Inspiring Infinity: Why Businesses Must Look Beyond Their Own Lifetimes
If our 13.8 billion-year-old universe was condensed into a calendar year, with the Big Bang occurring on 1 January and the present moment being midnight on 31 December, humans have only existed for 90 minutes. Dinosaurs appeared just five days ago, the pyramids were built 12 seconds ago and the Renaissance occurred a mere second ago.
This ‘cosmic calendar’, first used by Carl Sagan in the 1970s, shows us as the late arrivals that humans are in the expansive, mind-bending scale of the universe’s timespan. And if the average human life lasts around 72 years, that equates to less than 0.2 of a second on this 365-day scale.
But while the cosmic calendar is an incredible tool to show us our place in a staggeringly long past, it perhaps cannot demonstrate our place in the infinite nature of the future.
“You wouldn’t think it was groundbreaking for a country to have a long-term vision. But it is,” says Sophie Howe, former Future Generations Commissioner for Wales from 2016-2023. Speaking at a live panel event held by The Beautiful Truth last week, Howe explained the challenges she faced in a role that represents a constituency that does not yet exist: “My job came with a lot of frustration about the way that public policy is designed. Generally everything we do is very short term.”
Thinking into the distant future is not easy, especially on infinite timescales, but we must recognise the need for conscious, compassionate, long-term thinking. Threats like climate change, pandemics and food shortages may be impacting us now, but they will have a far more severe impact on the billions of people yet to be born.
The webinar event, moderated by The Beautiful Truth’s Co-founder and CEO Adam Penny, featured three contributors from Issue 02 to explore why businesses must prioritise thinking beyond their lifetimes: Charles Wookey, Christa Gyori and Sophie Howe.
Covid, the energy crisis, 24/7 news cycles, the next election, social media and television programmes all demand our attention right now. That’s before we even consider the short-term mindset often necessitated in business: quarterly reports, shareholder returns, month-on-month profit. In order for businesses and individuals to shift to a long-term mindset, the way that we measure and think about success itself must change.
“It’s a false dichotomy to say that you’re either purpose-driven or profitable. Businesses that are purpose-driven have greater employee retention, greater stakeholder trust and closer relationships with their customers.”Christa Gyori
Christa Gyori, Co-founder and CEO of Leaders on Purpose, emphasised how the goal posts are moving for CEOs when it comes to the definition of success: “In 2015, the Harvard Business Review changed what it meant to be a top CEO. Instead of only ranking businesses on their financial performance, they incorporated ESG performance. When they did that, the list of top CEOs radically shifted – Jeff Bezos had been number one for several years, but he fell to 87. I think Warren Buffett dropped off the list completely.”
While there is a shift in the way we think about successful business, and a new cohort of business leaders to match emerging, Gyori emphasises the need for practical urgency: “We don’t have time to reinvent the wheel – we need to change urgently.”
Howe agrees: “We have a complete obsession with limitless growth, but we cannot continue to grow in the same way and also have a planet to survive on. We need to find those purpose-driven leaders who are going to shake up the systems.” Businesses are made up of people with their own values, beliefs, hopes and fears. In order to change the system, we must start with the leaders.
“We cannot continue to grow in the same way and also have a planet to survive on. We need to find those purpose-driven leaders who are going to shake up the systems.”Sophie Howe
“Good leadership,” says Charles Wookey, “is making long-term, thoughtful decisions that you might not personally see the benefit of.” When it comes to documenting shifts in corporate purpose, few are better versed than Wookey, Co-founder and former CEO of A Blueprint For Better Business.
Wookey believes that our current reality is shaped predominantly by two ideas in the last 50 years. The first: the Friedman doctrine. The second: “A narrow view of what it means to be human – that people are atomized individuals motivated by money, status, and power.”
Instead, as Wookey emphasises, businesses need to recognise that people are also highly motivated by a desire to belong, feel cared about, grow and find meaning. And it is starting to happen: “Businesses that are genuinely embracing a purposeful and long-term mindset are seeing the benefits of it. It’s not automatic, but they are realising they can create value while also contributing to a better society that addresses the huge systemic risks that we’re all facing.”
“In the end, this isn’t a technocratic argument. It’s actually a mindset change and you can’t persuade people to have a mindset change just because of the data.”Charles Wookey
That’s where a community of like-minded businesses really shows its value. If we can all learn from each other, the transition to long-term thinking can be sped up enormously. But how do you convince the hardened business leader of the importance of planning 50, 100 or 1000 years into the future?
“When we’re talking about the business case for purpose, there is no profit on a dead planet,” says Howe. “You can be attracted by profit, but that’s a risky strategy if that’s all you’re focusing on. Having mandatory requirements to shift our thinking is key.”
“It’s a false dichotomy to say that you’re either purpose driven or profitable,” Gyori adds. “What we’re seeing is that businesses that are purpose-driven have greater employee retention, greater stakeholder trust and closer relationships with their customers.”
Wookey points to the need for hard evidence combined with emotional impact as the only way to truly shift individuals’ mindsets. He cites Alex Edmans’ Grow The Pie as the initial tonic when he encounters sceptical CFOs who want hard evidence, but is aware that a mindset shift lies a little deeper than facts can reach: “In the end, this isn’t a technocratic argument. It’s actually a mindset change and you can’t persuade people to have a mindset change just because of the data.”
The future is a great unknown and it can be easy to imagine that it’s mostly full of risks. The looming emergence of AI, increasing climate disasters, a post-truth society, further pandemics – the list could go on. According to Toby Ord, Professor of Existential Threat at Oxford, the chances of our species facing an existential threat by the end of the century is one in six.
Gyori was shocked at Ord’s estimated statistic: “I have so many friends that are having children at the moment – it really puts the future in perspective. We have to think about it as a really pressing issue, and part of doing that is getting the big multinational corporations to transition their business quickly. When businesses of that size make change, it has huge repercussions.”
“It’s crucial that instead of something negative to avoid, we have something positive to strive for. The future of humanity depends on it.”Sophie Howe
But alongside those very real risks are also an incredible wealth of opportunities, improvements and prosperity. While we certainly must come face to face with the reality of our potentially infinite future, it is vital that we look beyond our own lifetimes with hope – not fear.
Howe emphasises the importance of switching from a place of mitigation to creation: “When we look at the future, generally we think about what risks might be coming our way. Creating a positive vision of what a country could look like in the future flips that on its head. It’s crucial that instead of something negative to avoid, we have something positive to strive for. The future of humanity depends on it.”
Watch the full Inspiring Infinity Panel Event on demand here.
Sophie Howe served as the Future Generations Commissioner in Wales from 2016-2023. Her role was to represent a constituency that does not vote, work or even exist: she was the guardian for those who have not yet been born. The first of its kind in the world, her role signified a shift in how governing bodies approach long-term planning.
Charles Wookey is Co-founder and former CEO of A Blueprint for Better Business, a nonprofit organisation that believes people are not solely self-interested and business is not only driven by profit.
Christa Gyori is the Co-founder and CEO of Leaders on Purpose, a global community of purpose-driven corporate leaders. They work with businesses, governments and non-profit organisations to build an economic system that leaves no one behind.