When time does matter


Time is an abstract concept that in our minds captures the past, the present and the future. Like a clock that constantly measures and tells us the length of the day, there is always a point which is the ‘present’ and time never stands still. Broadly speaking, we know what happened yesterday (and those events are irretrievable), we know what is happening now as that is in the present and will likely have a view of tomorrow, next week and probably next month but not much more. The future, when looked at today, is no more than a vision of uncertain events, an unknown space in time that eventually becomes the ‘present’ and then the ‘past’. Whilst we cannot change the past, nor move forwards into time, we can change the present and thereby influence the future.

Throughout the ages there have been individuals who have had a profound impact on society and the course of world events that went on to make up the future. The historical sources (some admittedly written many years after the event) give us an insight at least into their motivation and the world in which they lived. Of course, whilst we know what we know, this is often a small part of an incomplete, mostly, imperfect, record. But a common denominator among many of these individuals is their unique sense of their place in ‘history’, when living in the ‘present’ and therefore a certainty in their minds that they were creating the ‘future’. For sure, willpower, self-belief and even luck played a part, but so did their ability to transcend time and space through intuition and the projection of ideas. Everyone has intuition, but it is far more developed in some people than it is in others, and fewer still can project this into a reasoned idea to create a world-changing event (whether in the field of science, religion or politics) and thereby change the trajectory of history.

Whilst I do not profess to provide answers to the fascinating question of ‘how’ and ‘why’ in this short article, I will at least attempt to provide my perspective (albeit briefly):

1. Big impact events are born out of world-changing ideas. But it might take many years before events unfold, sometimes long after a person’s death. An idea that seemingly had no place in society in its time, can explode with shattering consequences in the future. Invariably this will not have been apparent to contemporaries.

2. Those people that define history are never afraid to express their ideas, even in the face of oppression or hostility and they often do so with brevity and simplicity. For example, Machiavelli’s De Principatibus (‘The Prince’) was no more than 70 pages long, whilst Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto was no more than a pamphlet. It might be no coincidence that the most successful politicians on the world stage in today’s modern era of social media and instantaneous communication, are those that also embrace brevity and simplicity, sometimes, however, at the expense of detail and even political honesty.

3. The biggest change makers in history were both ambitious and decisive, even if, being human, they could be expected to have their own private moments of doubt. If Alexander the Great had accepted the Persian King’s peace offer of half his empire (as his veteran General Parmenion suggested he should) instead of rejecting it and conquering the rest, our view of world history today might certainly have been very different. Of course, that was not who Alexander was as his famous retort to Parmenion informs us (“I would too, if I were Parmenion”).

4. Timing by itself can also be a world changing event. For example, the Mongols impact on ‘history’ is truly nothing short of remarkable. The Mongols, a nomadic people who spent much of their nomadic history fighting each other, could not have conquered an empire bigger than Alexander’s, had Genghis Khan not united the various tribes. Here the man and the time therefore coincided.

5. History tells us that often opportunism and seizing the moment can become world changing events. When the Moors crossed into Spain from Northern Africa in 711 this was more an expeditionary force than an army intent on conquering the Iberian Peninsula. But after landing, the Moorish force realised that the socio-political conditions were fragile and resistance feeble (especially among the local, oppressed, population), and in seven years they conquered almost the entire peninsula. Of course, they stayed for well over 700 years and in the process helped build one of the greatest civilisations in history (known as the Islamic Golden Age).

Can we learn to apply any of this in business decisions or even our own lives?

I believe we can:

(1) If one cannot explain a business model with simplicity and brevity it might not be as successful as we think it to be. Equally, in one’s personal life when faced with a challenge try to break it up into its component parts and keep it simple – do not over think. Overthinking can sometimes be our worst enemy!

(2) The success of an idea might not be immediately apparent to those around us but persevere and if the first door does not open keep knocking on other doors.

(3) When faced with decision-making be ambitious and act decisively. Do not settle for less when you can aspire to more. Failure is only a negative state of mind. We did not fail; it was just a temporary setback.

(4) Seize the moment when presented with the opportunity whether it is a new job/position or a new business plan. Never regret the opportunity was there for the taking but passed your way without seizing it.

(5) Finally, when business or life brings success, turn it into a positive force for good. Never forget the journey that brought you here, for if we forget the past there is little hope that we can change the future.

Nigel Feetham
15 December 2019