Boise State on Business by Nancy Napier: Stars and rocks help teach us to consider the long term

NANCY NAPIER, executive director of Boise State's Centre for Creativity and Innovation.June 18, 2013 

I stood outside recently on one of those Boise nights that people in Columbus or Houston or London probably never see. I didn't think it was particularly clear at first, but when I looked up and squinted, I could see chunks of the Milky Way, great swaths of stars crossing the sky. I nearly tripped. And that got me thinking about rocks. And life. And time.

When I was in college, I took two science courses to fulfill a requirement, but they changed my life. (Oh, how professors love it when that happens! But I don't think I ever told those two, alas.)

I chose astronomy and geology. I signed up before I realized that astronomers really don't spend most of their time looking through a telescope or that geologists don't get to traipse around in the woods all day. By the time that was clear, I'd moved on to other fields for my major. But those courses remained two of my favorites, mostly because of what they helped me realize about life and time, not stars or rocks.

If I've had a bad day at work or the dog gets sick or I puncture myself (badly) from the scissors as I rip open another Amazon box, I try to stop, and then look up and down (if I'm rational enough). I look up for stars and down for rocks. And that forces me to remember how small a speck I really am.

When I read about the galaxies we can't even see or hear about stars that are several million light years away, it's a tad sobering. To (re) learn or think about how old the earth is or try to conceive of how long Hells Canyon or the Grand Canyon have been around, it sets me back on my heels. A recent article about ginkgo trees says that they've been around for 200 million years. I can hardly imagine 200 years.

My problems are nothing compared to what a lot of people deal with. But beyond putting life in perspective, the stars and rocks also remind me to think longer term. Maybe not millions of years, but certainly ten.

Can you remember a decade or so ago? That's when SARS boomed, 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada lost electricity, the Concorde flew its last flight, and Saddam Hussein was captured.

Doesn't seem so long ago, does it?

In the past five years, students from elementary to high school to university have grabbed hold of the notion of sustainability, teaching adults about the impact of decisions made now and how they will affect the future. Some kids seem better able to imagine the longer term better than some business- or government-thinkers. While managers of publicly held firms may play to the quarterly clock, legislators are equally limited with their two- or four-year mindsets.

But that won't cut it any more. If we could try to imagine 10 years out, would that change some of our discussion and decisions today? Is there any way you could think longer term in your own organization? And what difference would it make to how you make decisions?

Just remember that no matter what happens, the stars will still wink and remind us to take it in stride.


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