As the Dutch philosopher Erasmus stated: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow, study as if you were to live forever.”
I first came across this quote while listening to a podcast, and it stuck with me, in particular how it reframes time to overcome a hesitancy we might have to learn a new topic. We face a constant dilemma of how to spend our time and learning can lack a sense of immediacy given our daily demands. It can also seem like a luxury (think of going to graduate school or taking time to read a book related to your field). But, if you expand your time horizons, as Erasmus urges us to do, it doesn’t seem like such a tradeoff. Ask yourself: What would you learn now, if you were going to live forever?
Asking the question presumes time is unlimited and removes it from the equation. Yet, Erasmus first states “live as if you were to die tomorrow.” Putting us squarely back in the dilemma we just escaped. Time is extremely limited, then time is unlimited. It may be that his sequencing leaves us with “live forever,” or that we are already familiar with the dictum to “seize the day,” but the quote seems more like a license to learn and explore as if time were unlimited. At least that is the meaning that has stuck with me.
Along with Erasmus’ dictum to consider time unlimited, I’ve noticed several companies have similar maxims that are meant to expand their time horizons.
For example, Jeff Bezos insists employees at Amazon act like it is “Day 1.” He doesn’t want to be a “Day 2 company.” In his words, “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.” Being a Day 1 company means you are just at the beginning. It invites exploration and a beginner’s mind. It helps avoid stasis because you know you have a long way to go. And it promotes long-term thinking about what the future might hold.
Likewise, at Facebook one of their maxims (and one posted on many of their walls) is that “this journey is 1% finished.” If the journey is only 1 percent finished, you need a lot more knowledge. Spending time to read, explore industry trends, or talk to customers, are all going to help you for that long journey. Of course, I’m taking a charitable interpretation of the slogan. Cynically, one might interpret it as advocating for world domination or trying to inflate the growth prospects of their stock, but if you had a similar slogan for yourself or your organization, might it help spur exploration?
Considering yourself at “Day 1” or that your “journey is just 1 percent finished” can help weather the dip in immediate performance that might occur if we invest more time in learning and development. Individually, think of heading back to graduate school. If performance is measured by your income, if you leave your job, your “performance” drops to zero, but it is done with the intent of raising your performance long-term.
Similarly in organizations, Elizabeth Keating and colleagues at MIT observed how immediate performance often suffered from an improvement program. They call this the “improvement paradox.” In a manufacturing context, they state: “It takes time for improvement effort to bear fruit. Therefore, the first effect of an increase in improvement effort is a reduction in the time employees can devote to throughput. The short run effect of improvement effort is a decline in output, exactly the opposite of the goal” (Italics in original, p. 121).
They describe this “worse-before-better” pattern with a Du Pont Preventative Maintenance Program where there was a decline in performance before a long-term improvement. This dip in performance isn’t preordained, of course, and is most likely pronounced when there is a tight coupling between time on task and our outputs. Nevertheless, in a world of constantly demonstrating our worth by visible outputs, learning can seem unproductive in the short-term, by comparison.
Thus, to combat a hesitancy to explore and learn, regularly ask yourself what you’ll learn now if you’ll live forever. In doing so, you’ll expand your time horizons to promote learning and growth for the long-term.
Bezos, J. (2017, April 17). 2016 letter to shareholders. https://www.aboutamazon.com/news/company-news/2016-letter-to-shareholders
Erasmus, D. (1978). The antibarbarians. (translated and annotated by M. M. Phillips). In C. R. Thompson (ed.), Collected works of Erasmus (vol. 23-24). University of Toronto Press. (Originally published 1520), p. 76.
Keating, E., Oliva, R., Repenning, N., Rockart, S., & Sterman, J. (1999). Overcoming the improvement paradox. European Journal of Management, 17(2), 120-134.
Facebook, Inc. (2012). SEC, Form S-1. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1326801/000119312512034517/d287954ds1.htm, p. 94
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