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Five Ways to Experience Time

Time always passes. But we can experience it differently.

Here are five ways people experience the passage of time. In each case, the experience of time shapes what a person respects, and shapes who they want to be.

Time is an Obstacle Course

When time stretches before us like an obstacle course, each day is a set of challenges. What can make a person distinctive, or great? It can only be the particular course they run, and the skill with which they run it. In other words, what makes a person great is (a) their distinct set of goals (for instance if they “skate to where the puck is going to be”), and (b) their productivity, effectiveness, or badassness. People who feel time is an obstacle course are goal- and project-directed people. Their goals and skills define them.

Time is a Stream

For others, time feels like a stream, always running past, with each moment never to repeat. On this view, what makes a person distinctive or great is their capacity to absorb the moment, to fully experience it. This is sometimes called awareness, mindfulness, or authenticity. Anyways, they want to get the full experience out of the limited life they have, moment by moment. People who feel time is a stream tend to define themselves by their processes, narratives, and feelings.

Time is a Basket

Next are people who have a bucket list. They see time as something to fill up: to fill with the best possible set of things. For them, time can feel empty. Empty time feels like a missed opportunity. They have FOMO. With this view, greatness means being able to fill the basket with a great breadth of things, or with the best things. A great person has the capacity to fill it with rare things like time with celebrities, or extreme things like skydiving or romance or wild sex. People who feel time is a basket tend to define themselves by their tastes or their status.

Time is an Indignity

For still others, the passing time is a frustration or an embarrassment. It could even be a humiliation. They’ll do everything to ignore it, to transcend (or more accurately, avoid) the experience of mortality and ordinariness. For them, greatness means being part of what’s timeless: creating great works of science and art, for instance. Greatness is also possessing the ability to forget about time: to go into flow states, or other kinds of rapture. Those who view time as an indignity define themselves by their beliefs or their output.

Time is a Garden

This is my favorite way to see time: as a little garden that’s mine to tend as I choose. Every hour I receive an hour. So what shall I plant in that hour? What shall I try to grow? And what will I plant in the hour after that?

This is what Thomas Mann meant with “to man, time is given like a piece of land.” It’s what Keynes meant when he praised “those who pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well” as opposed to those who are merely productive.

With this view, time is a gift received again and again. It’s evidence of a universal generosity or love.

With this view, greatness means approaching your life with great and well-considered values. Values are the seeds that you can plant. Those who view time as a garden define themselves by their values, commitments, or customs.

Only this way of experiencing time can easily be social. If you imagine yourself tending this garden of time, you can easily imagine a friend with similar values coming by to help.

If you see time as a garden, you can see the full landscape of values. To people with other views, only certain values make sense at all: depending on the view, it might be productivity, effectiveness, mindfulness, authenticity, refined taste, high status, intellectual or creative capacity. If only a few values make sense, and they seem obvious, the category called “values” doesn’t even seem important or sensible.

But those who view time as as a garden can see values comparatively. In their gardens, they can plant broad values like boldness, elegance, brute physicality, humility, or love. They can plant narrow values like the appreciation of subtle flavors, or like caring well for a specific person. Every hour they have a new choice.

For each view above, our experience of time influences what we think it means to be great, and how we understand socializing.

The experience of passing time is always there when we check. It is foundational.

Perhaps the experience of time is a great lever of life: Perhaps, if you want to change the rest of your life and to grow your values, you first have to change your experience of time.

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