In a letter addressed to Lucilius, the celebrated rhetorician, author, and playwright of Ancient Rome, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, known more generally by the mononym Seneca, stated:
The largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose. What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years be behind us are in death’s hands.
He was talking about making practical use of life’s most expensive commodity—time—that which can never be bought, just spent. Seneca’s meditative piece is not dissimilar from the approach he used to address a variety of topics and moral issues in other writings. As a Stoic philosopher, Seneca’s perspective on the use of time was aligned with Stoicism’s core principle: virtue itself is the highest good. And to live a happy life, what one thinks and does must be aligned with the virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom. Time must therefore be used virtuously. Alas, this is easier said than done.
In light of the multiple hats one wears conjoining the various roles and responsibilities of a court manager, how does someone ensure that she is spending her time in a virtuous fashion? Warren Buffett, a financier billed as the Oracle of Omaha, recommends a relatively simple process when deciding how to allocate time for career objectives. Also known as “Buffett’s Law of Focus,” it involves listing one’s top 25 career goals and then deciding which of those are the 5 most important. Once the hard choices are made, Buffett advises putting all of one’s efforts into achieving only those top 5, disregarding the remaining 80 percent. In short, one should concentrate on the most significant priorities and eliminate any activities unrelated to those. This exercise seems straightforward, but is it realistic for the modern-day manager? Can the same law be applied to all of life’s silos—personal, familial, even spiritual? And how can one be sure that the time spent on the selected 20 percent is truly virtuous?
Toni and I were meeting for brunch at the VIP restaurant in the Montgomery District—a part of the city where she owned and managed a small, multifamily home. Despite its name, the establishment was anything but exclusive. Its wide menu selection and proximity to local transportation kept it relatively busy. Most of the food was fine if not excellent, but their Reuben was one of our favorite go-to brunch items. It was about 11:00 a.m. when I walked in and saw that Toni was already seated in the corner booth, which we liked for its panoramic view of the five-corner intersection outside. We ordered two Reubens and a dark roasted oolong tea. It’s not a weekly or even monthly sandwich—pastrami, corned beef topped with a fried egg, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and horseradish sauce—but it’s great comfort food. We agreed that the mineral-rich taste of the soil tea always paired perfectly with the sandwich.
I was sipping on the tea, savoring its notes of smoked coffee and caramel, watching the hurried pace of pedestrians and vehicles when I suddenly blurted out, “I’m not much of a writer, but I’m beginning to understand what it means to have ‘writer’s block.’”
Toni placed the small menu card she’d been flipping through back into the ring-style metal holder at the end of the table between the condiments and asked, “What is it that you’re writing (or trying to) that you can’t seem to break through?”
“It’s this assignment that’s due next week for a course I’m taking. The professor asked that we write our own obituary. And to be honest, the fact that it’s a management course and I don’t see the point to the exercise just makes it much more vexing.”
“Go through the process and I think you’ll see that the assignment is really about managing yourself. And perhaps more importantly, how to manage yourself so that you can make the most impactful contributions with the time you’re afforded—starting today.”
“Okay. Your explanation makes sense, although I wish the professor had said that. Inexplicably, he assigned it without any direction other than to write it.”
“I didn’t write an obituary per se but I once went through a process of revising my bio, and that gave me the same feel. Anyway, he likely wanted you to figure that out on your own without the benefit of my preamble. I didn’t mean to, but hopefully I haven’t ruined the journey for you.”
“No worries, Toni—you’ve given me a reason to go through the motions at least. Without it, I was having trouble finding an excuse to even start the car. But now that you’ve shared the destination, you might as well give me the map so that I can navigate the road. Tell me about this bio-obituary you wrote.”
“Those are some good metaphors—looks like you’re at least learning something from me. I’ll spare you the suspense though—some time ago I was asked for my bio and when I submitted it, I was told it was much too long.”
“How long was it?” I asked.
“Frankly, not that long—one page, single-spaced.”
“How much shorter did they want it?”
“I asked the same thing, and they basically asked that I cut it in half—a 200-word limit.”
“Good grief—that’s not much at all. Especially because of all that you’ve done and accomplished.”
“It isn’t. But by the time I was done making the hard choices of what to cut out, I felt like it boiled down to how an obituary might read—or at the very least how I would like for it to read. Strangely, it gave me a renewed focus on what I wanted to accomplish before the eternal footman grabbed my coat.”
“An unintended benefit of their request,” I concluded.
