January 2021

Imagine that there is an activity that every business executive would likely agree is critical to maximizing their success and that almost none did it. An activity that costs absolutely nothing, takes just 10 to 15 minutes per day, and brings about obvious and even immediate benefits. 

Now imagine that when these executives were asked why they didn’t do this particular activity, they shrugged their shoulders and said things like “I don’t have time” or “I don’t enjoy it” or, in a moment of greater honesty, “it makes me uncomfortable.”  

It gets worse. 

Imagine that these same executives regularly lecture their staff, not to mention their own children, about doing this activity and lamenting young people’s inability and unwillingness to do it! What I am referring to is the simple act of contemplation - sitting in silence, without distraction, thinking – doing nothing. Alone. 

I know, I know. There is nothing even remotely novel about this revelation. For centuries people have understood the importance of contemplation. Aristotle wrote, “The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.”

And yet we don’t do it!

I don’t believe it is any exaggeration to say that in the entirely of history, human beings have never been so easily and readily distracted, occupied, entertained, and inundated with information. We’ve all heard this before, but most of the executives I know haven’t come to terms with why this happened, and what it costs them. 

Contrary to popular belief, the root of this problem isn’t that we have access to information all the time. Information is a good thing. The real issue is that we no longer want to be silent; we do our best to avoid it because it makes us uncomfortable. Years ago, as an elder in my church, every time our pastor would ask a question, I would allow silence to be in play for about 5 seconds thinking, well, if no one else is going to pitch in, I will. In other words, I felt uncomfortable that you could hear a pin drop in the room. Finally one day, my pastor said to me, and the group, “Silence is okay. Yes, silence can be loud, but it’s important to contemplate the noise in our lives.”  Silence is loud. What a profound concept.

Thousands of years after Aristotle, the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel said, “Contemplation and wisdom are the highest of achievements and man is not totally at home with them.” That was 100 years before smartphones found their way into our pockets. See, it’s not that we have too much to distract us, but rather that we have come to prefer these distractions to being alone with our thoughts. 

The cost of avoiding silence and contemplation is as undeniable as it is varied. On a personal level, we lose our peace, experiencing much greater anxiety than we should or that circumstances warrant. That alone should provide enough incentive for us to make a change. 

Beyond that and related to it, we aren’t optimizing our decision making. It is ironic that with all the data and information available to us, our lack of thoughtfulness and reflection prevents us from fully using that information. In essence, we’ve become smarter but less wise. Finally, as a result of all this, our organizations suffer. When a CEO lacks peace and wisdom, no amount of knowledge can sufficiently make up for the frenzy and confusion that comes about. 

So what is the answer? Well, it won’t be found in a theoretical blog – like this one – about the dangers of over-stimulation. After all, we’ve been hearing about and talking about this for years. The only solution lies in an executive’s simple discipline and willingness to stop, at least once each day, and sit in uncomfortable silence. Thinking. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Over time, muscle memory will improve, and a leader will start to crave a half-hour here and 20 minutes there. But more important than their desire to satisfy that craving will be their practical understanding of the benefits for themselves and the people they lead that comes from peace, silence, contemplation, and reflection. 

Perhaps you’ll consider starting the new year off the right way? One resolution that might change your life!

Joe Bouch, CEO

Joe Bouch is the owner of 78Madison and has been in the advertising agency business for over 40 years, having started his career in 1978 on Madison Avenue. Truth be told, Joe has practiced silent contemplation for most of those years. Today, Joe still arrives at his office by 6:15am to spend time alone in reflection, prayer, and contemplation. Long before his staff arrives. This, he notes, is one of the key practices that keeps his leadership grounded and alive.