The Paradox of Time
Today at a Glance
- Becoming a father has changed a lot of things about my life. My relationship with time—specifically my awareness of the passing of time—has fundamentally morphed.
- The Paradox of Time: We are aware of the incredible value of our time but constantly take actions that are disrespectful of that value. We know how important our time is, yet we ignore its passage and engage in low value activities that pull us away from the things that really matter.
- Our time is finite, but we often fail to recognize it until it's too late. Asking the hard questions and doing the simple math that they require is how you can bring awareness to the surface and rethink your priorities and tradeoffs.
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Becoming a father has changed a lot of things about my life.
There are the obvious changes—a new life that takes precedent over my own, less sleep, and the increased importance of patience—none of which were particularly surprising.
But one prominent change has surprised me:
My relationship with time—specifically my awareness of the passing of time—has fundamentally morphed.
As a parent, we learn to track and measure time in weeks and months of our children's lives. We grow so accustomed to reciting their age in these terms that it becomes second nature.
It also creates a clear awareness of how fast time is passing and how we will never get those moments back.
Think about it: When have you ever thought about the passage of a week (or even a month) as a big deal? Never.
Yet with a newborn, that same time, which previously felt so common, now feels so very precious.
This shifted perspective has led me to spend more time thinking about...time.
It is the most important asset of our lives, but most of us fail to acknowledge and appreciate it until it has diminished so significantly to almost resemble a liability.
In today's piece, I'd like to take you on a short journey—a walk through time, if you will—and share a few perspectives and action items that will leave you with an enhanced ability to revere time as the treasure it really is.
Trading Lives With Buffett
Let me ask you a simple question: Would you trade lives with Warren Buffett?
He has a net worth of ~$100 billion, access to anyone in the world, and spends his days reading and learning.
And yet I'm willing to bet that approximately none of you would agree to trade lives with him.
Warren Buffett is 92 years old.
It doesn't matter how much money, fame, or access he has—you probably wouldn't agree to trade your remaining time for his!
With a simple question, we've highlighted our own awareness of the value we place on our time.
But this brings a paradox to the surface—I call it the Paradox of Time:
We are aware of the incredible value of our time but constantly take actions that are disrespectful of that value. We know how important our time is, yet we ignore its passage and engage in low value activities that pull us away from the things that really matter.
A few examples of this from my own life (and probably yours as well):
- We spend hours doom scrolling social media while our loved ones are sitting right in front of us.
- We refresh ESPN.com 100 times rather than getting the task done and getting out of there to see our friends.
- We spend more time taking pictures of the beautiful scene than actually taking it in.
If you feel attacked—that's ok, I do too. We are all guilty of this disrespect for our own time.
But let's talk about how to take action to change it.
Memento Mori is a Latin phrase that translates to "remember that you must die."
A favorite of Stoic philosophy, it is a reminder of the certainty and inescapability of death. It is not intended to be morbid or dark—but to clarify, illuminate, and inspire.
The phrase itself is believed to have originated in the Roman Empire.
After military victories, the conquering hero was paraded through the streets of adoring fans on an elaborate chariot. This treatment might have made the hero feel immortal, but the Romans had a plan for that.
They would place one person in the chariot whose sole responsibility was to whisper in the hero's ear throughout the parade:
"Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori!"
Translation: "Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember that you must die!"
The practice was intended to ground the hero with the constant reminder of their own mortality.
In recent years, Memento Mori has gained a bit of a cult following. The most hardcore among them using a calendar to track the passage of weeks of life.
Each box on the calendar represents a week of life, each row represents a year (52 boxes across), and there are 80 rows (for ~80 years of life). Each week, one box is filled in, providing a very clear reminder of time passed and time remaining.
The message: We must stop hiding from the passage of time—we must instead start embracing it.
In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Steve Jobs captured the sentiment perfectly while reflecting on his own battle with a rare cancer:
"Almost everything...just fall[s] away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important...You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
Whether you like the idea of the calendar or not (I find it too raw for my tastes!), bringing the passage of time to the front of your mind is a first—and most important—step for fighting back against the Paradox of Time.
The Simple Math You Need To Do
In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson notes that a typical career is 80,000 hours. This may sound long, but when you do the math, it's not so bad:
"When you do the basic math on 80,000 hours...you realize that the typical person has five waking hours of not working for every one hour of their career."
His takeaway—and mine as well—is that work is important enough to take seriously, but not important enough to take too seriously.
Most of us will spend precious years on the "too seriously" end of the spectrum.
In our impassioned quest for more—money, success, fame, whatever—we may find ourselves winning the battle but losing the war.
I have felt the pain of that pyrrhic victory. But I fought back.
Last weekend, I shared a story on Twitter of the conversation that led to my realization:
I've written about this in the newsletter before, but never in such detail on Twitter. The response was overwhelming.
In particular, the "math" on time always seems to be a gut punch—one that we all need.
Your relationship with time will fundamentally change when you start asking a few important questions that spark some very simple math:
- How many more times will you see your parents? They are getting older and it never gets easier to make the trip home to see them.
- How many more times will you get together for a trip with your closest group of friends? Those trips become harder and harder to plan as people move and responsibilities increase.
- How many more times will you get to wake up with a child who thinks you are his/her entire world? The magic years are passing you by while you stress about the latest "more" that you've been obsessing over.
The Harsh Truth: The answer to all of these questions is probably lower than you think.
This isn't to say there is a *right* answer to any of this. It is to say that there are tradeoffs to consider, assumptions to question, and questions to ask as you determine how you will allocate your time and (hopefully) find fulfillment.
Asking the hard questions above—and doing the simple math that they require—will elevate the passage of time into your sphere of consideration as you make these important determinations about your life and journey.
There is a famous saying: "The days are long but the years are short."
This comic strip brings that to life in an emotional way (grab your tissues).
Our time is finite, but we often fail to recognize it until it's too late.
Time is cruel. We are aware of its value, yet we ignore it for most of our lives. Then just as it slips away, we begin to love it with all of our being.
Time doesn't care about any of us. We love what we cannot have. Our relationship with time is the ultimate unrequited love.
But by creating a visceral awareness of its passage, we can begin to rethink our priorities to find a more fulfilling balance point and fight back against the Paradox of Time.
In closing, I have two humble requests for all of you:
- Ask the hard questions and do the simple math on the passage of time and the shortness of life. Have the conversations that these questions and numbers spark. Embrace the passage of time.
- Make a list of the things you never regret doing. Put it somewhere that you'll see it. Make sure that you spend time doing things you never regret every single day.
This is an important topic, so I would really like to hear from you:
- What are your reactions to this piece?
- How did it make you think differently about time and your life and priorities?
- What conversations did it spark with your loved ones?
Send me a reply to this email or tweet at me @SahilBloom and I'll do my best to get back to everyone!