Life is Long
Update: This piece is now published on exitevent.com
Paul Graham is one of my favorite writers. I believe I’ve read every one of the essays he’s published on his website, some many times. In every one of them, there is a simple, well-stated nugget that has helped me understand startups better or, moreso in his recent work, think about what matters most in life.
His most recent essay “Life is Short” makes the case stated in the title and concludes with a set of aphorisms: “Relentlessly prune bullshit, don’t wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have.” Bullshit in this case is a technical term for things that life is too short for, i.e. things that don’t matter.
I respect his conclusion, but the shortness of life is something I’ve thought a lot about and simply don’t agree with. I think life is long.
But, happily, I think I can get to the same conclusion Graham did, from the other side. This asymptotic approach from diametrically opposed starting points is something I’ve come to expect from deep truths. So, if this is something you enjoy thinking or reading about, come along for the ride.
Why Life is Long
I remember as a child I was waiting for friends to come over to play. I was very bored and anxious to see them. I asked my mother how long it would be until they go there. She said “about 50 minutes”. That period felt like one of the longest stretches of time I’d experienced in my life.
Looking back, the experience of length was a function of how often I consciously remembered to check the time, combined with a memory of how often I’d checked the time before, and the reality that my friends still weren’t there. The quantity of time I experienced was a function of how many attention I paid to my experience of it.
I also used to have the strange experience of sleeping instantaneously. THis will sound really strange unless it’s happened to you, but as a child there were several times where I’d close my eyes to go to sleep and open them and it was morning. I dubbed this “blinksleep” and it was a key introduction to the subjective relativity of time.
Other times then and now, in the ‘flow’ that Graham mentions, hours can pass in what seems a short amount of time. When I’m in a flow, compared with the number of times I’ve stopped to think about how long I’ve been doing something, relatively large amounts of time have passed. This gives the impression that time is short.
I’ve noticed that older adults tend to say that time is fleeting, while kids tend to think that time is long. Some have attributed this to older adults gaining wisdom over time but I think there’s another cause. Regardless of how ‘consciously’ we live our lives, we measure time by little check-ins. When we’re young, these milestones are dropped often. For a great many years of my life, lasting into my late 20s, I can remember thinking that I was crucially different from how I’d been just six months before. But as we age this tends to be much harder to keep doing. We reach a stasis of identity as the things we’ve done, the people we’ve met, and the stuff we’ve accumulated comes to define us, and is relentlessly familiar. The newness-based check-ins of the first day of school, the first kiss, a first home, a first mortgage become less frequent, which makes time feel faster. I can remember vividly what it felt like to drive a car on my own for the first time when I was 16. The vividness hasn’t faded, yet that was almost 16 years ago. I barely recall driving my truck earlier today, so in driving terms there aren’t many checkpoints between now and that moment in 1999. The disconnect between the vividness of memory and the expanse of time is what produces the temporal illusion, foreshortening the many long years in between now and then into an apparent blink.
Yet, with enough concentration, I can slow down time by speeding up my perception of the present. Every second, as I type, there are manifold sounds, feelings, and thoughts racing through my consciousness. There’s a low, almost imperceptible ringing in my ears which I almost never notice. There’s a strange fuzziness to my vision that I can only see when I relax my eyes out of focus. In fact, there’s a simultaneous baseline of touch sensations that covers my whole body that I almost never pay attention to. Once or twice I think I’ve perceived something analogous to these with my sense of taste, but that’s a very difficult one to sense in the ansence of actual stimulas. For me at least. But these sensory baselines are there, accessible to me, if I slow down my mind and pay attention.
This is strange behavior, perhaps, but it’s taught me a lot about time. When I do attend to these sensations, sometimes all at once if I’m able, time slows down to a crawl. It’s strange, I suppose, that time slows down when I slow down but that’s what happens.
I think I know why, and it’s exactly what made those 50 minutes interminable to me: boredom. As you can imagine, paying attention to the baseline states of your senses to the exclusion of the things that most humans pay attention to is rather monotonous. There are million thoughts and feelings that rise to the surface, each of them engaging enough to make time speed back up again. But doing this exercise fully for even one minute is enough to remind me why life is long: because time is long.
Boredom & Bullshit
Here’s the point where I start agreeing with Graham again.
The importance of Graham’s kids to him is something we obviously can’t evaluate firsthand. But I’d argue that the mechanism whereby they help him focus on what’s important is probably precisely what I’ve described here: their identities are so fluid and every sensation (such as Christmas morning) is so comparatively new to them that even he can’t help slowing down and vicariously experiencing time in its full glory again.
Just because there’s lots of time doesn’t mean it’s OK to fill it with Bullshit. In fact, time’s magnitude makes bullshit all the more excruciating. Wasting 15 minutes on bullshit is an eternity that I’ll never get back. Some of the happiest, most exhilarating moments of my life have happened in 15 minute bursts of creative energy. Thinking about enduring weeks, months or years of bullshit sounds like a version of hell to me (a version of hell I’ve experienced in 8 hour chunks with the bullshit jobs that taught me this lesson).
Like Graham, I think you should avoid bullshit. Like Graham, I think that most people put up with bullshit because they’ve been tricked- by themselves or others. But one of the most insidious effects of bullshit is also to encourage us to make the time fly by by distracting ourselves, turning off that childlike part of us that seeks out and curates new experiences. In essence a belief that Life is Short could the the thing tricking you into putting up with bullshit. Perhaps we can’t help the fact that experiencing time becomes harder to do and less frequent as we become cemented in who we are, who we know and what we do. But the fact that we can, at times, experience time as long, as children do, is proof enough for me that if Life ends up feeling short it’s because our perception of it has changed.
Another phenomenon I’ve noticed is how much thinking can get done in a short time. When I’m really interested and zone into an idea I can get very far down a train of thought in just a few seconds. Continuing this process for minutes or hours is how I come up with my best insights and some of the most personally satisfying experiences I have in life. So much happening in such a short time is exciting and exhilarating. It takes study and discipline to prepare. But it’s the stuff that important companies, research breakthroughs, and insightful philosophies are made of.
And it’s fundamentally dependent upon how massive time is.
I’ve learned that not everyone experiences the world the way I do. Or, at least, I’ve seen blank stares when describing these experiences to people. But I have to imagine that almost everyone can have similar experiences when they slow down and examine them. And I’d even say that most people did experience time as long when they were children.
Regardless, racing quickly from thought to thought in pursuit of exciting new insights is one of the great joys of my life, and it happens in the vast expanse of seconds, not hours, days, or weeks.
Trading FOMO for FOBB
I’m advocating for a view of life as a very very long period of time, or perhaps a series of long periods punctuated by periods where we’re not paying as close attention or our brains aren’t moving as fast. But still, I arrive at the same conclusion Graham does: we should ruthlessly edit out things that don’t matter, actively seek out and do the things that do matter, and, perhaps most of all, be present and savor the moment. There’s more possibility and excitement in the instantaneous moments we have direct access to each second than we realize during the day-to-day.
When I do stop and wake up to a moment, it’s always clear that wasting time on things that don’t matter isn’t just a bad idea; it would be horribly, terribly, stultifyingly boring.
Ultimately, pick whatever view of time suits you best. Whereas Graham’s essay exhorts us to do what matters to avoid FOMO — Fear of Missing Out — personally, FOBB — Fear of Being Bored — is a much more effective motive for me.