📩 Letter #43: On the passage of time
Deep thoughts on a chilly day.
Wasting time. What a terrifying thought. It keeps me up at night. It snaps me to attention in the shower. It jerks me out of stasis and into motion. It comes in a flash: A picture of myself in the future, waking up to realize I’ve squandered a lifetime of opportunities. I had a finite number of moments to make something valuable—and I let them all slip away.
It’s a question always lingering below the surface: Am I doing enough? Usually, the answer feels like no.
Last week, I spent hours on my couch, alone. I stared out the window. I watched leaves tumble onto my porch. I did a little reading. I did a little writing. Mostly I sat. Mostly I stared. I used those hours to notice my feelings, notice my thoughts, notice the spindly legs of a bug crawling along the walls of my living room. I was awake for sixteen hours, but what did I do? To any outside observer—I did nothing.
Earlier versions of myself zipped through days with clarity: A 16-year-old with a binder of homework, a 20-year-old darting through an office, a 24-year-old cleaning up email inboxes. Those moments felt valuable because someone told me they were valuable. Professors, my parents, my bosses—everyone agreed: Finish school. Get a job. Go to work. I was provided a justification for how I spent my time before I ever even had to articulate it.
It felt good to be busy, to be moving. A sense of accomplishment is necessary to human flourishing. We need a purpose to feel productive. A sense of daily achievement isn’t trivial — it’s what allows us to derive meaning from our messy, blurry lives.
But as the years go by, something strange happens. Obligations and responsibilities sucker onto you like barnacles on a boat. You feel less and less in control of your time. There are endless meetings and work responsibilities and grocery runs and mortgage payments and laundry cycles and family phone calls. Bills pile up. Every morning requires something from you. You must give parts of yourself away over and over again. The passage of time begins to feel inescapable, like an ocean eroding rock into sand, day after day.
How do we respond? Typically, in one of two ways:
1.) Active resistance. You try to get in front of it. You decide to hyper-optimize every moment. You make a calendar. You schedule it out: time for work, time for vacation. Any problem can be solved by improving the efficiency of your day. If time is finite—if each minute is a unit of account to be weighed and measured—it’s your job to extract value from each one. You can succeed at work, you can succeed at home — all you need is more time. This reaction is popular among the wealthy, those who believe tomorrow will always be better than today. There’s always more, more, more. “Death has never made any sense to me,” Oracle’s billionaire co-founder Larry Ellison has said. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Peter Thiel all harbor sci-fi-esque ambitions of living forever. “Billions of dollars are being invested in the idea of immortality,” according to the NYT. Time, like any other resource, is just something to hoard.
2.) Passive ambivalence. Or, you suffer the inverse reaction. You develop a sense that time can’t be avoided—only endured. It’s impossible to fight off the waves battering against you. Why try? Long-term goals don’t feel worthwhile. You’re up against too much uncertainty, too much fatigue. Awash in the void of time, the best you can hope for are fleeting moments of happiness: The taste of a hot slice of pizza, the comforting droll of Netflix. Your job becomes maximizing short-term enjoyment. Consider the rise of TikTok, a “thoughtless hypnotism” machine designed to waste our days with pleasure and delight. At best, an ambivalence towards time gives us the freedom to relish a sunset or waste a few hours on the phone with a friend. At worst, it robs us of the ability to reap the rewards of devotion. Commitment isn’t a stagnant idea: It’s something that can only be enjoyed slowly, week after week, year after year. If you’re ambivalent to the passage of time, you can’t ever hope to feel the satisfaction of significant accomplishment.
It feels like an irreconcilable choice. Should we fixate on the future, or just enjoy the moment?
I think if we’re honest, we’ll see that both reactions are coping mechanisms to avoid something deeper, something scarier. Our lives are bound by fundamental limitations. We’re all going to die. Reaction #1 is a problem of denial, ignoring what we know to be true. Reaction #2 is a problem of inattention, a willful refusal to take ownership of our days. If we acknowledge that time is passing, acknowledge that our fleeting moments will come to an end (perhaps sooner than we think) we have to deal with the consequences. We have to accept responsibility.
It’s such a common experience: everyone is driven by a deep desire to have value, but everyone is equally perplexed about how to do something about it. So many systems are designed to smother that instinct, from our phones to our careers. How do we extricate ourselves from tangled narratives about what we should and shouldn’t be doing? More than any other generation, we have the freedom to do anything, but we cannot possibly do everything. Of course obsession and paralysis are the most likely reactions. What are our other options?
The truth is we have tons of other options. It’s possible to strike any number of compromises between structure and freedom, if only you’re willing to try.
Consider this argument from Collaborative Fund’s Morgan Housel: “So many people strive for efficient lives, where no hour is wasted. But an overlooked skill that doesn’t get enough attention is the idea that wasting time can be a great thing,” he writes. “The most efficient calendar in the world—one where every minute is packed with productivity—comes at the expense of curious wandering and uninterrupted thinking, which eventually become the biggest contributors of success.”
A bit of creative freedom is exceptionally valuable.
And, the opposite is also true: Sustained, committed consideration results in ingenuity, too. Consider this idea from Level Ventures’ Sari Azout: “I think that what a lot of people attribute to genius is actually just the benefit of time,” she says. “If you gave anyone a few months to think about something, they would come up with something very thoughtful.”
Too much structure and we lose meaning, too much freedom and we tip into floundering.
But in the middle—somewhere between the two—we find purpose.
On my couch this week, watching fall descend upon Texas, the season changing right in front of my eyes, I thought a lot about the passage of time. I thought back to the first fall I spent with you, Lauren, Nikki, and Rebecca in New York City. Back then, we could meet for picnics in the park, go apple picking, or sip hot cups of coffee at Pret A Manger for hours at a time. We were free to wander around, just some kids with a few dollars and a lot of time. Can you believe that was six years ago?
In those years, I remember sometimes feeling guilty about how much time we spent goofing around. Ali, you should be doing something productive with your early 20s! But now, as I look back, I realize we weren’t wasting time but investing it. We were putting in the hours necessary for relationships that would last for years.
I’m also thinking of our friends tonight because I’m cooking dinner with something delicious Rebecca sent me—a jar of sweet onion jam—and using it to marinate chicken. Marinating is a beautiful use of time. It’s the productive work of changing one thing into another; soaking in something meant to provoke a new taste.
Marinating might not feel like cooking (there are no flames!) but it is an unskippable step to create flavor. Letting something rest, change, and comingle with new ingredients is a reminder for us all: Each day, we become something new. Time passes, with or without us. The best we can do is soak it in.
My Book Rec: Overstory
What I’m reading: The Overstory by Richard Powers
What I think: I’ve had this book on hold at the public library for *weeks* and finally got it. This is a book about trees. Literally, that’s the whole plot. The life of trees. I’m only a few pages in, and I think somehow this book is already growing new seeds within me, ideas I might not understand until they’ve become towering, strong oaks. I’m looking forward to lying back in their shade.
Learn more: Check out this interview with Pulitzer winner Richard Powers on the Ezra Klein podcast.