A Million Ways to Spend Time Poorly

I’ve always held an entirely unsubstantiated and implicit belief that we all have much more time than we think we do. But it escapes us. Slips through the cracks. We mostly suck at spending time, and so we cope with it either by leaning in or dropping out. Most of our neurosis seem attributable to the feeling that tomorrow is coming either too fast or too slow.

I’m not much better than others at spending time, but I have learned a thing or two along the way. At the risk of impersonating a philosopher, allow me to share my thoughts and anecdotes…

Doing many Things

To a certain… susceptible mind, there is immense allure to doing many things. Especially challenging and notable things. I have such a preclusion, and my lifestyle took on that of some self-styled productivity-optimizer. I found honest joy in it.

Doing a lot is satisfying: the pleasure of a job well done, or a personal best accomplished. The same underlying need to accomplish more is observable from athletes to bankers, actors to engineers. It is the hero myth, or the American dream, to which we subscribe.

The mad dash of modern society, while oft-ridiculed, is not without merit. In some aspects of life, chaos is a friend. New ideas do not come from unchanged circumstance. Novelty and chaos are the foundation of every story and, therefore, every moral. I wish every person’s twenties could be spent exploring both geographic and interpersonal boundaries. Doing a lot is also about seeing and experiencing a lot. It is the joi de vivre, the total embrace of possibilities. Such early experiences can shape how we understand and interact with each other and serve as the spark for later innovation.

Everyone needs to go through an Icarus phase, lest how would we know our limits? Nowhere is this brazen hubris more on display today than San Francisco. When busy-ness and failure are taken as virtues, the frenetic nature of this city is the inevitable product.

San Francisco; the Bay Area; Silicon Valley. Whatever you call it, it is the modern epicenter for esprit of productivity… and hubris.

But this kind of energy is unbridled and raw. It cannot accomplish much. Many of those who move to a city with big dreams (like me) find themselves nodding along to a much-editorialized story of what it could be, even if they do not yet know the missing ingredients which limit them from realizing such dreams.

Doing them Well

Quantity eventually becomes the enemy of quality.

I built dozens of things in the tail end of college. This was the height of the iPhone app craze (2008-2010). In the beginning, I did not know it but I found myself in the unique position of being able to build something in a weekend and have a perhaps… 10% chance of it making me a living wage for the year. I was fortunate, but as a result I over-learned the lesson of quantity, and it came at the expense of quality.

The first and only time I’ve had my own office.

In the beginning, the bowl of the mind is all but empty. Doing many things fills it with thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Eventually the bowl runs over and makes a mess. Doing things well means learning discretion: where to take away, instead of only where to add.

The first time I took investment money for a startup, I, like so many other founders, had absolutely no idea what I was doing. But I also had the blessed curse of ignorance: of not knowing just how much I did not know. The Dunning-Kruger effect, in-action. I failed miserably, to no great surprise. I was lucky yet again because I landed somewhere which could cure me of the intellectual hubris I knew too-well I possessed.

The best account I’ve read, if you’re curious. Tangentially, being able to hear the voices of characters in my head made this book feel eerie.

Airbnb is a company born of two designers, and later, a programmer. The composition of the three founders tells a lot about the constitution of the company. As RISD students, Brian and Joe imbued the company with a need for aesthetic and UX perfection. Nate brought the technical acumen to actually pull off their ever-changing whims. As a relatively early hire (2011), I had a front-row seat to the transition from this early phase toward a stable company. As an engineer myself, I learned that a functional and useful piece of technology is the beginning of the journey, not the end.

In the nearly five years I’ve spent at the company, I’ve learned to refine my attention. Building OKRs and metrics in my current job as an engineering manager may not seem terribly exciting, but it is in service of minimizing the energy wasted.

We could all learn a little from martial artists: less is more. Effort placed in the wrong direction is not only wasteful, it is counter-productive. Learning to manage the time of a team taught me this lesson with an objectivity which is difficult to achieve as an individual.

To move from doing many things to doing select things well can feel like slowing down. This is one of those illusions of time. The days go slow but the years go fast. Or in the words of Bill Gates:

We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.

If you pay close attention to what you’re doing, time slows down. The charts don’t move much day-by-day. Like compound interest, though, progress stacks upon itself. The progress of a year is the compounding of all those days.

