The tyranny of time

“I wanna go fast” is one of Will Ferrell’s most iconic lines in the NASCAR-themed comedy film "Talladega Nights." In the movie, the protagonist Ricky Bobby — played by Ferrell — basks in the glory of being a NASCAR folk hero before crashing and burning out of the sport after a string of poor performances. Ironically, the need for speed — the desire to go fast in all aspects of his life — is what slows Bobby down. Only when Bobby overcomes his fear of losing is when he returns to his former glory.

Like Bobby, speed takes on its own intrinsic value in our lives. Especially at this point in the semester, time is always of the essence. But even when it’s not this time of the semester, time is still of the essence.


Well, after all, we only have until the end of this decade to avert the catastrophic 1.5-degrees-Celsius threshold of global warming. Furthermore, since life expectancy still hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels, many of us are already 29% through our expected lifespans.

While these exact thoughts may not be at the forefront of our minds, they contribute to a self-perpetuating cycle of haste. Rushing becomes so normal to us that we don’t even question it. But whether we realize it or not, in our quest for speed we have lost many of the skills that make us most productive. An intense focus on the present, understanding those around us and identifying the details that really matter are skills applicable to any task. But they are also skills at risk of extinction. Slowing down will open your eyes to the world of opportunities sitting in front of you.

What are you doing while reading this article?

There’s a pretty good chance that you are a) doing schoolwork, b) on social media or c) responding to messages. You’ve probably heard that multitasking is a myth, and yes, it’s true that ‘multitasking’ is really just rapidly switching between two different tasks. But what is lesser known about multitasking is how it impacts you and your ability to focus when not multitasking. Multitasking eats away at our concentration and creativity, activating parts of our brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. Moreover, multitasking limits our capacity for self-evaluation. In other words, people may think that they are excellent multitaskers because their lack of awareness blinds them to the declining quality of their work.

We aren’t the only casualties of our own impatience — those around us suffer too. Impatience causes us to fixate on the future, preventing us from experiencing the people and opportunities in our present. As students, we are unconsciously trained to be task oriented — consider the sense of satisfaction you feel when you check something off your to-do list. But to realize genuine change, the type of breakthroughs that help others, you need to be a problem-solver, not just a task manager. Great scientific discoveries aren’t realized by following a lab instruction manual or asking ChatGPT for the answer. Rather, they are products of lateral thinking, tinkering with the unconventional and perceiving the minutia that others glossed over. In effect, our desire to get things done hinders our ability to produce meaningful work.

Every one of us wants to generate change, whether it be small change (like getting more sleep) or societal change (such as ending the use of fossil fuels). In the same vein, we often quote this line from activist Angela Davis, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” While noble, this mentality is often the source of activist burnout. We soon realize why the things that we cannot accept aren’t changing and are actually quite difficult to change. Change, even societal change, can happen but often over timescales that we are not willing to accept. Real change occurs over timescales that are beyond our attention span, so we substitute fighting for real change with creating the appearance that we are fighting for real change.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the Anti-Apartheid Movement initiated its campaign to convince institutions to divest from South Africa as a protest of discriminatory government policies towards black South Africans. Few major American institutions bought into the plan, until Michigan State University decided to divest in 1978. After pressure, a slew of other institutions (including Duke in 1986) divested their endowments as well — partially out of fear of falling behind their peer institutions. The capital flight out of South Africa caused by mass divestment has been cited as a major driver behind the end of apartheid, which began in 1990.

To create the change they wanted to see, anti-apartheid activists had to work across the span of three decades. But in the end, momentum built to a point where apartheid ended sooner than many people thought. In the same way, though to a lesser degree, achieving your goal may be right around the corner — or a decade away. Living with this uncertainty is challenging but shouldn’t induce frustration. In fact, planning for the long term will help you accomplish more now. As Bill Gates put it, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

Going fast doesn’t help you if you don’t know where your destination is. A destination isn’t a particular place or job (we’ll have plenty of time to figure those things out) but rather a set of values that are integral to your identity. Building a more sustainable world first requires building a more sustainable you. And that means engaging in the arduous task of saying no to the things that aren’t integral to your identity, your mission. Developing a systematic, long-term theory of change is the key to fulfilling goals, big or small.

In this way we can outwit the tyranny of time — realizing our own power by letting go of our control.

Aaron Siegle is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Fridays.


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