Infinitely Scarce Buckets of Time
Your current balance is 692,040 hours and you have one life left
The year was 1866 and the American Civil War was just a few months in the past when a group of emigrants from Germany gathered in a tavern to talk about the needs of their new home—a broken but still nascent country—and to engage in horological discussion. They were watchmakers who shared a love for their craft and wanted to create an organization to represent them and their fellow men.
They originally called it the German Watchmakers Society, but sixty-four years later, as members from other nationalities joined, changed the name to the Horological Society of New York.
Why am I telling you of these mustachioed, hat-wearing gents? Well, I already shared some ideas on how to avoid wasting your days and hours, so now I want to explore how people from different cultures perceive time.
This guy horologies
Our nineteenth-century watchmaking friends foresaw a future where time would be increasingly important, but I doubt they could have predicted that most lives would turn into a never-ending series of regular, constant, and repetitive actions—quite like the entrails of the clocks and watches they were crafting.
As indoctrinated members of a modern society—and I mean modern in the sense of present day—we can’t escape the fact that it would be very difficult to function without schedules. Time breaks the language barriers to make everybody run at the same fast pace as the rest of our complicated world, a world that needs to keep the engines running and fuming to feed—and to entertain, don’t forget—seven and a half billion and growing.
But do we all want to dance at the same rhythm? I refuse to believe that every healthy, rational human being would choose to asphyxiate on a crowded train—the hell I wouldn’t!—or to languish in traffic just to get to a place filled with a few sycophants and other trapped souls.
“I get bored at home. I like coming to the office and spending the day with y’all, guys (every single day for the rest of my life).” No, you don’t, model employee of the month, but I sympathize: you just feel obliged to say it.
The measurement of time is necessary, I get it, but up to a point. You can’t let it command every moment of your day. Uncertainty and randomness are vital parts of your journey, embrace them.
Sometimes bad things will happen, of course they will, but once in a while you’ll stumble upon something good. That is, if you stop watching the damned clock.
Time around the world
I’ve worked remotely for the last couple of decades with men and women from many countries and time zones and I’ve experienced our differences.
One of my readings led me to a very interesting book about this topic, When Cultures Collide, by Richard D. Lewis. It discusses how cultures can be categorized depending not only on how their members go about their lives but also on how they deal with time.
Lewis defines three categories.
Linear-actives: Those who work on one thing at a time. They plan and pursue their actions in an organized way. Linear-actives are all about efficiency; they need to get as much done in the allotted time. Germans, Swiss, Dutch, Swedes, and Americans, particularly those of the WASP variety, belong to this category.
Multi-actives: Those with a more flexible and lively attitude. They don’t worry as much about a strictly choreographed program and prefer to focus on the importance of each event. Multi-actives invest their time finishing the conversations they start and believe they get more done this way. Spaniards, Italians, Arabs, and Latin Americans are in this group.
Reactives: Those who listen before acting. They concentrate on what the speaker says, rarely interrupt, and take their time before replying. Reactives won’t usually rush to make decisions and prefer to think long term. Chinese, Japanese, and Finns can be found here.
According to Lewis, each of these groups sees time in one of three ways.
Linear time: Time is a commodity. You pay for it and you charge for it; you need to know how to utilize it and never waste it because it’s money. And you better keep moving because it’s pretty expensive too. If you’ve seen a suit striding through the city while jabbering into his AirPods you’ve seen linear time in action.
Multi-active time: Time is subjective. You can mold it and stretch it according to your personality and the events of the day. Experiences and relationships are more important than calendars and watches. People on multi-active time will observe schedules just to fit in a linear-active world but will prefer reality today over imposed timelines.
Cyclic time: Time keeps going in a circle; it never runs out. You will vanish but the universe will go on so there’s no rush to make quick decisions. Look into the past and think long term before making a move. If you let the opportunity pass you haven’t actually missed it; it may come around again and find you better prepared in the future.
These are, of course, generalizations so keep in mind that nobody fits in just one category. A writer may be multi-active while coming up with the plot for her next novel but switch to reactive when listening to readers and then to linear-active while looking for a publisher.
The right amount of everything
I can’t say that using time one way or the other is better. You can adapt depending on what you need to do—that’s what I like to do.
I currently live in the U.S., the country that blaring voices in black-and-white TV commercials used to call the land of opportunity, and I can’t blame anybody for being in linear-active mode most of the time. You need to be organized and financially responsible, and you have to carefully keep track of the hours you work and get paid for.
Save enough to make it to the end of your days, or at least leave something for those you care about if finishing the game early.
You can thank America’s broken health and retirement systems for that. You are welcome.
But beware of becoming a Starbucks-carrying, hasty robot the whole time. Take a moment to breathe, to read, to ponder about the good life. Activate your multi-active persona and finish that interesting conversation—don’t shut it down just because the agenda says so.
Fill some of your time with random and enjoyable activities. A little bit of chaos should always be welcome.
I have days that start with a software engineering problem waiting. The first things I do? Plug my Les Paul and play some metal (or distorted noise, as non-connoisseurs may call it), fight with Leafy the Cat, and write some words. By the time I get back to the problem I’ll have a couple of potential solutions bubbling in my head.
And don’t forget to take a moment to observe cyclic time.
You know you will die, right? When I was eight or nine I used to worry about death—most kids at some point learn that everything will end and freak out—and I liked to imagine someone would invent a way to live forever and I would be one of the first lucky immortals. Science may get us there someday, but considering how long the idiots in charge are taking to accept that the freaking planet is getting hotter I wouldn’t bet on it happening in my lifetime.
Yep. Surprise, I’m dying too. So I try to share and teach, doing the best I can with my portion of days and nights, in the hope that I leave something valuable to those who are coming next.
As far as we know, time is an endless river. You and I? Just specks of dust. Get over it, have fun, and carry on.