I recently took my oldest offspring to the airport for a flight to Los Angeles that marked her official journey into adulthood. A new college graduate (minus the COVID19-canceled graduation ceremony), she’s now settling into an apartment and independent life 3,000 miles from her childhood home. She couldn’t wait to leave. Given my KPI in parenting has always been to raise a strong, independent woman, I suppose I succeeded. But it’s bittersweet, because she grew into a strong, independent woman well before I wanted to say goodbye.
I should have known the daughter I took to live in Madagascar at two weeks old would be called to adventure as an adult, choosing a path that starts from afar. I recently dug up my old journals from her first years and found this: “She turns to me, hand outstretched, to lead me off to some place she wants to explore together. She does this often now, and the image lingers in my mind for hours afterward. There is so much in that simple gesture of hers – quiet trust, a sense of shared adventure, and a faith that I understand she wants to be led and protected at the same time.” There were so many daily moments over the years that match that journal entry, but as they accumulated, the experience shifted. She is still exploring up to now, but she doesn’t need the hand to hold.
They call parenting the longest, shortest time for a good reason.
Even if you aren’t a parent, I imagine you know a thing or two about long, short times. It’s a fundamental fact of life that many things that move in slow motion on a daily basis speed by as a collective experience. Karl von Vierordt – who studied time perception – found that people tend to overestimate short durations of time and underestimate long. And when we’re afraid, time crawls. In a post in Brainpickings about Claudia Hammond’s book Time Warped, Hammond describes a study in which people with arachnophobia were asked to look at spiders — which they feared — for 45 seconds. They thought the experience was far longer than that. Another study found novice skydivers thought other divers’ falls were short while their own were longer. Time seems to stand still when we’re terrified.
I see all of these effects in 2020. The past seven months feel impossibly long. Yet it’s a short time for how fundamentally our existence has been altered. In the past week, it feels like each day has been a lifetime. But how is it suddenly October?
I’m reminded of Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman’s description of how we remember things and its connection to our sense of happiness. He says it’s nearly impossible to think straight about our lived and remembered experiences because they are fraught with cognitive traps. When we live through an experience in the present, our typical psychological presence is maybe three seconds. These fleeting instances are typically ignored by our remembering selves, which are our inner storytellers recollecting the past. He gives the example of a friend who listened to a brilliant recording of a symphony that ended in a screech due to damage. His friend called it a “ruined” experience, even though 99% of his listening had been happy perfection. It was more accurately a ruined memory than a ruined experience, but humans don’t draw that distinction.
“I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me,” Kahneman says.
As a parent, my remembering self dominates the fleeting, forgotten moments of experience. The same goes for the experience of 2020. And the years in my professional life.
How do we deal with this time warp of long, short moments and remembering selves? We’re often told to live in the moment, which is good advice (though hard to follow), but I think there’s also merit to mental time travel to the past and future. The key is attentiveness and intentionality about the journey.
The organizational psychologist Adam Grant recently did an interview with the astronaut Scott Kelly during our COVID lockdown. Kelly knows a thing or two about confinement, having spent nearly a year in close quarters in outer space. He said the key to his resilience was mental time travel. Grant writes:
In psychology, mental time travel is a distinctively human skill. It involves rewinding to remember the past and fast-forwarding to envision the future. With practice, we can use it to find meaning in monotony, experience moments of happiness in the midst of sadness and make time feel like it’s passing faster or slower.
Kelly did not only travel into space, he also visited his future, his past and alternate realities. He purposely took time to think about the future when he was in the present, setting a goal of getting to the end of his year in space with the same enthusiasm and ability and energy as he had in the beginning. This gave him a sense of purpose. He also thought about what he would cherish about his current experience and miss when it was over. Kelly also spent time revisiting adversity in his past, to remind him of his resilience. And finally he thought about an alternate present, when things were worse than they are now.
I have found such thinking brings gratitude, resilience and purpose as a parent and a professional — and as a human being living through these uncertain times.
As a leader, I try to stay present in the moment. But I also draw on what we’ve learned from past challenges. And I try to lift out of quotidian perspective into a more expansive view of our journey. One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to elevate yourself and your team from all the things you are doing to ask: What got us here? Why are we doing this? What is it adding up to? Is it what we hoped? Are we getting closer to our desired destination? What needs to speed up or slow down or change? That’s the story we need to discern over time and tell anew, over and over. Without that practice, we might find the slow daily grind has actually been part of a high-speed year that perhaps did not carry us as far as we would have wished.
Kahneman has said we think of our future as future memories, dragging our experiencing selves toward what we want to remember some day. If this is an inevitable cognitive trap, we can at least channel it into a sense of purpose. And we can revisit our memories, even if they are heavily edited versions of our lived experience, with an eye toward perspective.
Our lives – not just parenthood – are longest, shortest times. It’s worth reflecting on that truth and traversing its warped contours with intention, so that we can live every infinite, numbered day to its fullest. And so we can help each other to do the same. We each have our own experience, but we all have shared experiences, too. Time travel can be a collective endeavor. At a time when we’re riven with divisions, let’s take that long view together, especially in the deeply important short term of daily living.