I revisited a friend at his Balaton lake house last weekend. Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe also known as the Hungarian sea. Just 500 kilometers away and the weather was warmer than the snow-packed Cluj. I had the sun, the view and more than a stack of books at his lakeside house. And as chance would have it, next to Taleb’s signed copy of Black Swan was a book, ‘Riding the waves of culture’ by Fons Trompenaars. The book had a complete chapter on Time. This is the chapter abstract with my interpretation for you.
Culturally, we either think of time sequentially as a series of passing events or synchronously with interrelated past, present and future. The ideas about the future and memories of the past, both shape the present action. Time can be legitimately conceived of as a line of sequential events passing us at regular intervals. Or as cyclical and repetitive, compressing past, present and future by what these have in common, seasons and rhythms.
In the Greek myth, the Sphinx, a monster with the face of a woman, the body of a lion and the wings of a bird, asked all wayfarers on the road to Thebes, “What creature is it that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noonday and three legs in the evening?” Those unable to answer she ate. Oedipus, however, answered “man” and the Sphinx committed suicide. He had grasped that this riddle was a metaphor for time. 'Four legs' was a child crawling, two legs the adult and three legs an old person leaning on a stick. By thinking in a longer sequence about time, the riddle was solved.
How a culture thinks of time helps it interpret and find meaning in life. Even our conception of time is strongly affected by culture because time is an idea rather than an object. Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, saw it as a social construct enabling members of a culture to coordinate their activities orientations to past, present, and future. However imperfect our ideas about past or future be, they influence our thinking powerfully. These subjective times influence our judgment and our decision-making. Hence, an important part of creativity is to assemble and combine different times.
For a sequential thinker, everything has its time and place and any change or turbulence in this sequence will make the sequential person more uncertain. The flaw in this thinking is that “straight lines” may not always be the best way of doing something. It is blind to the effectiveness of shared activities and cross connections. The synchronic method, however, requires that people track various activities in parallel, rather like a juggler with six balls in the air with each being caught and thrown in rhythm. It is not easy for cultures which are not used to it.
Sequentially could be short-term in nature, something controllable from the present, something for a speculator, “going for the quick buck”. But then the same sequentiality could also be “only as good as the last performance”. The future becomes a sequence of episodes of relative success and failure. People unburden themselves of relationships and dependencies not useful in the next stage of their career. Those on the up today may be gone tomorrow. Valuation and assessment become numbers. How much did you add to the bottom line this quarter? Planning becomes extrapolation and tasks become chasing short-term schedules and targets.
On the other hand, synchronic organizations favorably assess employees for a positive relationship with supervisors and see relationships as knowledge accumulation. Continuity is preferred. Culturally one could be synchronous but behave sequentially in the markets. Human behavior is complex and the markets are Sphinx-like. The only way out seems thinking on a long sequence of time and to harness different degrees of time.