Time as gift or tyranny?
In the novel Time Shelter by Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov, ‘an enigmatic flâneur named Gaustine opens a ‘clinic for the past’ that offers a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s sufferers: each floor reproduces a decade in minute detail, transporting patients back in time’ – to the time that is meaningful to them, so that they could stay there, not necessarily for ever but certainly for an extended stay. ‘Gaustine wanted to open up time for everyone….. to create a protected past or protected time. A time shelter. We wanted to open up a window into time and let the sick live there, along with their loved ones …. The idea was for them to stay together in the same year’.
Escape from the present
As Gaustine’s assistant, the unnamed narrator collects artifacts and indicators of the past, from 1960s furniture and 1940s shirt buttons to scents and even afternoon light. As the rooms become more convincing, an increasing number of healthy people seek out the clinic as a ‘time shelter’, hoping to escape from the horrors of the present – a development that leads to the past beginning to invade the present.
Time as a gift
The author treats time in one sense as a stage-set – nostalgia and familiarity as relief from illness, but for me there’s also something surreal about the past invading the present, as well as a suggestion that time is in a different plane from the actuality of everyday living – and a gift to the sufferer of memory loss, rather than the enemy it so often seems to be as a factor in our working lives.
Time and achievement
This perception of time as something we can have power over contrasts strikingly with the relationship that many (but not all) leaders and managers – and indeed organisational cultures – seem to have with time: a perception of time that treats it almost as a ‘thing’, and that sees us as victims of it (in Robert Kegan’s adult development theory language ‘subject to’ – or fused with). In our Western culture our relationship with time is one in which time is intimately connected with achievement, and with living not in the present, but in the future.
Achievement and self-worth
In turn, achievement is connected to a sense of self-worth: ‘my value is in what I’ve been able to accomplish, doing everything there is to be done’ – so a focus on doing rather than being. Winning the battle against the tyranny of time. I’ve had the privilege of participating in workshops that Simon Cavicchia has run on ‘Deconstructing Time’, which have been immensely illuminating. He suggests that we tend to think of time as a commodity, something that fills a space and that we so often fill, fending off a sense of emptiness.
Time and success
It’s arresting to reflect on the extent to which time features in our measurement of success in the work environment, in our perceived need for change, learning and development, and in the measurement of value. And entertaining to contemplate the contrast with ‘Time Shelter’, in which time – the past – is used to provide relief from the present.
Time as pressure
Simon Cavicchia invites us to see that, as a construct, time helps us make sense of our experience of the flow of life. As such it becomes a mental model that actually starts to shape our experience. It can become a source of pressure and can influence what we see and how we interpret what we see. We can feel like we are at the mercy of time.
Tyranny and emergence
This experience of tyranny is in contrast to a sense of emergence – a sense that not only do things happen in their own time, and in their own way (think of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis) but that there is a richness in the emergence, a breadth of view with less pressure attached to it, and so enabling the capacity to perceive, accommodate and integrate a broader perspective, including an appreciation of the complexity inherent in that perspective. This is important for the task of leadership: to step back and see more interdependencies and more viewpoints.
There’s a relationship too between age and meaning. The link between time perspective and meaning in life across different age stages in adulthood was explored in research by Rebiguli Baikeli, Danli Li, Lei Zhu, and Zhenhong Wang, presented in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (Volume 174, May 2021, 110668).
Age and meaning
The research explored the moderating role of age in the relationship between time perspective and meaning in life in Chinese adults. For emerging and young adults, the future time perspective was positively related to the search for meaning in life. In contrast, for middle-aged adults, the present-hedonistic time perspective was positively related to the search for meaning in life, and the future time perspective was negatively related to the search for meaning in life.
Timeframes and the leader’s perspective
Contrast this with (as above) the judgment in ‘conventional’ (in the adult development sense) contexts that others make of us at work being related to progress, and predictable outcomes, over a 1-2 year timeframe, whereas in ‘post-conventional’ contexts the stance will be more about exploration (especially of our own personalities and richness of experience) within the present or a longer timeframe, or the optimisation of the interaction of people and systems over a 5-10-year period – or indeed integrating simultaneous, short, middle and long-term.