Conversations in Management: Blaise Pascal

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.

Blaise Pascal

PascalIt’s not unusual for quotes to be misattributed, but sometimes an idea makes so much sense to so many people that they all say basically the same thing independently of one another. That’s what’s going on here. The remark first surfaces in a collection of Pascal’s letters— Lettres Provinciales—published in 1657. Thirty-one years later, George Tullie (described as a polemical divine) used the line in his essay, “An Answer to a Discourse Concerning the Celibacy of the Clergy.” Tullie was one of those brilliant young gadflies whose meteoric rise to power and influence inevitably led to a meteoric crash. Despite his protestation to the contrary, when he wrote the Discourse he had plenty of time to make it shorter. In 1690, John Locke acknowledged that his now famed, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” might be improved if reduced in length but candidly chalked up the deficiency up to being lazy as well as too busy. America’s master of practical advice, Benjamin Franklin, fell back on the well-worn excuse of a lack of time to explain his verbosity as did America’s original deep thinker, Henry David Thoreau in the 18th and 19th century respectively. Roughly one hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson was asked how much time it took to prepare his speeches. Wilson quipped, “It depends—if I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.” The hour long ramble—now that’s something we’ve all experienced!

These are all pretty sharp people, so when they come up with a common idea, we should pay attention. But wait; aren’t we doing this already? Don’t we live in the age of concise speech nirvana? Hasn’t the 21st century brought us social media? The brief, rapid-fire repartee on Facebook might lead you to believe that we now communicate the complexities of daily life with laser-like precision. And the haiku quality of Twitter’s 140 character tweets now have us expressing our deepest thoughts with a profundity that would have Thoreau blushing with envy. Ah, were it only true. Unfortunately, the age of drive-by communications has failed to bring discipline to our thinking. The tweets of today are the long letters of yesteryear—imprecise and with a whiff of laziness. These platforms along with their first cousins—texts and email—provide us the veneer of communication while producing only digital air. On the other hand and lest we be too critical, not all such communicating is vapid. The Dalai Lama himself recently tweeted, “Cultivating inner discipline is something that takes time; expecting rapid results is simply a sign of impatience.” But, hey, he’s the Dalai Lama and Zen sayings are second nature to him. Most tweets carry the gravitas of the one displayed on a large screen while the Dalai Lama was speaking—“How many beers can you chug?” That’s the spirit!

We can add the Dalai Lama to the thread started by Pascal because in the end, it’s all about discipline. It takes discipline and time to reduce our broad thoughts into something meaningful. Whether rambling discourse and speech or impulsive tweets and posts, they amount to the same thing—approximations of what we believe. When we don’t take time to seriously reflect on what we think or feel, we end up making mistakes or creating problems where none need to exist. What’s worse, we trivialize what’s important. This week, before you write or speak, take a moment. Give your thoughts the time they deserve.        —Ebert

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