a cute Garfield cartoon that comes to mind, it's a picture of Garfield staring off into the distance with the caption: "sometimes I sits and thinks.... and sometimes I just sits!"

Right now there's no doubt the yearning is to "just sits", but while we "just sits" - amazing things can happen; problems that seemed unsolvable get resolved; new ideas come bubbling to the surface; situations settle into perspective. Once we get off the "doing" treadmill we are free to think.

Changing the world - from the beach

In 1976, John Reed, at that time the wonder boy of banking, was sitting on a beach, thinking. Fortunately Reed had a habit of taking a notebook everywhere with him, even to a Caribbean beach. He started to write and his first sentence was: "I am sitting on the beach and thinking about the business". This note from the beach went on for thirty pages and turned out to be the blue print for Citibank's new kind of bank, consisting of a network of street level cash machines.

Sir Isaac Newton spent a year roaming the English countryside while Cambridge University was closed due to the plague. He later singled out that year as "the prime of my age for invention" and with good reason. It's while he was out there in the English countryside that he developed his foundational work, "Principia Mathematica".

Then there's Albert Einstein who developed his Theory of Relativity while working in the Swiss Patent Office (by all accounts a post so boring that it was the mental equivalent of being "on the beach", albeit not as pleasant!).

Food for thought

So when you find yourself sitting on the beach, gazing into the bushveld or just looking at the blue sky, here's something to think about: two of the world's ancient civilisations, the Aztecs and the Apaches, and the fascinating differences between them. One (the Aztec culture), sizable, exceptionally advanced, mathematically brilliant and well organised, yet dominated by competition, rife with blame and ruled by fear. This formidable culture was destroyed by an army of only 500, who did nothing more than hit the "big man" (the leader) on the head.

Consider in contrast the Apache civilisation, about one thousandth of the size of the mighty Aztecs. Against all odds they endured for thousands of years and proved to be unconquerable even by the most daunting armies. Leadership in the Apache culture was decentralised, in fact there was no formal leader. The tribe was bound together by deeply held values, belief systems and cultural norms.

For me this contrast raises some key questions:

About leadership: What's our footprint?
About identity:
About culture: What do we think is good around here?

It's these types of questions that are foundational to how we conduct our business, how we build our systems and processes, how we lead our people. The answers are not easy but they are important. So, to the corporates out there, to the lawyers, analysts, bankers, manufacturers, miners; to the government officials; to the parastatals and finally to you...whatever business you are in, how about a "note from the beach" outlining some really radical ways to improve our world!

Read published article on MoneyWeb site