Investing in Infinity

About a month ago I had the opportunity to visit the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad in India. It was my first visit to India, and I was quite impressed with the facilities at Hyderabad, to say the least.  Against one of the class room walls, a donor had paid homage to his grandmother, who had taught him that he had to invest in things of infinite value.

More precisely, his homage stated the following: “In loving memory of my grandmother xxx, who taught me that only learning leads to achievement and that there are no limits to either.”

In my mind I translated this to the following:

  • Invest in Learning
  • Invest in Excellence
  • Both are infinite

Looking at some of the old museums and forts in Hyderabad , Ghaziabad, and Delhi, thinking back to the old civilizations, and reflecting on my field of interest i.e. the academic world, I realized the following:

  • People are finite.  We are born, we live, and we die. We talked about the kings and generals of the days gone by. We ourselves will die, some of us sooner than others. But as we say, the only sure things in life are death and taxes.
  • Civilizations are finite.  They are created, they grow, and then they self-destruct.  Hegel developed his Dialectic Approach to history stating exactly that. This happened to the Greek, the Roman, the Chinese, and the Indian civilizations, among others.
  • Knowledge is finite.  We speak of the half-life of information becoming shorter, meaning that it loses its relevance for contemporary at an increasing rate. Of what we learnt 10 years ago, more than half is probably irrelevant today, if not just not true anymore.
  • Buildings are finite.  We can take a look at the level of degradation of these monuments of the past. In spite of man’s best efforts, they wear away slowly but surely.
  • Organizations are finite.  Have a look at the organizations that are older than 100 years.  There are very few of them.  Yet when we place a value on them, we assume an infinite life and use discounted cash flow methods to determine the valuation of the company!

Given these realizations, I was very comfortable with the homage I spoke about above, and for the following reasons:

  • Learning is a verb.  It is something we do.  Knowledge per se can become dated. But the ability and the willingness to keep on learning is not finite.  If we can do just that, we will learn and relearn and unlearn as we go along, thus ensuring that we stay relevant.
  • We can also ensure through learning that we keep ourselves in a position to achieve, to achieve excellence.

I tell my MBA students right at the start of their MBA studies that they need to develop an attitude of learning.  If they were there to obtain an MBA, it was a waste of time.  It would be better for them to invite me for a week of golf at some or other exotic resort as we would at least enjoy the process more, and their organizations would in any case not notice the difference! As a matter of fact, the real studies start only after obtaining the MBA!

From India I went to Khartoum in the Sudan.  During the weekend, I had the good fortune of visiting the pyramids at Meroe.  Not only did I get confirmation of the point that civilizations and buildings are finite, but I also got confirmation of the infinite nature of excellence.  What am I referring to?

The Sudan was part of the Egyptian civilization that gave us the pyramids and mathematics.  They were civilised to a level which was unheard of in their time.  Yet today there is not a lot left of this civilization, other than the pyramids and mathematics.

On the Friday evening I had the good fortune of listening to a quintet of violin players from Venice performing Mozart and Vivaldi! This took place in the open desert, with the pyramids in the background, the sun setting in the west, and a full moon rising in the east. Can you imagine the scene?! It was poetic and hauntingly beautiful!

As I was listening to these masters (Mozart and Vivaldi), I realized they have long been gone.  Yet their music, their excellence, is still with us and probably more of value in today’s time than in their own!  These people, and others like them, i.e. Beethoven, Strauss, Bach, to name but a few, had transcended the finite and performed at a level that had infinite value. I was extremely humbled by my experience, and it will remain one of the cherished moments of my life. A bucket list moment in retrospect!

This aspect gave meaning to me on the investment in excellence part of the homage statement.  You need to strive to excellence.  We cannot all be a Mozart, a Vivaldi or a Beethoven, but we need to strive towards this level as if we are a Mozart or a Beethoven.

Yesterday I had the privilege of listening to Prof Danica Purg, the founding and current President of the IEDC-Bled School of Management, Slovenia, and the founding President of the Central and East European Management Development Association (CEEMAN), which has 170 members from 42 countries and whose aim is to enhance management development in Central and Eastern Europe. She spoke at a leader’s angle meeting of the University Stellenbosch Business School on 15 Dec 2011 on the topic of the role of art in leadership development.

