Co-Founder & Managing Partner
Memory Might Persist, But Time Doesn’t
Humans have many great skills, but keeping time in perspective is not among them.
It’s understandable, given our short tenure on earth (200,000 years since modern humans walked upright) is barely registerable relative to the churn of geologic time (4.6B years since Earth formed), and the beginning of matter (13.8B years since the Big Bang.)
What’s even shorter than our tenure as humans on earth: the average tenure of CMOs in modern corporations (40 months.)
This was supposed to be the topic of my post: not that CMOs typically have short tenures (not remarkable, nor new news) but that what’s remarkable is that many CMOs, despite the knowledge that their time is short, do not put their time in role in perspective, and manage their tenure (and time) accordingly.
What would follow in that post would be a quick discussion about why this happens so often. Then would follow some erudite tips and tricks for the C Suite — and any leader of any organization — to best harness their time in role, and keep their butts in their seats longer while achieving great things.
But then I started reflecting on time in general, and the human condition more specifically, and how in middle age I have been thinking a lot more deeply about the acceleration of time as I age and what to do about it.
So in recognition of these waning days of summer, as we all get our last licks of slow time in and prepare to put our game faces on for the fall, I decided that it would be more fun and fruitful to write about what all of us humans — CEOs and CMOs of our own lives — can do to slow down time and invest it more purposefully.
Regardless of one’s station in life, most of us don’t acknowledge (or at least internalize) the brevity of our tenure on earth.
When we’re young, life (and time) feels infinite, the weeks, months and years are so many they’re not worth counting, and we can easily squander time chasing all sorts of distractions and dreams. In middle age (when, by the way, we are most likely at or approaching the peak of our powers and experiences) we are often heads-down in the thick of our lives, our families, our careers, our worldly ambitions, pushing our rocks up the hill, without either the propensity, or the peripheral vision, to look to the elusive edges of our lives where the guardrails and guidance often exist.
The most valuable worldly wisdom I’ve ever heard in this regard is the reality that the only thing we all have which we cannot regenerate, get more of, purchase or somehow claw back — is time. Time is the scarcest of precious commodities. So we ought to be more mindful of its passage, and how we invest it. Typically, it’s the rarest of individuals with enough self awareness, wisdom, imagination and discipline capable of simultaneously living life, pushing their boulders up the hill, while also actively considering how their time should be invested, and not getting paralyzed or nihilistic about the whole affair.
An astute blogger I read recently imagined a long life of 90 years, with each unit of time literally blocked out in weekly squares on a page: 52, tiny, blank, white boxes in a row, multiplied by 90 rows, all together visually in a grand, ambitious rectangle that represents the aspirational span of a human life (of one fortunate enough to live that long.) He went on to implore people to break down their lives into these weekly units of measure (and progress), and consider how their time was invested on a weekly basis.
My previous methodology for imagining time was to go to a local football field early on my birthday morning when the world was still asleep, start at the goal line, and slowly walk the yard lines until I reached the one corresponding to my age. At each 5 yard marker I’d stop, consider what I had accomplished in life at that age, then keep walking until I reached my current age. When I hit that line I’d then look backwards and consider all that span of time behind me in life and what I had achieved, learned or experienced to date. I started doing this when I turned 40, at a time when I was starting to become aware of my own mortality. The nice thing at 40 when doing this was that when I looked down the field I realized there was still a lot of green space ahead, more in fact ahead than behind. (Now, not as much ahead as behind…)
But the problem with this approach in visualizing one’s life is that I was looking only at the broad annual strokes, not the more important building blocks that comprise each day, week, month and year. It’s here where life happens, and where we accumulate value in the lives we live. Thus the intrigue in the weekly blocks stacked neatly in rows of 52 — all 4,680 of them.
So what to do with the little blocks left remaining to us? Consider the many ways in which you invest your time. In my view there are two broad categories that seem to fit all things. On one side are investments of time that bring one joy or fulfillment (in my case, family time, climbing mountains, a meaningful conversation with a good friend are a few examples) and on the other are things that are productive investments that in some way positively advance one’s future or the future of people or groups or causes one cares about. (This could be working to earn money to gain one’s financial freedom, building something of enduring value, contributing to something greater than oneself, etc.)
In the middle of these two is what I’d term “the dumpster of life”, in which we are investing time in things that are neither fulfilling nor productive (wallowing in disappointment, living with fear, regret about the past, or anxiety about the future. Basically, wasting one’s time.
The trick of course is to strike the right balance between fulfillment and productivity, without overdoing either (too much time chasing joy could tilt toward indulgence, and too much time being productive could become meaningless. The bigger trick would be to combine the two.
A few ideas overall, that I’ve begun to incorporate into my thinking:
Recalibrate your perceptions of time: always assume you have much less time to achieve your goals than you might believe.
Allocate your time deliberately: your time is all you have in life to invest. Nothing matters more. Be intentional about how you spend it.
Get help to look above the treetops, and around corners: no matter how visionary or disciplined you are, you have biases, limitations, and worldviews that can limit your ability to see the big picture of your life and correctly actualize the future you want to achieve. Having a set of advisors who know you (whether good friends you trust to call it like it is, family, colleagues, or even a life coach) can help you keep accountable.
The most important skill of a species smart enough to know its own insignificance and mortality is putting time in perspective and using it wisely… Good luck.
And of course, being the marketer that I am, I can’t resist: if you need help thinking through how to invest your time as a CMO, or realize your teams’ goals before your own time is up, give us a shout.
by Mitch Ratcliffe
by Daniel Fietsam