Live well, make time to stand and stare

Live well, make time to stand and stare

There are people who have money, and there are people who are rich.

This quote from fashion legend Coco Chanel flashed through my mind when I saw the obituary of a wealthy businessman whom I worked for some years ago.

He was a good man who took care of his family and the thousands of workers at his factories.

But he was also always busy and preoccupied with one issue or another involving his vast business empire. Late into the night, when most of us were sound asleep, he would still be faxing instructions to his managers.

When I learnt of his passing, I felt a pang of regret that he did not have more time to enjoy the wealth he had worked so hard to accumulate. He was only in his late 60s and still working when he died.

I was reminded of a story told by the late economist Peter Bernstein about the man who chose to hug his bag of gold coins close to his chest as his ship sank. "Now, as he was sinking, had he the gold? Or had the gold him?" Mr Bernstein asked.

There is no shortage of lessons to remind us that there is much more to life than just chasing success unrelentingly, blindly seeking a better return on investments, or scrambling furiously up the corporate ladder.

One thing we would do well to use more wisely is our time - that slippery, irreplaceable resource often valued most only when it is gone.

Writing in the first century, the Roman philosopher Seneca observed how little people seemed to value their lives as they lived them: "People are frugal in guarding their personal property, but as soon as it comes to squandering time, they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy."

Doesn't the same apply to us today? We spend our time rushing around, but as soon as we have a spare moment, we become glued to our mobile phones, even though we may be happier doing other things like catching up with friends.

Some will argue that the reason we work long hours - to the extent of neglecting our families and even our health - is that we enjoy doing what we do for a living and the prestige that goes with it if we reach a senior position.

People also spend longer hours at the office because of the growing job insecurity spawned by the economic uncertainties of recent years.

So getting to the office first and being the last to leave is viewed, by some, as a way to get pay rises and promotions - or being saved from being axed when budgets are cut.

That appears to be the rut some of us find ourselves stuck in, as we waste irreplaceable time by lingering fruitlessly at the workplace.

But I have friends who chose to turn away from the glamour and rewards offered by the corporate world at the peak of their careers and now say their lives are richer for it.

One of them is Richard Tan, who was in his early 50s when he left an illustrious investment banking career more than 10 years ago to do more volunteer work, including helping at the Assisi Hospice.

Recently, he wrote to tell me about the wonderful reunion he had with his classmates in Bhutan as they celebrated their 50th year of graduation from Catholic High School.

He said: "It was a real motley group comprising a former university president, a top-dog heart surgeon, a leading ophthalmologist, former bankers, non-graduate teachers and even a former prisoner who had just walked out from Changi. The life trajectories of our classmates since graduation could not have been more different."

For seven days, they silenced their mobile phones, threw their professional status to the Himalayan winds and let their hair down as they recalled schooldays and getting to know one another.

I felt a twinge of envy reading his e-mail.

Many of us lose touch too quickly with our friends from school as we get on with our lives. Yet, Richard was able to help organise a class reunion and celebrate it memorably. It certainly was time well spent for every man present.

As the new year kicks off, my hope is that all of us will try to use our time more judiciously. I bet that doing so will leave us richer in surprising new ways.

engyeow@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Jan 11, 2015.
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