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/ / Taking the Long View In a Time of Chaos

Taking the Long View In a Time of Chaos

By Steve MacDonald

When my family and I decided to leave our Tampa home to spend a year in Italy, I hoped in part that a big shift in lifestyle like that might also provide a big shift in perspective on life, business, and all the rest. I was at a point in my career as an entrepreneur and investor where I understood there might be value in developing some new perspectives. 

I’m happy to say my plan is working. Spending a year in a 16th Century villa in another country (with an adjoining 11th-century chapel with its own thousand-year-old holy relics) can do that. It definitely encourages you think long-term. 

Yes, there are still plenty of pressing challenges and opportunities that need addressing in days, weeks, or even over a couple of financial quarters. But sometimes you need a bigger picture, pulling back to think about what’s happening from a perspective of years, decades, even centuries. 

It’s a little bit like learning a foreign language. There’s the everyday utility of being able to communicate with the people around you when you’re somewhere new. But it’s also a way to understand your native language and culture better too. 

In similar fashion, the way people do business in Italy, and eat, and deal with their government and other institutions differs from what I’ve come to expect in the United States. Suddenly, I can see things, both good and bad, that previously I took for granted or perhaps never even thought about.

More generally, this place has been around a long time. They’d done a lot of thinking about their place in the world, going back to when the Roman Empire dominated the culture. For centuries, the Italians are big on memento mori, reminders of our mortality like keeping a skull around to remind you that some day that’ll be you too. That’s one pointed way to have a longer perspective.

But the history of this area, Florence, Italy, provides a particularly relevant object lesson for an American entrepreneur from the 21st Century, as I’ve discovered the more I’ve burrowed in. 

Some 700 years ago, Florence was the center of banking, entrepreneurship, international trade and commerce, art and culture for much of Europe and far beyond. That era’s relatively small city state shaped Western civilization for much of a century before its influence began to wane as economies shifted and new powers emerged in the Old World and New World alike. 

These days, in many respects, that central role in the world’s business, economy, culture and more is driven by companies, creators and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. Or as I tend to think these days, they dominate at least for now. As Florence reminds, there’s no guarantee Silicon Valley will be the same center of power a few decades from now.  

Entrepreneurs in places such as Budapest, Hungary, where I spoke to a business group recently, want to create their own version of Silicon Valley or 15th Century Florence. Like ambitious people in so many other places, they ask me how to get there. It’s a pervasive question.

I tell them I don’t know their town, its businesses, its government and regulatory climate, its people and their ambition, mindset and resources. 

I do know for a place to succeed, it needs evangelists, people who will push the area to become more than it’s been, to invest in the infrastructure, companies and assets that can drive the entire region’s growth. It’s why I’ve personally invested in startup incubators, angel investor groups, and other resources to help drive the development of Tampa’s tech sector.   

The Medicis in their day (or, really, for many decades) were evangelists, too. You can still see some of the treasures they commissioned, the great architecture, art, sculpture and more that they supported. 

And hundreds of years after the Medicis golden era, Florence remains a remarkable place, visited by millions of tourists annually from around the world. But doing business here is a lot more difficult than it needs to be, especially if you’re not blessed with a surname with Medici-level local influence. But having that perspective is useful too.

Our decision to stay a full year has created another level of perspective, too. It’s the difference between touring abroad for a short time, and truly living abroad. My spouse had been apprehensive about staying overseas for an entire year. Maybe we’ll just stay a semester, she suggested. No, I thought we needed to make it a whole year, to make it “hurt” a little bit, and to force us to truly settle in. And that takes a while. 

Our first six months in the Florence area indeed were about getting acclimated, finding a new cadence and rhythm of life. Now it’s about truly settling in. 

Being in Italy has certainly helped re-center some of my attention on my family, encouraged by the strong focus on family among the Italians. For my son, it’s been an opportunity to learn how Italians play soccer, and to explore a newfound love of mathematics. I don’t know if that would have happened if we’d stayed in Tampa. 

My spouse no longer needs me to accompany her on every car trip, like I did in the first couple of weeks here. For my own part, I’m not driving much at all. Instead I ride my bike dozens of miles a week.

But I also find myself diving deeper on projects, thinking more about the context of a decision, and how it fits into a bigger picture. And that has helped make this entire year an invaluable, life-changing shift in so much that I do and want to do. My plan worked.