Recently, Finito Education held a fascinating mentoring roundtable at a major bank in the City. Around the table for the discussion were 20 or so very bright young things, all the children of clients of the firm, as well as former Universities minister Sam Gyimah. It was an impressive discussion where young people aired their dreams and their doubts.
Afterwards I was approached by a young man who wasn’t sure whether he wished to do postgraduate studies at Edinburgh or to go straight into employment. It was a very interesting conversation, but I could see also that whatever this person decided to do he would likely be successful: this was because he was asking all the right questions, and ready to hoover up any new information I might be able to offer up.
Soon the conversation turned to my journalism career and the people I have been lucky enough to interview during its course. Due the nature of the roles I’ve been lucky enough to have I’ve interviewed people from the world of business (Sir Martin Sorrell, Sir Richard Branson, Lord Cruddas), sport (Andre Agassi, Jonathan Agnew), entertainment (Sir David Attenborough, Sting, Simon Callow, Guy Ritchie), literature (Sir Tom Stoppard, William Boyd) and across many other sectors.
This intelligent young man asked me what he felt it was that had united all these people. Once you stripped away the inessential, the question was a very simple one. What causes success?
I must admit I’d never given the matter huge thought before that moment – except in the general way in which one is always trying to gauge what excellence is on the off-chance of emulating it in one’s own life. Even so I found myself – almost to my own surprise – offering up the unhesitating reply: time management.
But these two words tend to be bandied about a bit and are arguably bland; accordingly, I found myself enlarging on the point. All these successful people, in their different sectors, show a constant – even obsessive – awareness of the absolute value of time. All of them, even the wealthy ones, value it more than money.
This awareness takes many forms, but the impression is always of time as being the medium by which – and through which – success is going to happen, a realisation which in these people generates the utmost care when it comes to organising their days. I remember talking once to the financier Andrew Law about an interview we wished to do with him about the late Ian Taylor. He wondered whether a few lines would be suitable, but when I suggested he write a bit more, he said: “I see, so I’m going to have to devote time to this.” I loved the intonation on the word ‘time’: it told you all you needed to know.
Sometimes of course, it shows itself as impatience for the interview to be over and done with – something which journalists of every stripe must get used to and accept. I remember interviewing Attenborough during the pandemic, and feeling at the other end of the phone the need to get on to the next thing, which, in his case, in his mid-90s and with a planet to save, one could excuse, though I still wish he had been slightly less rude.
Often though, a successful person has ordered their lives with such impeccable care that they appear to give you their time almost infinitely once it is secured. One such was William Boyd who I spoke to for some three hours in his Chelsea home. He was so convivial and generous that at one point I wondered aloud whether he didn’t want me out of his hair. “It’s okay, Chris,” he said, “I’ve set aside this time.” Again, I was aware of time as a valuable commodity, and one could easily imagine that the morning taken up with me would cede to a productive afternoon of work.
Organising our time well can often turn out to be in some sense a moral boon for ourselves and others. It was CS Lewis who observed that a true Christian – in our secular world, we might think instead in terms of a highly successful person – will seem to have more time than other people. It is always an impressive thing to hear of those very busy and important people who make time for others – time which, we might have assumed, they didn’t have.
In fact, we always have it. As we make our choices in our careers, we may face any number of forks in the road, and sometimes we cannot control those outcomes. But here is something we can control – and the sooner we learn to master it the better.