The Time Paradox

One life, a little gleam of time between two eternities – Thomas Carlyle

It was a warm sunny April day, unusually warm for the UK it was almost summery. As I walked to Aysgarth Falls on one of my walks in the countryside during my tutoring adventures I had to go past that church and the graveyard. I’d normally just pass through it but this time the weather was good and I pondered on the lives of the many who had come and pass and laid to rest in that graveyard. Some had died in the early 1800s, i.e they were born in the 1700s! But that didn’t really matter, for in the large-scale of time we might as well be contemporaries. And the The Crypt of the Capuchin Monks summed up the unsaid words that every graveyard says out to you…

What you are, they once were. What they are, you will be.

And that quote came to me from the book I had been reading those days, The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd. It was a fascinating read on one of my most favourite subjects, time. And I first came across the idea to read it through Derek Sivers’ own review of it 2 years ago.

Time is money, well not quite..

The book gives some incredible insights into the way we perceive time in modern civilization and it quite rightly points out to the fact that for most of humanity’s existence time hasn’t been measured precisely by clocks. We’ve gone more on natural rhythms. This “new” precision has confused us to smithereens! Yes it has let us divide time and therefore money (I work pay per hour for instance) in a way that has been never done before.

Time is money – Benjamin Franklin

That’s actually not quite right, and this is pointed out in some painful detail in the book. Time is way way more than money. Lost time can never be bought back. While money is a currency that is tangible and can be increased or decreased, time only goes one way and goes irrespective that way no matter what you do, you have less and less of it every day. Your time here is limited, no matter what you do and how much money you earn. The only thing you can control is how you spend your time here.

Time Perspectives

The book then mentions the different perceptions in time that are possible. To simplify I have added my own meanings in brackets.

  • past-positive (the good old days)
  • past-negative (the bad old days)
  • present-hedonistic (live fast die young)
  • present-fatalistic (life sucks)
  • future (better plan ahead)
  • transcendental-future (life after death future)

In general as we grow older we move from present orientation to future orientation. This is because childhood seems like ages and school lasts forever when you are a kid, and at a very young age you are only concerned with the next meal, playtime etc., But adult responsibilities means pensions, life insurance etc etc.,

And as adults each one of us has a mixture of all these time perspectives mentioned above. And being higher or lower in each perspective means something else to each one of us and influences our behaviour as individuals accordingly. They also mention that individual attitudes toward time are learned through personal experience, yet collectively attitudes toward time influence national destinies. Exactly how that happens is mentioned in some detail in Derek Sivers’ blog post and in the book.

So what’s the best perspective to have and how to lead one’s life knowing all this? Well, the optimal time perspective profile given is:

  • high in past-positive
  • moderately high in future
  • moderately high in present-hedonistic
  • low in past-negative
  • low in present-fatalistic

And there’s some cool exercises in the book that guide you to making the best of your time on this planet. But for that you will have to….yup, you guessed it right! Spend some time reading the book itself 🙂

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