During her talk, she explained to the enthralled audience how they use music, Beethoven amongst others, to develop the ability of leaders to adapt their leadership styles according to the context, and to enhance their ability to deal with change. It was a fascinating talk. Among others, the following were deemed to be relevant:

  • Art is used to develop creativity
  • Leadership needs to be holistic and empathetic, which is enhanced through art
  • Art communicates, inspires, shocks and provokes
  • Art stimulates us to broaden our skills
  • Art helps us to see symptoms of forthcoming change, to understand them, and to respond to them
  • Art in the form of music also helps leaders to listen
  • Art helps us to deal with order and chaos, being prevalent in the environment
  • Organizations are more than the sum of the parts
  • The relationship with the environment is essential for the final performance

For me this last experience in the middle of December brought the thought process that had started at the beginning of November, full cycle. I now had a contemporary application in practical terms for this homage the Indian donor had paid to his grandmother.

I now understood that the assumption that companies are created for infinity, is correct.  People lead and manage these companies, and that is where the problem lies.  They think in finite terms, and mostly tend to have a short-term orientation.  What we need to do is the following:

  • Get our leaders and managers to invest in learning, their own and that of the people of their organizations.
  • Get our leaders and managers to invest in excellence, their own and that of their people.
  • Get our leaders and managers to transform themselves and their organizations into institutions that strive towards the infinite

Only then will we have organizations that stand the test of time.  Only then will we have civilizations that last longer than a couple of hundred years.

Otherwise some or other person will in a millennia or two look at the ruins of our civilization and debate about what had made us disappear, will even use us as an example to make the point that they need to invest in learning and excellence, both being of infinite value!

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7 Responses

  1. Louw says:

    Lovely. It is said that we leave everything behind when we die. Not quite true for those who believe in a spiritual life after death of our body – virtually all religions. If our spirit lives on into infinity, then surely what we put into the spirit (learning & excellence) during life in the body will survive into the next life. Thus investing in learning & excellence = investing in infinity. Simple. No need to travel to India, Sudan or Stellenbosch although that would be so much nicer than sitting in Apapa, Nigeria and penning this note. Happy holidays!!!

  2. Mark Human says:

    From the perspective of an individual I agree with Johan, but I have difficulty with simply defining learning as infinite and knowledge as finite per se. As always with concepts such as learning and knowledge, I feel it depends on the perspective you view it from.

    From an individual perspective learning as a verb can be viewed as infinite, but from a narrow angle it is limited to the time constraints of an individual, ie it becomes finite. In contrast, knowledge from a cumulative perspective, viewed as the total knowledge of mankind at any given time, must necessarily be infinite. That is what drives progress. Continious learning by an individual leads to breakthrough moments by that individual, at which point something as achieved (as envisaged by the grandmother of the donor) and some or other discovery is made or invention created which adds to the infinite cumulative knowledge of mankind and black swan moments are created which in turn creates new content for learning and opportunities to create increased knowledge.

  3. Piet Bester says:

    Excellent…lets learn, invest and strive for infinity in ourselves and transfer these ideas while engaging other people.

  4. Gerhard Genis says:

    Brilliant stuff! Well portrayed Johan Being in India a couple of times myself it brings back good memories Specially those related to learning and gaining knowledge from their culture, way of doing things etc It is amazing how many “truths” one can learn from their heritage

  5. Ferdie Lochner says:

    I have had the good fortune to follow your journey of lifelong learning over the past 21 years, and often to accompany you on this journey. True, learning leads to knowledge. The most salient attribute, however, of these is “sharing”, because it typically should help to embed longevity of that what is good. Thanks therefore that you continue to share the skills of learning, and knowledge as the outcome thereof. I say all this, because I find this particular contribution one of the most insightful blogs I have ever read. I could not attend the last Leaders’ Angle, but the lessons forthcoming from Prof Danica Purg, especially in the context you present them, are most valuable. Thanks again! Ferdie

  6. Jeroen Bolt says:

    Thanks Johan,

    an inspiring article. Invest in learning and excellence, strive for infinity; that’s a powerful vision. Simple guidelines that (if I translate it to the daily practice of changing organizations) force people to look forward and base their decisions on. This is better than adapting strategy based on past results, measured within the company, which leads to taking decisions based on data that is often a couple of months old already.

  7. Reinier says:

    Legacies, in general, are often infinite of nature. Unfortunately also the bad ones… Isn’t the Level 5 leadership concept from the Good to Great study (Jim Collins) an example of infinite leadership legacies?

    Johan, bucket list moments like the one you experienced in Sudan is indeed a classic infinite memory! You are blessed to have many of these moments to support the infinite legacy that you’re building in your circle of influence!

    Viva life long learning!