Legend has it that Buddha was once asked about the meaning of life. “To be awake”, he replied.

I was at university when I first read this story, and Buddha’s simple but startling response fell like a wash of ice on my slumbering psyche. I resolved thereafter to live my life as consciously and wilfully as possible, according to the values I held dear, without caring too much about the fashions of the day. 

Resolution though is one thing, execution another.  

Looking back, I now regard those periods of my life when I failed to “be awake” as my “lost years”.  Lost because I didn’t so much live as sleep-walk. In fact I can hardly remember what I did or felt during this period – as though some secret hand had snipped those months and years out of the reel that is my life.

So what’s all this got to do with Rio, milestones and high performing cultures ? 

Quite a lot … because it turns out that our minds demarcate time not by the months and years we have endured but by the distance we have travelled. This is why years of little progress occupy less space in our memory than even a single day of epiphany. And this is also why it is far more satisfying to celebrate achievements (distance travelled) than it is to celebrate anniversaries (time endured).

Distance is measured by markers: the ancient Romans called them “milestones”. Without markers, work becomes toil without mission – the sorry fate of Sisyphus. 

And while almost all high performing teams set milestones – what is far less common is leadership with the courage to celebrate their achievement. And, far less still, leadership with enough courage to celebrate memorably

All too often after goals are reached, leaders promptly set new goals and off we all go again.  But if a corporate team lurches from one milestone to another without pausing to celebrate, it misses a crucial opportunity to “be awake”. 

If all we do is race from one pillar to the next, work becomes one long undifferentiated blur – not quite as bad as sleep-walking perhaps but it’s “sleep-running” nonetheless. 

To celebrate, to laugh and be merry, to have well-earned fun and to do it with panache is very much a part of “being awake”. And the more memorable the celebration, the further the distance travelled and the deeper the resulting relationships.  

A year ago, the entire EG team returned from a week at the Football World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We did that to celebrate achieving two big milestones that we had set ourselves for 2013.  And we wanted the celebration to pass the “rocking chair” test – memories that would last a lifetime.  

What we learned about each other in that one week in Rio, we could not have learned in one decade of working alongside each other in an office.

And while I’m not sure whether we will achieve our milestones for 2016 – if we do, the team will be voting on one of three possible milestone celebrations: (1) a cruise in the Mediterranean; (2) an African safari tour; or (3) following the Tour de France and exploring the French southern highlands.

Some may say that this is all but needless extravagance. Perhaps, but it’s an extravagance earned. And as to whether it’s needless, I defer to Shakespeare:

“O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars 
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.  
Allow not nature more than nature needs,  
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.”

And besides, when all philosophies shall fail, this I know for sure: that a corporate culture that is fully “awake” is an all-conquering, flourishing force. 

So here’s to celebrating distances travelled … oh, and while you’re at it, make it memorable. It’ll bring you a smile or two on your rocking chair, I promise.