November 29, 1999
Everyone seems to be in such a hurry. Driving to work on one of Chicago's main expressways, I'm always shocked by how fast some people drive. I'm no slowpoke, but it isn't unusual for others to pass me so fast that it seems as if I'm standing still. But that isn't the only thing that makes me take notice. People today seem to be in hurry no matter what they're doing. We're certainly not a patient society. To some extent that's OK. It keeps us on our toes, and I think most of us feel more productive when we get things done without unnecessary deliberation. Then there's the other end of the spectrum, when we're moving far too fast, throwing caution to the wind. We can end up forgetting all about our goals and the direction we should be headed. We risk losing control.
Some of these issues are addressed in a recent book called The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman. The author is a foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times. Basically, the idea behind his book is the fact that the Cold War no longer shapes our world; globalization does. Consequently, he believes that because of the explosion in technology and information, we're all becoming part of what communications guru Marshall McLuhan used to talk about back in the '60s-the notion of a global village where everyone would feel connected.
In his book Friedman tells the story of traveling to Japan and visiting a Lexus plant that produced more than 300 cars a day. That feat was accomplished with 66 people and more than 300 robots. From his observations Friedman determined that the robots were doing all the work. The people were there only for quality control. Friedman says the Lexus factory represented something very basic in all of us: the need for prosperity, progress, improvement, modernization and doing things faster, better and cheaper. In short, for many of us good is never good enough. You can always strive to be better.
Then there's the olive tree, the other part of the book's title. It symbolizes something else that's very basic for all of us. Most of us probably don't think about trees very often, but to me there's something special about them. They have a grace and beauty that transcend urban noise and grime. Obviously the Lexus is a sleek piece of engineering, but it's no match for a grand old tree. Friedman says it best: "(Olive trees) represent everything that roots us, anchors us, identifies us, and locates us in the world-whether it's belonging to a family, a community, a tribe, a nation, a religion or, most of all, a place called home. Olive trees are what give us warmth of family, the joy of individuality, the intimacy of rituals, the depth of relationships, and the confidence and the security to reach out to others." Maybe all of us are in such a hurry to build the equivalent of a better Lexus that we forget about the importance of our olive trees. That's a big mistake.
How can leaders be so busy that they can never find time to meet with their employees? Why is it so hard for some people to say thank you to colleagues for a job well done? Why do some organizations, especially in healthcare, forget the reason they're in business-the people they serve? Sure we live in a fast-paced world, but that can't be an excuse. We still must find time for what's really important-our families, friends, customers and colleagues. We also need to find time for ourselves. Maybe we should string a hammock between two trees and simply meditate. Life is too precious to hurry through.
Charles S. Lauer