An Unappreciated Virtue in Business—Patience
- June 06, 2016
- CBR - Strategy
In business no less than in life, patience is the most underappreciated of virtues—and the ugly and unavoidable fact is that the vigor and prevalence of this virtue seems inversely correlated to status. The reason is fairly straightforward: the more successful a person becomes, the more demands are made on his time, and the more expensive patience appears. At the same time, because of his success, others not only expect him to be impatient, they tolerate the effluvia of that disposition. Ignored emails, anemic feedback, skipped meetings, and other behavior that would make one’s mother blush are simply regarded as the accessories of success, and perhaps even its requirements.
A member of an older generation—one I associate with the ritual exchange of honorifics and hand-written thank you letters—the late Robert W. Fogel, winner of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, had the distinction of being among the most successful individuals one might ever hope to meet, as well as the portrait of professional patience.
I first had reason to contact him as a doctoral student in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, the flagship for interdisciplinary studies at the University of Chicago. Throughout much of its history, the Committee has included exceptional economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Frank Knight, the latter of whom helped found the program in 1941. Professor Fogel was the most recent addition to this distinguished line, and with his passion for history and appreciation of politics (before graduate school he spent nearly a decade as an organizer in radical politics), he was precisely the kind of creative thinker, recusant without being recherché, for whom the Committee has always been a home.
By the time I arrived, the typical student in the program was less inclined to political economy than philosophy and comparative literature, leaving Fogel, in the minds of most students, a figure on the faculty roster who was little more than a figurehead. As such, when I initially reached out to him, the first Committee student to do so in perhaps as long as a decade, my expectations were modest and surely did not include an immediate reply with a warm invitation to visit his office. I accepted the invitation, the first of many meetings that were always cordial, engaging, and remarkably unhurried. In subsequent years, while I was pursuing a joint degree at Yale Law School, he always found time for me on my return trips to Chicago. On one occasion, due to illness, he had to cancel one of my visits to his office. Though he was under the weather, he invited me to his home in Hyde Park and received me with the hospitality and intellectual curiosity that, years later, still moves me considerably.
As I have said, such patient concern for those whose destiny one shapes seems to me the hallmark of an older generation. In college, I can recall visiting the home of Harvard’s John Kenneth Galbraith, another esteemed economist whose passion for teaching didn’t seem to dim with age. Like Fogel, Galbraith had been ill, but he was determined to honor an obligation of pedagogy, in this case, to a group of students with whom he had promised to discuss a book he had written. He summoned us to his house, and we gathered in the parlor amid the relics of a remarkable life: knickknacks from essential events, casual photos with famous people, and, of course, the aureate evidence of so many grand accomplishments. They seemed at once inconsistent and strangely apropos to an occasion brought about by human frailty.
We waited, and I can remember the great man coming down the steps in the same way Fogel later would: slowly and with tender precision. We feared for his safety and would have had him remain upstairs, but he saw us as young people who would determine the course of things in the future, and thus he cared deeply about our fate. The older I get, the more I appreciate the wisdom of that commitment, and the more I hope, as a teacher, that I have the courage to live a life consistent with it.
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