Everything is Time

  Everything is time

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

[J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring]

Our time is limited, but our timing doesn't have to be. We can learn to see the hidden patterns of life, to appreciate the power of breaks, the importance of beginnings and endings, starting together, understanding the power of midpoints and the value of group syncing.

    In When, Dan Pink reveals the science and applications behind some of the most common questions we have in our lifetime. We say timing is everything, but we hardly appreciate how everything is time, he says. By far the most intriguing part is how the world experiences time differently. 

    If language is what makes humans human, languages are what makes us native to a region in the world. Part of the culture we absorb in that region we transmit verbally. Our words, sentence structure, and tenses transmit messages while they program our brain with certain mental models. Code for the mind.

Thinking in tenses

    Past, present, and future tenses are not universally available. Some languages conjugate time differently than what we're used to in English-speaking countries. We have a hard time understanding each other in the same language and country, imagine what it's like to speak a second language.

    To understand each other, we need the ability to interpret information based on context. It's part of the high level work interpreters do in real time  requiring fluent knowledge of both languages, practice, and ability to improvise. We share the same human encoding, but different cultural references.

    Hence the challenge with machine learning. Configuring machines to engage in cognitive learning is still a challenge today. Imagine what it was in the 1950s when Anthony Oettinger  began teaching at Harvard University.

    Ottinger is a German linguist and computer scientist best known for his work on information resources policy. “Early claims that computers could translate languages were vastly exaggerated,” he wrote in an article for Scientific American in 1996. That's because many phrases have multiple meanings. Not to mention popular sayings and slang.

    Remove an expression from real time context, say “time flies like an arrow,” and you don't know what we're talking about. Time could be a noun, an adjective, or a verb. Fredrick Crosson, professor at the University of Notre Dame, faced the challenge when he wrote one of the first artificial intelligence textbooks in 1970.

    Most languages use tenses to mark time. We talk in past, present, and future tenses to say what we mean and think. Some cultures and periods in history consider thinking about the past a waste of time, others learn from it. As individuals, going back in time helps us make sense of who we are.

    Psychologist Constantine Sedikides# of the University of Southampton says nostalgia gives us two things that are essential to our well-being — a sense of meaning, and a connection to others. Research has found that the effects of thinking fondly about the past are predominantly positive.

    When we embrace our curiosity about the future, we also feel positive emotion. Cultivating our curiosity helps us stay open to new experiences and increase our odds of stumbling on activities we would not have imagined.

    Psychology professor Daniel Gilbert shows that, while we think we know what will make us happy in the future, we're less likely to find joy by planning it. In fact, he says Stumbling on Happiness happens on our way to something else. Gilbert also says that only human can “pre-experience” the future by simulating it in our minds.

Behaving in tenses

    If the precursor to an action is a thought, then it follows that the way we act, our behavior, is based on our mental models, how we encode information. Economist M. Keith Chen# of UCLA was among the first to explore how languages and economic behavior may be connected#.

    Some languages have strong orientation to the future, he says. In English, Italian, French, and Korean we make a sharp distinction between the present and the future. But others don't have such sharp contrast between present and future. For example, Mandarin, Finnish, German, and Estonian. Chen called them strong-future and weak-future.

    He found that speakers of languages that associate the future with the present save more, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese. 30% more likely to save for retirement, and 24% less likely to smoke, for example. Testing Switzerland yielded data consistent with the main language — French (strong-future) or German (weak-future) — rather than country.

    Chen's research is not conclusive of causation, says Pink, but could reflect deeper differences. Other research however supports the idea that we tend to make different choices based on how close or far we think we are from our future. Using images to age people helps people imagine and decide for their future with more urgency.


    Thinking and being in the present moment is challenging, especially in cultures that constantly project us into the future. At Harvard, researchers asked people to make small “time capsules” of their present moment, or write about a recent conversation.

    Revisiting the snapshot months later, people had not guessed their level of curiosity. In fact, it was higher than anticipated. They found the contents more interesting and meaningful by virtue of them being memorialized. This is a mechanism familiar to many people who keep journals.

    Memories create an emotional connection with an event and situation. When we say an experience is remarkable, we're saying it created found memories for us.

    Another aspect of the present moment we don't talk nearly enough is awe. Researchers describe awe as “that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” 

    Awe slows time down and diminishes the emphasis on the individual self. It may even encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. How we see our self in a bigger context drives how we see everything else, including how we perceive time.

    Social psychologist Robert Levine illustrates the symbiotic relationship between person and people and place or places in which they live in A Geography Of Time. Specifically, he shows how people have different rhythms in locations around the world.

    Through experiments, Levine looks at time perspective, at how people divide their own experience into partitions, time zones. On the speed of life, or tempo Levine asks the question, “what characteristics of places and cultures make them faster or slower?”

    The two elements Levine considers are “economic well-being” and “degree of industrialization,” but thanks to Dan Pink and a body of research, we can now see how everything is time.


See also time management: urgent vs. important, and the differences between being past, present, or future-oriented.