Alive v. Dead Time

We’ve been riding the roller coaster of COVID restrictions for over two years now. Slowly, this spring, the restriction roller coaster was dismantled. It’s hard to point to positive developments in either our country or provinces as a result of these past two years. Nonetheless, some businesses, families, and individuals have been able to make progress during the pandemic. Has your business improved? Is your relationship with your family better? Are you better? What lessons have you and your business learned during the last couple of years?

In 2009, author Robert Greene paired with street gangster, turned rap artist, then business mogul, 50 Cent, to write a book. The 50th Law is about the experiences and lessons learned by 50 Cent. Greene melds a biography of Curtis Jackson as he morphs into 50 Cent while supporting the lessons learned with other historical anecdotes. Greene connects Jackson’s relentless drive to maximize the use of his time with a story about Isaac Newton. For example, we may recall learning of how sitting under an apple tree and having an apple fall on the head helped Isaac Newton mathematically define the Law of Gravity. But, did we learn why Newton was where he was and how he got there?

Over 350 years ago, in 1665, Newton was in his early 20s studying at a renown British University, Cambridge. As he and his classmates approached exam season, a plague hit the city of London. People were being knocked down and killed by the disease left, right, and center. As fear of the disease spread, citizens fled for the countryside. Unfortunately, some took the disease with them. This led to towns like Cambridge being hit. The school had no choice but to close sending students scrambling deeper into the country. Society came to a stop. People fled because of the dread of disease, not because of directives. People became isolated and spent almost two years, 20 months, living this way. Boredom was brutal. There was no internet, Netflix, Facebook, or sport. People were left to their own devices and some, literally, went mad.

Newton made his way to his family home in a small town. There was no possibility of remote learning. Scheduled classes and led learning would be lost for an unknown period. He determined as he left University that he would work on a few mathematical problems with which he and several professors had been struggling. He had the forethought to bring some text books and notes with him as he left school. He created a schedule and settled into a routine. He tackled these same problems daily. He drafted calculations and filled notebooks which he had the sense to bring as Amazon wasn’t at the ready to deliver things. As his energies drained from spending all his attention, Newton would mentally recover by taking walks. His days went on like this for months. He was occupied and engaged and found structure where others fell into anger, bitterness, frustration, and mental meltdowns. On his walks, Newton passed orchards where he enjoyed looking at apples in season. Sometimes, his walks would occur later in the day after the sun had set. On occasion, Newton would look back and forth between the moon and an apple wondering what was involved in holding an apple to a tree and the moon in the sky. Why did the moon not fall down to earth? How is the apple held in the tree? These thoughts deepened and occupied his mind day after day. Yes, he may have been sitting under one of these trees when an apple fell giving him his aha moment of insight, but this was the result of tireless and disciplined efforts at paying attention to these problems over many months. Greene writes of Newton, “While the others were paralyzed with fear and boredom, he passed the entire twenty months without a thought of the plague or any worries for the future. And in that time, he essentially created modern mathematics, mechanics, and optics. It is generally considered the most prolific, concentrated period of scientific thinking in the history of mankind. Of course, Isaac Newton possessed a rare mind, but at Cambridge nobody had suspected him of such mental powers. It took this period of forced isolation and repetitive labor to transform him into a genius.”

Similar to Newton’s productive use of time, Greene offers several examples of those using time in prison to expand their education. Before Malcolm X became a racial justice advocate, he was little more than a street thug. He got himself in some trouble and spent time in jail. When he got to jail he didn’t complain or rail against the system. He determined to use his time there to improve himself. He went in not knowing how to read. Incredibly, he taught himself to read. His teaching tool? The dictionary. He chipped away at learning language slowly. As he became better at reading, he shifted to books. He became a voracious reader. His greatest frustration became lights out at the end of the day. When the lights shut down nightly at 10 or 11pm, he wasn’t done reading. He wanted more. He would drag himself across the floor of his cell and place the book by the crack under the cell door where just enough light from the hall passed under. In this way, he asserted his agency and continued to build his capabilities. Malcolm X used his time in prison to learn to read and forge his intellect.

In another instance, Rubin Carter, a well known boxer known as Hurricane, was charged and convicted of several murders at the height of his athletic prowess. He was given three life sentences. Carter claimed his innocence during the entire process. Even in jail, he refused to accept that he was a bad, guilty person. He maintained his decorum in ways to sustain his self-respect. Hurricane held on to his dignity for the twenty years he spent in prison until he was finally released and exonerated. He didn’t let the bitterness build, nor reel under resentment. He refused to wear prison uniform. Neither did he accept being labelled as an inmate represented by a number. He responded only to his name. He wouldn’t eat with other prisoners or do assigned chores. He wouldn’t even attend his own parole hearings. He refused to play the part of victim. Even when his actions resulted in being punished repeatedly with solitary confinement, he held to his convictions. He also avoided cheap entertainment to pass his time. Instead, he selected books that would reinforce his character. He taught himself law. He advocated on his own behalf. As his learning grew he used his newfound skills not just for himself but also helped others. Once he was finally released, did he seek retribution and compensation? No, he would be self-reliant on the outside as he had been on the inside. He didn’t need help, he had his own capacities.

Newton, Malcolm X, and Hurricane Carter all used the time that was foisted upon them from different environments to not wallow in misery like many others in similar circumstances did and would. Each of them used the time to improve. They leaned in to what they could influence in their own way. They came out of the other side of their experiences better. Not just better for themselves but for those around them. Greene in these examples offers a distinction between alive and dead time. He considers a commonality amongst achievers is their ability to recognize this distinction and consistently choose alive time over dead time. Regardless of circumstance, strivers seek ways to use their time to improve. They aren’t seeking pleasurable distraction. They choose traction. Their purpose pulls and pushes them to pursue and do. They are driven with a restless energy bordering on a sense of urgency. No moment can be wasted as they are consumed by something, an idea, a direction, or a cause that moves them. They realize that they are able to make choices as to how to use their time and they aren’t about to let any slip through their fingers.

For many, Covid has been a negative disruption which has held them back from living life. For others, it’s been a useful timeout. British Comedian, Jimmy Carr, in his recently released biography, Before & Laughter, considers Covid “An enforced break that made us all do a little audit: what am I like? What do I like? What’s useful? What’s next?” Have you asked yourself questions like these during the pandemic? Have you explored these questions for your business? Many have not just asked these questions, but also acted. For these past two years, have you established any habits which have helped? In what ways have you grown positively as an individual? In what ways has your business become better as a result of efforts over the last two years? Though we likely didn’t solve gravity or start a movement over the last couple of years, is there something you’ve done, learned, or produced during the pandemic period of which you’re proud?

Even if we haven’t used our time as best as possible in the past, we can use our newfound awareness of alive time to choose what we do with greater care going forward. Whether it’s because of the pandemic, prison, or life in general, we all have the ability to choose alive or dead time. Fortunately, there’s no need to be in jail or locked down to make progress. We don’t need disruption to awaken us to benefit from alive time. It’s a choice we can make daily. Consider yourself in competition with you last year, and you in 2019. In what way are you new and improved? In what way will you work to improve yourself such that you a year from now will be better than you today? Consider the same questions from the perspective of your business. Your competition is your organization in the past compared to today more so than with competitors. In what way will your business be different a year from now that will be an improvement to how it is today?

“Do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.” Benjamin Franklin