Off DeWall: Time is Relative

         The best part of time is that you know what you have and what you don’t. I know that I only have a few more minutes before Saturday turns into Sunday. You know that you have a limited amount of time to read this post. We both know that we’ll never have enough time to do everything we want to do. Yet, time doesn’t always have to be so objective, so quantifiable, so drastic.

          Yes, time can be relative. Einstein knew it and, through a combination of thought experiments and painstaking calculations, he changed how we all think about time. But we don’t need to bend time to realize that it can do weird things. Today, for example, I learned that relative time could change how I approached different situations.

          I woke up early to take a meeting with one of my graduate students back in Kentucky, which was followed by a conference call with four Americans at four different universities. Our discussions were intense, spirited, and enjoyable. Usually I don’t take this tack when I wake up on Saturday, but it wasn’t really Saturday to everyone involved. For my graduate student and other colleagues, it was still Friday in the United States. There was still time to work, to plan, to achieve. Rest comes on the weekends, and although it was the beginning of the weekend for me in Australia, it was the end of the work week back in the United States.

          What happened after my conference call ended? Very easily, I went back into weekend mode. I rode the elliptical machine for an hour, swam in the ocean for a bit, and spent the rest of the afternoon reading and relaxing. A few hours later, I had a nice dinner with my host Tom, his wife Nida, his colleague Jennifer Richman, and Jennifer’s husband, Jay (see picture).

          We adapt so quickly to changes in perceived time because it helps us connect with others. If I had told my colleagues that they wouldn’t receive my full effort because my weekend had already started, I would lose their confidence as a collaborator who can’t go beyond his selfish needs when doing so can serve others. If I spent my dinner without giving my friends my full attention because there was still work to be done back in the United States, I would have also done them a disservice.

Balancing these two commitments – my time as it exists here, and my time as it exists in relation to my American colleagues – is tricky. But it’s worth it. From this management come all of the benefits of social acceptance – that sweet, tasty reward that accompanies adding value to others’ lives. 

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