There is no definition of time: what clock are you on?
Andromeda galaxy – so far away that light takes two million years to reach us.
How long is 38 years to you?
Is it the same to each of us?
If not, why not?
Today a story about 38 years, then some thoughts on what clock each of us are running time on.
What is 38 years when you think in terms of 900 years?
About twenty years ago I slowly began developing an idea in concert with a Scottish government agency to look to, over time, bring a few large scale tourism developments to the country that would be transformational in nature.
As part of this, we took time to build a portfolio of sites to act as magnets to attract developers to invest in building large hotels and resorts as tourism magnets not just for the local area but the whole country.
At the time I was used to evaluating projects for investment quickly, whether that be a few hours, days, week or months. However, this project was a new idea and we were nearly five years into it by the time I visited Scotland and took a day to drive to the Highlands to visit one particular site.
As I was toured around by the landowner, I quickly saw that the site was absolutely stunning. I could immediately picture a hotel and resort development that would be like nothing the country had ever seen. The location, topography, aspect and other factors were all perfect.
What’s more, it was located on a hidden quarry site in the middle of a forest and the way this quarry had altered the shape of the land made it immediately perfect for a crescent-shaped hotel of two to three hundred rooms where almost every room would overlook not one but two stunning golf courses, all facing south to the sun.
To say I was excited would be an understatement. I turned to the owner of the site, who also seemed quite excited, and asked them “so when can we start?”. Their answer shocked me. “After the quarrying licence has finished”. “When will that be?”, I asked, thinking a year or two. The answer floored me: “Well, that will be in another 38 years”.
Was the landowner kidding? 38 years?
I’d been working on this concept for 5 years, which felt like a massively long time to me already. “Why?”, I thought in that moment, “were they wasting my time looking at a site that they wouldn’t allow to be developed for another 38 years?”
Clearly, though, the land owner was on a different clock from me.
As we’d been talking they had also told me about their family background. Their family, their clan, went back well over 900 years and much of their land holdings dated back to that period.
Their concept of time, therefore, meant that, to them, 38 years is just a blip in time in the centuries in which they look upon themselves as stewards of the land.
Time is relative to each of us. That was a massive learning for me on that occasion and one I see highlighted again and again.
There is no definition of time
Recently I had an interesting philosophical discussion where someone was highlighting to me that there is no definition of time, it is simply a construct that humans use.
This concept blew my mind, but I stayed with it.
So, time in physics is defined by its measurement, ie time is what a clock reads. Put another way: “In physical science, time is defined as a measurement, or as what the clock face reads”. A bit of a circular argument to me, in that time isn’t truly real, it is simply something we measure and so we give it that tangibility.
That is not to say that time is not real, simply that it is intangible. As Einstein recognised with his combined general and special theories of time, it is relative, ie in which rates of time run differently depending on certain parameters.
Ok, so that is a bit too philosophical for application, but if we can accept that there is no universal definition of time and it runs differently depending on parameters, we can then bring a certain level of awareness to ourselves in how we ourselves relate to time.
What clock are you on?
Let’s assume that from what I’ve written so far we can accept that there is an abstract nature to time.
Let’s also assume that it is real, simply intangible. As humans, we are born, we live, we die. Mortality is very real and we can measure that in “clock time” of seconds, minutes, hours, weeks, months, years, decades.
For now, then, my question is “what clock are you on?”
In leadership of organisations we all have to run budgets and measure our financial performance. These are typically done in annual terms. One year. Twelve Months.
How long, then, is a year?
If you are starting your career at 21 right out of university, is a year the same time as someone who is 51 and who feels they have so much to learn, to give, to contribute, yet knows that retirement age in this same organisation is fixed at 60?
I’ve found that, in working with leaders, they do start to hear the clock ticking as they age at work, yet isn’t time the same for everyone? Perhaps not.
Imagine now you are in the heady days of a new relationship. You “can’t wait” until the next time you see the other person. Every moment apart can “seem like years”, yet perhaps for the other person, they are so busy and pre-occupied with (say) their work that they feel that time is rushing past them and they feel the pressure to see you, even if they want to.
These two examples now lead me to consider the power of empathy around the clock that others are on.
Understanding what clock others are on
Stephen Covey reminds us to “listen with the intent to understand, not to reply”, a topic I wrote about in “Listening, your superpower“.
Hopefully today you have deepened awareness for yourself around what time truly means, then looked at the clock you are on.
Time as a construct is so deeply entrenched for us that we rarely give awareness to how we related to it, the clock we are on.
Now that you have that on your mind, I encourage you, in your leadership, to consider what clock others may be on. When you listen to them, look to listen for that, look to understand their relationship to time and how that may impact their choice, decisions, actions, work.
Also published on Medium.