Showtime

A night to remember last evening, at surely the greatest musical of our times – ‘Hamilton’.

We’ve been humming it and singing it all day (as we have for the last two years). But apart from the lesser known Founding Father’s tale of the (once) almost unlimited possibilities of America (as his final words bill it “that great unfinished symphony…”) Hamilton’s other message is the transcendent importance of time.

Alexander Hamilton lives like he’s running out of it; the other main protagonist, Aaron Burr ‘waits and he waits’.

As for me, absolutely shattered at the end of last week, I returned to “The Big Book of Happiness: 87 Practical Ideas” for solace and some new impetus.

Good old Chris Croft reminds us the external world is fickle (As George Washington cautions twice in Hamilton, no one decides ‘who lives, who dies, who tells our story), so the only resources we really have are money and time.

Separately, another excellent post from Eric Barker slam dunks the idea that anyone can multi-task well. I’d persuaded myself I can. But no… Multi-tasking Barker highlights, is just a rather ineffective and inefficient ‘dopamine rush’.

So, balancing the choice between work, money and time, my conclusion is: I’m working too hard and somewhat ineffectively; disproportionately meeting the needs of others, and not my own.

My Easter epiphany is to realise time is my most precious resource – and I’ve been being pretty careless with it. Looking on the bright side, it’s good to clock it.

The magic of Hamilton helped.

The Lost Jockey

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This week, I have adopted Magritte’s ‘Lost Jockey‘; I found him a home on my iPhone ‘lock’ screen.

Painted in 1948, the ‘Le jockey perdu‘ has lost his racetrack and is charging through an other-wordly sepia forest.

“Racing nowhere fast”, is what the jockey says to me. And that’s why I put him on my home screen. Sometimes I do things faster that than I should. Sometimes I try to do tomorrow’s work today. Sometimes I do good things, but don’t take the moment to enjoy them.

The jockey – whom I have to swipe with my thumb, to open up the brightly lit iPhone world of action, reaction, email, work, stimulation, art, literature, music, aggro and time commitments – has reminded me several times this week not to ‘swipe’ – just do the thing I’m doing; not start something else.

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Today

I heard Simon Armitage read his poem ‘Knowing what we know now’ on the Today Programme on Radio 4 on Wednesday. It features an Elf who makes the offer of turning the clock back to a man who is 44 – exactly half-way to the end of his life. It has a twist in its tale which I didn’t welcome but it certainly set me thinking. 

As I’ve written before it’s increasingly likely that I’m at, or close to, what Armitage’s elf calls the ‘tipping point’ – the half way mark. On Saturday morning in an unconnected thought I put it to myself, what am I going to do that will be memorable today? Cue 3 year old. I spent 3 hours doing 3 miles and 3 parks on a scooter with my son. We had great fun on what could otherwise have been a grey day. I love that boy.

Pondering it this evening, I thought to myself; what would be different if I counted life more often in days, not halves or years? Tapping 365 into a calculator, I realised that in the last year or so I’ve passed the milestone of living over 15,000 days. It’s a bit like when all the 9s turn over on another 10,000 on your car milage. That’s a lot of days. And since I reckon I have a reasonable hope of living another 15,000 that’s a lot of great days if I make them so.

And this reminded me of Seneca’s: ‘On the shortness of life‘. At the start he gently criticises Aristotle for bemoaning that nature has given man such a short span of life, for our many and great achievements, when animals have so long for so little. Seneca disagrees:

‘It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste so much of it.’

I listened to a very experienced and senior person describe his career on Friday. He had many thought-provoking things to say. But the one that stuck the most for me was a comparatively obvious one; you’ll spend more time working than doing anything else so make sure you do something you enjoy. He used the word ‘fun’ all the time to describe his work – great, enormous, tremendous… fun. Not a word I use anywhere near enough describe my working life.

And that is the thing I’ve been thinking about this weekend: enjoyment, fun and spontaneity. Thinking I’m half way to death makes me sombre and cerebral. Thinking I’ve got another 40 years, and probably another 20 odd of work, makes me think about my career and mortgage and school fees. Thinking I’ve got another 15,000 days makes me think about today – what’s going to be today’s highlight, what’s going to be today’s memory, what’s going to be today’s fun. 

As Seneca has it, the philosopher makes his life long by recollecting the past, using the present and anticipating the future. The most important of these for me though is remembering to have fun – today. 

Time

In this age of austerity, a lot of people are leaving my organisation through voluntary redundancy. Voluntary redundancy can be quite a good way to part company, but inevitably for some when the moment of farewell comes it is hard. Different people deal with it in different ways. Some have a knees up, some have and make speeches. Some slip away quietly, others have a go at the ‘leadership’ which includes me.

I’ve noticed though that some people – especially those who are nearly or over 60 and who have worked for 25 to 30 years for us – get quite frantic. This manifests itself as an incredible drive to get things ‘fixed’ before they leave. This can be their overall legacy, a last piece of work or sometimes just a detail they feel they can’t rest until they’ve sorted. It reminds me of the ‘nesting’ stuff we did before our first child was born – objectively you need to focus on the big change coming in your life, but instead you fuss about cot sheets, wallpaper and in our case finishing building the kitchen.

I was talking to a thoughtful and clever person at work about this today and I advanced my emergent theory of the ‘sands of time double whammy’. I believe our brains are Bayesian probability engines. Everything we do, see and think in some way gets incorporated into our brain so that we act and react based on a quasi-instinctive, but highly tuned estimation of the ‘thing to do’ in any situation based on the vast experience dataset we carry in our heads. So why the ‘double whammy’?

My theory (constructed in a thoroughly Bayesian fashion through a blend of unremembered facts, data, experience and sources) is that our perception of time over duration is relative – and related to how long we’ve been alive. My thesis is that the reason summer holidays seemed endless when I was little is bacause 6 weeks when you’ve only lived a few hundred weeks is a significant proportion of your total life. 6 weeks when you’ve lived several thousand weeks is much less – hence it feels like it passes faster.

Of course we could argue about the stimuli, as an adult you’re busier as a child you have days and days doing the same things. But it seems to me – and I’ve observed in others – as you age the passage of time accelerates. A Bayesian brain which logs everything is hardly going to ignore hard earned experience so new experiences and today must compete for salience with old and the many yesterdays.

That’s half the ‘whammy’. The other half is the ‘sands of time problem’. At 40 something I can still reassure myself I have a good chance of living as long again as I have lived so far. A good chance. But I know that’s becoming increasingly untenable. Within the next 5 years the odds of doubling my life so far will diminish rapidly.

So how will I feel when I am nearly 60, potentially leaving a life’s work, time running faster and faster and the end looming closer and closer? As I said to two different people today, come find me with a gun and shoot me if I’m still working flat out in an Executive job when I’m in my middle fifties.

Not that I’d be too old, just that my days will be racing away and the sands of my time pouring through my hourglass. If I’m still trying to please my boss, make my end of year targets and conjure up another organisation change I need to move on and get a life before the end of life gets me.