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Four Thousand Weeks

Before changing course to consider the best way to spend the limited time we are allotted in this world, which I appreciate is quite a significant topic, I need to tidy up a final point from Simon Kuper’s study of the Oxford Tory elite, in all their lack of glory, as highlighted in the last couple of weeks.  Just as I was beginning to despair that we might be stuck with generation after generation of such ineptitude, Kuper brought his book ‘Chums’ to an end with what felt like a breath of fresh air to finish off a rather depressing read.

In 2017, he says, Oxford accepted more applicants from Westminster School (49) than black students (48), and a study by the Sutton Trust in 2018 found that just eight schools, six of them private, got more places at Oxbridge than 2,900 other British secondary schools put together.  By then, Theresa May’s cabinet contained more male former presidents of the Oxford Union – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Damian Hinds – than people of ethnic origin – Sajid Javid.

Kuper makes the point that statistics of this kind have become all too familiar, like scientists’ warnings about climate change, with the consequence that we barely absorb them anymore.  British inequality is indeed dreadful, but that's the way the system works, is it not?  Yet, he continues, in just the last few years, something surprising has happened and there has actually been some change.  A collection of triggers has belatedly embarrassed Oxbridge into doing something about privilege: first the populist uprising of Brexit, then #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and the relative improvement in British state schools. 

Oxbridge colleges now aim for ‘contextual admissions’, taking account of how much disadvantage candidates have surmounted to reach their academic level.  When I started at Oxford in 1984, only three people out of an intake of a hundred at my college had not been privately educated.  At the start of this century, private schools still supplied about half of Oxford's domestic intake, despite educating only about 7% of the population.  By 2016, their share had dropped to 42%; by 2020 it was 38%, and only a year later 32%, the lowest on record.  Kuper brings his book to a close by saying that the number of Etonians getting Oxbridge offers fell from 99 in 2014 to 48 in 2021, and in 2020/21 Johnson’s old college, Balliol, had only one Etonian among its 137 freshers, which certainly suggests at least a modicum of progress.

Returning now to Oliver Burkeman’s ‘Four Thousand Weeks (Time and How to Use It)’, which I first mentioned last week, I cannot quite decide whether it was also a book to offer hope or whether it was altogether something less positive.  For example, building on the idea that it turns out everyone is just winging it all the time, Burkeman points out that it may at first seem alarming to face the prospect that you might never truly feel as though you know what you are doing – in work, marriage, parenting or anything else – but it is a liberation, too, because it removes a central reason for feeling self-conscious or inhibited about your performance in those domains in the present moment. 

If the feeling of total authority is never going to arrive, he says, you might as well not wait any longer to give those activities your all – to put bold thoughts into practice and to stop erring on the side of caution.  It is even more liberating to reflect that everyone else is in the same boat, whether they are aware of it or not.

It is hard to disagree with Burkeman when he says that productivity is a trap, and becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed.  We will probably all agree that trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster, and nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work-life balance’, whatever that might be – and certainly not by copying the ‘Six Things Successful People Do Before 7am’.  

He continues that the day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control – when the flood of emails has been contained; when your ‘to do’ list stops getting longer; when you are meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody's angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimised person you have become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about.  He concludes that we might as well start by admitting defeat because none of this is ever going to happen.

A further illustration of the frustrations of modern life comes through an analysis of the shortcomings of convenience, which can make things easier but without regard to whether easiness is truly what is most valuable in any given context.  As an example, he uses the service of the remotely designed and mailed greetings card, which allows you never to touch the physical item yourself.  This is better than nothing, perhaps, but the sender and recipient both know that it is a poor substitute for purchasing a card in a shop, writing on it by hand, and then walking to a post box to post it – even if a first class stamp will soon cost nearly as much as the card itself.  And why is this the case, he asks?  Because contrary to the cliché, it isn't really the thought that counts, but the effort – which is to say, the inconvenience.  When you render the process more convenient, you in effect drain it of its meaning.

I very much enjoyed the story Burkeman recounts about the investor Warren Buffett, in which his personal pilot asked him how to go about setting priorities.  Buffett told the man to make a list of the top twenty-five things he wanted out of life and then to arrange them in order, from the most important to the least.  The top five, Buffett said, should be those around which he organises his time.  But contrary to what the pilot might have been expecting to hear, the remaining twenty, Buffett allegedly explained, are not the second-tier priorities to which he should turn when he gets the chance.  For from it.  In fact, they are the ones he should actively avoid at all costs, because they are the ambitions insufficiently important to him to form the core of his life, yet seductive enough to distract him from the ones that matter most.

The final thought from the book to share with you this week is the author’s views about the strengths and weaknesses of the plans we make.  He makes the point that planning is an essential tool for constructing a meaningful life, and for exercising our responsibilities towards other people.  However, he goes on, the real problem is not the planning itself but the fact that we take our plans to be something they are not.

Burkeman highlights that what we forget, or cannot bear to confront, is that, in the words of the American meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, ‘a plan is just a thought’.  We treat our plans as though they are a lasso, thrown from the present around the future in order to bring it under our command.  But all a plan is – all it could ever possibly be – is a present-moment statement of intent, an expression of our current thoughts about how we would ideally like to deploy our modest influence over the future.  The future, he wisely points out, is under no obligation to comply.

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