When I welcomed the classes of 2007 and 2008 to Darden in August, I told them “You must be present to win”—this is another way of saying, pay attention to the total experience you face. This may seem like an odd message to give 28-year old students who are bright, ambitious, and well-trained. Yet a great deal of research and human experience reveals that we are all very easily distracted. Paying attention matters for at least three reasons.

First, paying attention is the direct route to learning. The Darden classroom illustrates this daily. You learn through active engagement with others; paying attention promotes active engagement. I have written elsewhere about the importance of mindfulness in the classroom. I especially commend the important work of Ellen Langer and others on mindfulness.
Second, paying attention is how we define our priorities. The most important decision I make each day as Dean is where to direct my attention. Such is the case for all leaders. Without careful attention, the problems, opportunities, and urgency of our situation elude us. Ultimately, paying attention defines our identity. The Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gassett, said, “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”
Third, and perhaps most importantly, paying attention is the route to living well. Of that we are reminded by the recent passing of four colleagues, Robert Haigh, Fred Sargent, Beth McDermott, and Anneliese Tew. Darden is a small community. We feel the absence of these friends. And events such as these are jarring reminders as John Donne put it, that death’s bell tolls not for them, but for us. Such events remind us to pay attention.

The passing of colleagues is an awkward theme to take up in the Dean’s Office, at Darden business school, and at Mr. Jefferson’s university. Since its founding, the University of Virginia has been strictly secular, as all the great research universities in the world have grown to be. Such places can tell you a lot about the “what,” “where,” and “how” of death, but considerably less about the “why” and “so what” of death. Similarly, death is awkward for business schools. If anything, business schools are about living well—bringing better choices to people who need them; inventing better products to fill those needs; disseminating best practices around the world to reduce wasteful effort and wasted resources. Darden’s business ethics group helps highlight frameworks for making the right choices and for leading well. Our Batten Institute is all about new possibilities for people and businesses. Business school is about creating abundance where there is deprivation. Yet the loss of our colleagues carries important lessons.

Living well and good business practice direct us to be mindful of the time we have, of using it well. Much as one tries, the fact remains that You Can’t Take It With You. Living well is much more than accumulation and consumption within some time constraint. Living well is about serving well—a good business school education has a great deal to say about this.

To be present is to pay attention. Each death is a reminder for us to gauge what, whom, and how we are serving. The noise of daily life easily distracts us from the focus of our service. “Pay attention” is a central theme of most belief systems: “make me know the measure of my days.” ((Psalm 39, verse 4.)) The passing of our friends reminds us that our chance to serve well—and thus live well—is finite and that we should get on with it.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 01/30/2007 01:38:33 PM