You are not running out of time
or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Began Enjoying Infinity
Rahul Bijlani, October 2010
Tale of two conquerors
Early in his political career, Julius Caesar is said to have wept upon reading a biography of Alexander the Great. When asked why, he apparently said, “Do you think, I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable!”
This story was seared in my memory when I read it in high school, because it spoke to my own search for achievement: I had read that at 17, Bill Gates had already created his first successful business venture. At the same age, I hadn’t even figured out where to start. It didn’t make me weep, but it did make me worry.
And so, incredibly, at 17 I genuinely wondered:
was I running out of time?
It seems amusing now – but back then I was deadly serious.
You know the feeling – the feeling of being left behind in the race for achievement. Of falling back in ‘the game’. For some people, the game is keeping up with the Joneses: marrying a good catch, living in a nice house, driving the right car, having a good job, kids that do well at school. For others, it is enjoying life’s pleasures – the best vacations, the most enjoyable parties, with the most exciting partiers. Then there are people who are forever pursuing harmony and peace in their lives, resolving the discordant threads one by one, and for some the game is living up to their personally defined objective definition of personal development.
For most, it is a combination with a common thread: Am I moving up in the world at an acceptable pace, or am I running out of time? Am I maximizing my potential?
What that quickly meant to me was that wasting time and opportunities were criminal, with my own potential achievements as victims that needed to be rescued from the assault of lost hours and non-productivity. It meant becoming a workaholic. Bill Gates probably felt that way once – looking back at his teenage years and his own obsessive time spent with computers, he said,
“it was hard to tear myself away from a machine at which I could so unambiguously demonstrate success.”
I thought I was on the right track.
A moving target
Ironically, when I started to cross some of my own personal benchmarks, I discovered that something was very wrong – I kept moving the goalposts.
One counter-intuitive handicap of playing the game is that with every step you move forward, two things happen:
- You discover that its possible to go further than you previously knew, and
- The people you are left playing with are better at the game than people left behind. In other words, distinguishing yourself from your peers gets tougher as your definition of your peer group gets upgraded. It must have been easy for Bill Gates to stand out at Harvard, not so much in Silicon Valley, where he has constantly competed with Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and others master games-men.
Thats why the ‘acceptable pace’ aspect of moving up in the world keeps evolving as you discover greater and greater opportunities. When Bill Gates made his first million, it probably felt extraordinary to him and a landmark achievement. How about his 2nd? His 20th? His 100th? How did he know he wasn’t running out of time to achieve his true potential when he made his first billion? If he was measuring himself on market domination, where would he go after 95% market share was secured?
The questions I had got crazier, but they seemed logical progressions of understanding the game. For example, geneticists say that one in 12 Asian men is descended from Genghis Khan. How did Julius Caesar feel about not leaving behind his empire to his progeny? Or Alexander for not having any children at all? Does that mean Genghis Khan played the game better? What does that make Bill Gates feel about marriage and kids? Does it make sense for him to have a harem, for example? Would it make sense for me to have one? And one child showered with attention, or the risk spread over a couple hundred?
If you keep asking these questions, how can you not keep moving the goalposts? How can you not get exhausted, overwhelmed, anxious?
Eventually, I came across a thought from ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. In the story, Pirsig, a young man, goes mountain-climbing with some elderly monks. He struggles throughout, and eventually gives up, while the monks easily continue to the peak. What is apparent is that Pirsig, focussed as he is on the peak, is overwhelmed by the climb, and continues to lose his desire and strength with every step. The monks, on the other hand, used the peak only as a guide to mark the direction of their climb; they were more focused on the journey and its enjoyment, and made it to the top with ease.
This offered a valuable insight. Maybe Bill Gates doesn’t sit and ponder these definitions of success: maybe he keeps it simple – to maximize his fortune and have a small loving family – and simply enjoys programming. Maybe Alexander simply enjoyed battles, and Stephen Hawking loves physics. It would appear that they would still be active in those pursuits regardless of the relation of their endeavors to material success.
This would also suggest that the game – i.e. maximizing your potential, and what you can achieve with your time and resources – is best played if you enjoy the pursuit of your goals. In other words – if you are journey based, rather than destination driven. Pirsig’s monks probably just liked walking in the mountains, maybe they were as not wedded to the idea of standing on a peak as they were to enjoying nature.
Earlier, to me the game meant maximizing your time and potential to get somewhere, now it meant maximizing those things to enjoy the trip. That would mean that Bill Gates measure of success is how much he enjoyed his day, not how much code he wrote, or how much his businesses expanded.
A revolutionary thought! The point of my life was to enjoy it to its potential, with goals to set the direction in which I was headed.
This was my new definition of the game.
