I remember having lunch with my boss once in the mid 00s. He was trying to convince me that time is more valuable than money.
“That’s not true,” I said. “If all you have is time, but no money, money is scarce and more valuable. You can get a job and exchange your time for money. It is relative.”
“You can always make more money, but you can never make more time,” he replied. I’ve been thinking about that conversation for years now, and the older I get the more I agree with his position.
Imagine giving $700 000 to a child and saying “This is all you get. Don’t waste it, you won’t get any more.” The child is told and knows that there is no more money, but they don’t fully appreciate the consequence of this.
They won’t know how difficult life is without money because they would never even consider it. If all a child knows is an abundance of money, literally having more money than they could count, they simply wouldn’t have any reason to consider not having money.
It would be like a typical child considering a life without air, or shelter, or clothes. Most kids just don’t think about it because they are too busy thinking about the things they could do.
Time is similar to this $700 000 life fund, except instead of dollars, we get an average of about 700 000 hours. That’s the number of hours there are in 80 years, the approximate average western life expectancy.
It isn’t until we get older that we start to consider not having any more time. For me, this has been a huge revelation. I’ve known my time is limited, but to see friends and family getting old, running into health problems and dying has been an eye opener.
Appreciating time has had such a profound impact on me that it’s the frame in which I ask myself important questions. Are the things that made me happy 10 years ago still making me happy? What would make me happy 20 years from now? How much happier will more money make me? What should I spend my remaining time doing?
That’s why the sooner you really value your time, and understand how limited it is, the more your decisions will take into account the big picture.
I learned the value of the dollar by working for it. For example, I know approximately how long it takes me to earn $5. As a result, I don’t spend $5 a day on Starbucks, nor do I always have the latest phone. After running a cost-benefit analysis on these things, they just aren’t worth it to me.
Likewise, because I understand the value of time, it is easier for me to play a lot less video games or watch less Netflix and instead work on a project. Because I value my time with my friends, I’m more likely to play board games, or a new Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
I haven’t given up on video games or Netflix, I’m just prioritizing things I value more, and that means spending more time on my projects, with loved ones, and being outside.
Walking Through Graveyards
In his book, Show Your Work, Austin Kleon suggests reading the obituaries for inspiration and to keep you grounded. I think this is an amazing idea, but if you can, visiting a cemetery is even better.
As it happens, I live near a cemetery. It is old and large with giant maple and oak trees, and is the perfect place to take my dog for a walk. After going there for years, I began to notice the tombstones more. Some had beautiful engravings, others were more than 200 years old. Sometimes they were tombstones of children.
There are a few that have good advice written on them, others have strange symbols, or represent several generations of a family. As I got to know some tombstones more, I began to imagine the life of the person buried under them. How they died, how they lived, and what advice they might have for the living.
Whenever I saw a grave of someone who died younger than me, I began to wonder what would happen if I died the next day. Seeing the tombstone of someone younger than me makes me appreciate that I’m still alive and healthy. I feel genuinely grateful.
Sometimes I want to somehow thank the person buried under me for making me feel appreciative. As if I want them to know that I know it’s purely luck that they died before me.
It’s really just blind luck that I’m alive and well at my age, that I was born healthy, to a loving family, in a wealthy country. To be a white male, and never be hungry or left out in the cold. I’m lucky to live at a time of peak technological and medical advancement in a place buzzing with opportunities.
What can I do to express my gratitude to the person buried before me? It’s hard to know for sure, but if it was me, I would hope that at the very least the living person makes their time count. That they leave the planet a little bit better than how they got it.
When I was young, I had more time than I knew what to do with. It was easy to not appreciate it. Many an elder folk tried to tell me otherwise, but it wasn’t until I got older that I began to really understand how life works. How death itself isn’t to be feared, but wasting the time before my death is. And that nothing else really matters.