As nearly everyone is aware now, there was a period of time in October when European BlackBerries stopped receiving data, or only received it sporadically. Depending on location and service provider, the interruption lasted anywhere from a few days to nearly two weeks. For me, this period lasted about ten days. And, as luck would have it, it happened at a time when I had very limited time or Internet access because of a move to a new apartment in a new country.
While I was certainly caught up in the frustration of the event along with everyone else, I also came to see it as an interesting moment in time, one from which I should learn. Without the BlackBerry, I found myself thinking a bit more, and wondering in particular about the role that our smart phones and email devices play in our daily existence.
During this BlackBerry Blackout period, I came across a column by Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times of October 16, in which she makes an interesting observation. As she watched those around her adapting to life without their trusted device, Kellaway noted an inverse relationship between power and anxiety. Those individuals most likely to experience withdrawal and angst tended to be in the lower rungs of the organizational hierarchy. People of rank and power within their organizations seemed far less worried, more able to take the absence of their precious data in stride.
The author proposed several plausible explanations for this phenomenon, but to me one stood out: “If you are the sort of person endlessly looking at stupid messages on a small screen, you aren’t the sort of person to get to the top anyway.”
Two elements of this sentence caused me to pause and reflect: the word “stupid”, and the phrase “sort of person”. For, I think Lucy Kellaway is correct on both accounts. Much of the email we get, and respond to, is in fact stupid. The problem is that we have developed a sort of conditioned response: an email comes in; our answer goes out. We often react immediately when the message arrives because this is what we have trained ourselves to do, and certainly not because it makes sense to spend our time this way. If we stepped back from it all, we would see that a lot of the messages we receive and send are unnecessary, even “stupid”.
As a personal aside, I must confess that I have become quite feeble when it comes to playing the email game. The sheer volume of what comes in is daunting, and I am surely not attentive or efficient enough, particularly by today’s definitions of efficiency. So, my lack of response to email is certainly a failing on my part. At the same time, this failing may be a necessary defense mechanism, and even a virtue for other parts of my life. For example, if I were better at email, I am not sure I would be as productive in terms of creating content for my seminars, my books, my articles, or this blog. If I spent more time answering emails, my life would be far less interesting.
But enough about my failings and back to the issue at hand…I mentioned that I was intrigued by the use of the word “stupid” in this article, but also by the concept that the “sort of person” who endlessly watches a small screen is not the sort to become a leader in our organizations. For me, this is somewhat obvious and somewhat troubling.
The image of a sea of individuals looking down at the screens of their hand-held machines, while the greater world outside continues to spin above them, is a fascinating one. And, it is often what I see in the streets, elevators and office buildings of London, Paris, New York or elsewhere. And I ask myself if those individuals who will eventually rise toward the top are not so much the masters of the smart phone but rather those who manage to disconnect periodically, to actually look out at the world.
As someone who often challenges clients and students to try to see and understand a larger context, the BlackBerry Blackout made me wonder if our attachment to these devices was not in some way inhibiting our growth. I suspect that if your nose is constantly in your BlackBerry, it is difficult for your eyes to look up and see a Bigger Picture.
It is a question of living in urgency versus searching for significance.
I will develop this concept a bit more in next week’s post…