It’s About Time
Our relationship with time is a personal one.
“No preacher is listened to but time, which gives us the same train and turn of thought that elder people have in vain tried to put into our heads before.” — Jonathan Swift, 1706
Time is a strange thing. Our perception of time is warped (see what I did there?) but we mark it in absolutes.
We can lose track of time when we’re enjoying ourselves, or feel like time is standing still when we’re loathing our surroundings.
“Time, when it is left to itself and no definite demands are made on it, cannot be trusted to move at any recognized pace. Usually it loiters, but just when one has come to count upon its slowness, it may suddenly break into a wild irrational gallop.” — Edith Wharton, 1905
For anyone with children, the phrase “The days are long but the years are short” hits home, as the daily toil of parenting can seem like a slog, but one day you realize your kids are grown up.
“One day you turn around and it’s summer,
Next day you turn around and it’s fall.
And all the winters and the springs of a lifetime—
Whatever happened to them all?” — Frank Sinatra, The September of My Years, 1965
As a father of a nearly-18 year-old, I feel this deeply. Now, I know you’re probably wondering how a youthful 39 year-old can have a grown son…
The classic “39 year-old” is a running gag that was first popularized by the legendary vaudeville/radio/television star Jack Benny, whose character was sensitive about his age. Thus, he bent time to his will and remained forever 39.
It’s an example of how we can use the double-edged sword of time to our advantage as leaders.
A Quick Look Back
Yesterday marked the 6-month anniversary of the Capitol insurrection, and so my thoughts turned to that historic building.
If you visit the United States Capitol, there in the National Statuary Hall—which used to be where the House of Representatives met—over the doorway you’ll find a sculpture by Carlo Franzioni. It depicts Clio, the muse of history, riding a winged chariot called The Car of History.
She’s recording history in her book, as a reminder to all in that room that they were part of history and their actions and words mattered.
But how often do you pause to look at works of art like this, or consider events of the past, or read of the lives and challenges of great men and women?
“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.” — Socrates
We seem to be too busy focusing on what's right in front of us, being distracted by notifications and more content online than we can read in 100 lifetimes. And yet, there's this wealth of wisdom just sitting there on shelves, waiting for us to uncover it.
But look at that clock again. It is a symbol—a symbol of the past, present, and future. With its two hands, it not only tells us the current time; it tells us what time it was and what time it will become.
If we spend time understanding what has happened in history—family history, corporate history, or human history—we can determine where we need to go.
The problem with life as we know it today is that we forget the reflective function of the old-fashioned clock, and therefore of time. We live our lives digitally, in the moment.
A digital watch, historian David McCullough mused, “is the perfect symbol of an imbalance in outlook in our day. It tells us only the time it is now, at this instant, as if that were all anyone would wish or need to know.” 1
The Time-Space Conundrum
In 1953 in Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan predicted the difficulty that access to instant information would lead to, when he wrote,
“the instantaneity of communication makes free speech and thought difficult if not impossible.”
Ironically, our near-synchronous connection with each other across the globe does not translate to a common experience. While we may be connected by time, we’re not connected by space. Our disparate geographies and cultures are necessary contexts to what we read, do, and think.
And thus comes the conundrum of the debate around returning to the office with the pandemic easing.
On one hand, employees that are remote are missing out on the interaction happening between peers and colleagues in the office, and thus may be robbed of context and excluded from decisions, meetings, etc.
Alternatively, remote employees have a different relationship with time: they don’t have to spend it in a commute or shuttling from conference room to conference room. They can be more efficient by selecting the time when the do certain work.
But 45 percent of employers said productivity was down with remote work, and 39 percent would fire employees who refused to return to work.
I suppose that means there ought to be a conversation about valuing time: employees valuing their employers’ time and employers valuing their employees’ time. A better balance should be possible without resorting to absolutes.
“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numbering clock:
My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial's point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell: so sighs and tears and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours.” — William Shakespeare, 1595
Ultimately, our relationship with time comes back to our perception of it.
As a leader, you ought to be doing all you can to share your perception with others and to use your empathy to understand their perceptions as well.
Only then will we be able to more fully appreciate the time we have with each other.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.