And it meant it was impossible to run out of time, because every day was a brand new opportunity to play and win.
But that still begged the question: how do you pick your destination? Doesn’t it keep moving, every time you re-evaluate the meaning of success? The monks had a fixed peak in the mountains they were climbing, most of us don’t have the luxury.
The right question
The answer to these questions occurred to me somewhat unexpectedly, through the best line in an otherwise unremarkable movie.
In Wall Street 2, right after he has cheated his own daughter out of her trust fund, Gordon Gekko, Hollywood’s favorite bad guy, is confronted by his future son-in-law, who chastises him for his seemingly slavish devotion to money. Gordon hears him out, and responds,
“You never did get it, did you? Its never been about the money – its about the game!”.
While the audience shook its head in disapproval, a lifetimes worth of questions were answered for me in a flash, and I wanted to jump up and cheer: I had the answer – Gordon was playing the game exactly right, and thats why he was exactly wrong!
He wasn’t running out of time, and he genuinely enjoyed every day of playing the game. He didn’t even care about the money, which he made and lost and made back. And yet, he was unhappy and it was clear that something was very, very wrong.
What I realized was that playing the game the right way isn’t good enough – it needs to be played for the right reason: it has to be played to build something, to see something grow. Gordon wasn’t building anything at all, not even a family, and his emptiness showed dramatically.
The answer to how you pick the destination: by asking yourself, what do I want to see grow? What do I want to build?
Even Bill Gates seems to have an opinion on this. “I’m a great believer that any tool that enhances communication has profound effects in terms of how people can learn from each other, and how they can achieve the kind of freedoms that they’re interested in.” And sure enough, he’s been building these tools all his life. All the money he made doing it? He’s giving it away. And he’s enjoying that process too!
Einstein wanted to build a theory that unified the physics of very large objects, like planets and the physics of very small objects, like atoms. Did he complete his project, before he died? No – but he left a legacy and a foundation for generations of future scientists to keep building on. I doubt he felt like he had run out of time.
A couple years ago, Steve Jobs built a phone that he wanted to see exist, and changed the world forever. Did he really need the money? Or the influence? Or the acclaim? Or was he simply trying to create something, and enjoying the process of seeing his vision come to life?
All of these examples suffered numerous setbacks as well as many opportunities to retire early in life, but chose to keep moving, because of what they wanted to build. The examples that they offer suggest that if you know what you want to build, and play the game to enjoy the journey, you are probably on your way to the good life. All of a sudden, the ‘Am I running out of time?’ question becomes meaningless.
Imagine building a house – would you really want to rush it? Lets imagine you faced an interruption – perhaps a snowstorm halted construction for a week. Would it make sense, or even be safe or wise to continue at the same pace during the storm? You wouldn’t feel bad about the delay, you’d just wait till you could resume. Or lets imagine you ran out of funds. Would you abandon the project because it was running behind time? Or find a way to continue in the future? If the foundations were poured and then you were diverted for a year, would you consider the construction to have moved backwards, or merely paused?
Now imagine building a family, or a skillset, or any object or business. Is it more important to do it rapidly and compare it to others or to build something that will last, and bring your vision to life?
A recipe for life
These questions are also why comparisons don’t really make any sense. Julius Caesar was weeping for all the wrong reasons. Alexander and he had different visions, they were looking to build different things in different times. Similarly, it was meaningless for my 17 year old self to measure myself against a very different person’s desires at a completely different time and place. In doing so, I was denying my own dreams, and trying to live someone else’s – and that too, dreams I imagined that person to have, without knowing what their dreams really were. Maybe all Bill Gates was trying to do at 17 was impress his high school crush. Maybe Alexander was trying to live up to the dreams of his father. The reality is that nobody will ever know!
Work, spouse, kids and family are not items to be checked off a list – they are directly based on the vision of the life you are trying to build, and settling based on a clock is merely a guarantee that the vision is being compromised. On the other hand, realizing what you want to build, as opposed to solely playing the game, may dramatically impact the choices you make.
In fact, answering the ‘what do I want to see grow’ question impacts all decisions, from what to do on a Saturday afternoon, to whether you should move to a different city for your work. It makes near term and long term destinations clear, and then all that is left is to play the game, or maximize your potential, to enjoy the journey of getting there. It also explains why the Gordon Gekkos and Julius Caesars of the world, who play the game just for its own sake, are generally unhappy and unsuccessful in their own eyes, even though they appear to be doing everything right.
A wise man once said happiness is the ultimate currency. The phrase resonated with me, but ‘the game’ didn’t help me maximize the currency that mattered most. Now however, at 30, I think I have the ultimate business plan, and nobody is running out of time any time soon.