“Yes—the word count forced me to think more concretely about what I considered most important by virtue of excluding everything else. So, I asked myself, ‘Where have I contributed the most?’”
“Were you thinking in terms of areas of greatest success?”
“I did, but not in terms of money. It was not so much an afterthought (as it should be) as it was a measure in response to the central question: How much money do I need to make X contribution?”
“In other words, how much money do I need to fund my education?”
“Correct. How would I then contribute—make my mark—with that education? And again, however unintended, the simple exercise of abridging my bio caused me to rethink my personal mission across various roles and distill it through a sort of ‘priority purge.’”
“Interesting—do you recall what you wrote?”
“Not verbatim, so you’ll need to read it on your own,” she offered. Toni lifted her purse onto the table from the seat of the booth and unzipped an interior pocket. She pulled out a piece of paper that was roughly the size of a postcard. “I carry a copy of it in my daily handbag,” she asserted.
She didn’t mention when she wrote it. I imagined her life’s purposes were stowed away for quite some time in that hidden compartment, and she would be reminded of them whenever she had a craving for hard candy. The paper was folded into thirds—the creases worn enough that soon would split without the need for scissors. I carefully opened it like a miniature benefits package pamphlet and there her briefest bio read:
Toni is a lucky woman. She transcended circumstances indicative of very humble beginnings and credits her relationships, the most notably of which was the one with her mother, for her accomplishments. She is a mother, wife, sister, friend, blue-collar worker, real estate investor, seamstress, gardener, viticulturist, and chef in her own kitchen. She is raising and challenging her children to be productive members in their professional and personal lives. She is a life partner to her spouse of 45 years. Her brothers and friends always know where to find her. Toni is a loyal union member and takes prides in their collective work product. She’s won and lost in the real estate market. In her spare time, she is a diligent seamstress having altered hundreds of dresses and pants and knitted scores of sweaters and blankets. Her seasons are marked by cultivating a garden with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and continues experimenting with the science of making wine. She prepares daily a medley of meals infused with recipes old and new and hosts annual holidays in her home without exception. Toni remains a proud immigrant and student of the English language and American culture. Like Sinatra, she does it her way and this is to say that she takes seriously the sage advice of William Wordsworth and fills this paper with the breathings of her heart.
“This is superb,” I said. “You left so much out and yet encompassed all of it.”
“So, you like it?” She asked.
“I do. And when they say some folks march to their own drum, that’s how I’d describe you except you’re playing the violin.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment. You can now see how it pushed me to focus on what I wanted to achieve in each of my respective roles.”
“I didn’t count, but did you meet the 200-word requirement? It seems like you did.”
“Close enough—life’s not perfect,” she countered with a grin.
The American automobile executive Lee Iacocca, notable for his career with the Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation, stated, “If you want to make good use of your time, you’ve got to know what’s most important and then give it all you’ve got.” Time is expensive, and the roles we play as a manager, partner, friend, hobbyist, and life’s traveler take up the lion’s share of it. To make the most of what we have requires that we periodically reflect on how we are devoting our time to ensure that it is being spent wisely. It is not unlike maintaining a bank account with each passing day a withdrawal, the balance unknown however slowly or quickly it diminishes.
Toni would argue that the virtuous life is about service to others in your network—large and small. And the ability to attain influence should be driven by the desire to give that the power away so that others can be in a better position to help themselves and, in turn, those in their sphere. This is an individual process that she organized along “mission measurables.” Although it is briefly alluded to in her bio, she measured her progress in each status “silo” by purging priorities based on what she deemed most important and then focused her efforts on achieving those goals over a designated period. Concentrating these goals also showed that it was a critical, necessary part of her process. In his book Life’s Missing Instruction Manual, Joe Vitale noted similarly suggesting that desires that are documented are more likely to be fulfilled because it helps shape perspective that they can, but more importantly, they will be achieved.
Ensuring that one spends their time virtuously is a personal pursuit centered on individual factors. This involves giving thoughtful consideration to Toni’s “Law of Contribution,” which takes into account potential and desire to determine how one can best add measurable value in each of her roles. Contributions—not the accumulation of money or things that money can buy—are thus most important because of the impacts those articulated goals have on the relationships she forges in life. Toni’s Law focuses on those achievements that helped pushed the world forward in some way. And even if she did not make any money for doing it, she would still have the contribution. I’m not a Stoic, but I can’t think of anything more virtuous.
And those are just some of my musings on management.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at email@example.com.