There’s a line in the movie “Pretty in Pink” (OK, I admit it. I like this movie…a lot) where Iona, played by Annie Potts, is reminiscing about her prom 20 years prior and says to Molly Ringwald’s character:
“Why can’t we start old and get younger?”
I think a lot of us can relate to that sentiment. Why does it sound so attractive? Because, as we get older, we recognize how precious time — how precious life – is and we lament the “wasted” days of youth. But whether we start young or old, like Benjamin Button, life is finite and bounded and it’s how we spend the time in between that matters.
The concept of time is built into us as humans, much like it is built into animals, fish and even insects. The rising and setting of the sun, the movement of tides, the changing of seasons: our very planet makes it impossible to be unaware of the constraints, possibilities, the existence of time.
But what sets humans apart from how we perceive time is how we utilize time as a commodity. Our calendar so conveniently chops it up, not just into days but hours and minutes for us to fill. I know I talk about time a lot and you’re probably wondering what’s new this time. What sparked my interest on this topic this week was an article I read by one of my favorite author’s Ryan Holiday titled “Why Don’t We Know How to Protect Our Time?”
Holiday begins the article:
All day, we let it happen. A neighbor comes by and babbles on about a bunch of nonsense, and we politely nod, even if we are in a hurry. Or some co-workers start gossiping about something petty, and we let ourselves get drawn in, never stopping to think about the time wasted. Or we get a message from an acquaintance that says, “Can I pick your brain?” We tell them, “Sure thing!” because isn’t it rude to say no?
Stoic philosopher Seneca once marveled at how stupid even the smartest people are when it comes to protecting their time: “No person hands out their money to passersby, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tightfisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.”
More than 2,000 years later, why are we still allowing our most valuable resource to slip from our grasp?
Holiday then discusses the four reasons he thinks we, as humans, do this:
- We think we have plenty of time.
- We’re afraid people won’t like hearing no.
- We don’t value ourselves enough.
- We have not developed the muscle required for enforcing boundaries.
I know these are universal challenges, but I believe educators face them more than most. We are, by nature, helpers and collaborators. We want to be there for our students and for each other. And while we may not be able to (or be inclined to!) reach into our wallets or empty our savings account if someone asks for money, we somehow feel time is an inexhaustible resource and if we can’t give other things, we can always give that.
But time is the ultimate exhaustible resource. And, unlike money or assets you may accumulate, you have zero control and zero assurance of how much of it you might have. One of the biggest personal regrets of my life coincided with a time that my professional life was soaring. I took a job in Dallas ISD to be an area superintendent but my boys were settled and in school here in Round Rock and my wife Amy loved her job teaching at Fern Bluff Elementary. For two years, I commuted to Dallas. Often working 16-hour days, staying in a Dallas apartment during the week, and heading home on Friday evenings for weekends that went by in a blur. The second time I received an offer in Dallas, to serve as deputy superintendent and chief of staff, even though my oldest was a sophomore in high school, I knew I couldn’t take the job unless my family was coming with me. I had missed too many ball games, parent-teacher nights and time around the dinner table already and I was not going to let it happen again. (Thankfully, they agreed to come and we loved our time in the Big D!) I decided then that if I didn’t actively prioritize my time, I would end up spending too much of it in the wrong place.
I work every day at getting this right and I often still fall short. One thing that stood out in Holliday’s article is that “You can say no while still helping people.” How? By being more efficient with the time you give so it has a bigger impact. The old adage is true: quality above quantity. As Holliday points out, the most enduring philanthropists don’t give away all of their resources. They protect the corpus so it is sustainable, so it can be a source of support in perpetuity instead of being all used up and only able to provide help for a limited period of time.
So be wise about your endowment of time. Spend it where it has the biggest impact. Value it and, in doing so, value yourself. And save it to spend doing things that make you happy and feed your soul. Then you’ll be able to better help those who need your time.
My dear mother has been gone for 12 years now, but I often hear her voice. One thing she used to say to me as a child was: “Que haces con su tiempo, mijo?” or “What do you do with your time?” It was beyond “How was your day?” It was an acknowledgment of how precious a commodity our time truly is. And a lesson, posed in a reflective question instead of a lecture, that I should use it wisely. Thanks for that lifetime lesson, Mom. I miss my Mom, but her spirit still lives and as a result, I strive to live each moment with purpose. I hope you do, too.
Thanks for reading. I’ll write again soon.
Steve Flores, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Schools