Executive Perspective

The Tyranny of Now

by Paul D. Houston

At this time of year, when we should be stepping back, taking stock of all we are grateful for, appreciating those we love and who move us and focusing on what changes we would like to make in our lives, it is important to find ourselves in the process. While this is a time of celebrations and beginnings, it is a great time to learn more about ourselves.

There is a terrific new book called The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle that reminds us that we get so caught up in living we forget to live. It is a primer on being in the moment and in finding ourselves by getting lost in the present. I liked the book and recommend it to you. It has a lot to say on how we can become more centered.

However, while I readily concede the power of now, I think there is a rising tyranny in the now that worries me. The now I am referring to is the now of instant gratification and immediate response. We are now living lives that seem to demand that we drop everything to make ourselves available to whoever is calling or e-mailing. I have gotten calls from people who are telling me that I haven’t responded to e-mails they sent that I haven’t even had time to read. I have had staff members panic when our computer system goes down for a few minutes because they might miss some important e-mail. What happened to the good old days when you got a letter that had been written days before, then you thought about it for a while before you responded to that person, licked the stamp and sent it off on its leisurely way?

And then there are the cell phones. Not only do we go around strapped for action, ready at the slightest “brrrr” to respond to anyone who might be calling, but we allow someone else to determine what is important for us to be doing right now and how we will be perceived by others when we take the call right now.

I know we all share the same pet peeve—people who leave those things on in meetings just so they won’t miss that very important call. My train of thought is usually hanging by a thread anyway, then the phone rings and I completely forget what I was thinking. I have given speeches only to hear people’s phones go off in the middle—leaving me, if not the audience, confused and with a bad case of “thoughtus interruptus.”

And it doesn’t help if they have those cute little songs programmed instead of a ring. It is still the essence of self-centeredness and it is impolite. It says whatever is important to me is much more important than anything you might have to say. Oh, wait, I have to answer this—now!

I am not an eavesdropper but in today’s world you don’t have to be—everyone is walking around with their lives hanging out by having the most intimate conversations at full volume. I don’t want to know what they are going to have for dinner or that little Johnny just made the potty training breakthrough or that Sheila is really upset with Angelo because he didn’t call yet. I really don’t need to know that. And they could wait to hear it and discuss it themselves in a more private setting.

Chance to Reflect
Now I realize that the latest greatest skill is multitasking. I would like to point out I have been a master of it my whole life, but before all this technology it was just called what it is—attention deficit disorder. For all those who are having trouble with their multitasking skills, let me suggest it is OK. In fact, I have three bits of advice for you. Do something. Finish it. Move on.

As far as I know they have not repealed the laws of physics—you cannot be in two places at the same time. You can’t be in a meeting and be alone with someone in intimate conversation. Stop trying. I know when cell phones first entered the market they were novel and therefore status symbols. Now they are just status cymbals.

I am not just going off on a rant here. While I do have Luddite tendencies, I recognize the power of technology to create more efficiency in our lives. But the point I am making is that we are so caught up in responding and reacting that we forfeit the power we have to think and reflect.

Leadership is about more than just getting back to someone. It is about taking the long view, of rising above the immediate to see into the future and to reflect upon the lessons of the past. You can’t do that if you are always caught up in doing. You can’t just do. You also have to be. Leadership is overcoming the tyranny of what others decide is important and taking charge of your own time and thoughts. And leadership is about being in the now without being controlled by it. That is one thought we need to keep in mind this holiday season.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.