As I progressed in my career as an engineering manager, I was slowly compelled to think about the years instead of the days. When I began to do so, it slowly started to dawn on me that something was still missing.

Doing them Right

Two years ago, I would have ended this essay with “doing it well.” I know this because I did exactly that: I wrote a book based upon these principles entitled The Joy of Craft, emphasizing the import of doing things well. Now I realize there is a third lens through which I have only begun to look.

“Right” is an ambiguous word. I meant “doing things right” to convey some sense of morality. I might have expanded the headline to some combination of “doing the right things” and/or “doing them for the right reason.” But I felt the compulsion to be pithy, and here we are.

Throughout my twenties, I was working as hard as I could. The text of the tattoo on the inside of my arm even reads “all the running,” as an allusion to the Lewis Carroll line:

It takes all the running you can do

Just to stay in the same place.

Indeed it does, but only in the right direction. Spending time doing lots of things well is not enough. There must be a purpose. Which is another one of those words which might be interpreted in a vaguely moral or spiritual context. No matter. It is the right word.

The fact that phrases like doing things “right” and having a “purpose” have some metaphysical connotation speaks partly to my inexperience in writing about them, and partly to the general confusion on the subject.

That of which I speak is necessarily hard to pin down. This makes it easy to dismiss.

The natural consequence of doing fewer things is realizing just how little you can get done, and how valuable every moment is. In the beginning of this essay, I used the analogy of time “slipping through the cracks.” It’s no coincidence that sand is used as a metaphor for time. It, too, slips through the cracks.

One way to stop things slipping through the cracks is to patch the cracks. But that’s hard, because in this case the cracks become larger with age. The other option is to make the grains bigger. Surprisingly, this is easier. The size of the grains, in this tortured metaphor, are the importance of the memories.

What makes the topic of rightness so challenging is that it is an intuition more than it is a fact. That’s the problem with morality, after all: the relativism. Its why we each can have our own truths, and therefore how facts die. But its also how we know right from wrong. So, its got that going for it.

Even if we each only somewhat drunkly stumble toward the occasional good decision, I’ll chalk that up as a point for humanity. I’m not quite “there” yet, and I don’t suspect I’ll ever be. But I mostly think the things I’m doing today are closer to who I want to be than the things I did yesterday.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

When I first heard the above, I took it to be an indictment of stupidity. More recently, I heard a call to motivation: to eschew the useless in favor of the effective. Its only in the last few weeks that I reflected upon the name Serenity Prayer when I realized something closer to its true message. The above quotation is not about what you can do to the world, but what the world can do to you.

There are a million ways to spend times poorly. I’ve found more than a few of them. But like happy families, there are only a few ways to do it right. It shouldn’t require a careful study of the dying to reveal that there are simple things upon which we should focus. Namely: social bonds, like love and friendship.

Donner Lake / Truckee cabin weekend.

A post shared by Zane Claes (@zaneclaes) on

I’ve always been highly skeptical of what the uninitiated might call “relaxation time.” In fact, this might better be called “inspiration time.” The size of the grains of our memories are attributable to the emotion we have expended upon them. The only way I have discovered to live more fully as I age is to feel more deeply. What I mean exactly by that should someday be the content of its own post. How it contributes to society is the topic of much deeper thought than I might currently articulate. In the interim, allow me simply to say that quality personal experiences, far from being time taken away from a productive life, are synergistic with it.

There are people who have become immensely successful (by some definitions) without ever embracing the philosophy I espouse. There are many “successful” yet unhappy people, and while I have absolutely no data to substantiate this claim, I would venture to guess that those successful-unhappy people are also those who do not find a definition of “rightness” in their lives which is congruent with some personal set of values and dedication toward others. We are a social animal, after all. Though we may have the abhorrent inclination toward destruction, it is more instructive that our brains naturally reward us for our cooperation with each other. It’s why those who give more than they take ultimately advance society.

I haven’t figured the balance out quite yet. While some relaxation may breed creativity, total relaxation decays into purposelessness. But I do know that of the million and one ways I’ve spent time, there is only one motive I can truly defend as a principle:

Doing well to/for others.

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