The Finiteness of Time

Many of us in the Western world do not realise how fortunate we are.  We stress over trivial things such as deadlines, deals falling through and being late to meetings.  I find things as simple as dental check-ups terrifying – the disruption to my usual schedule and worry that I might need another filling/tooth taken out leaves me dreading every visit.

These sorts of troubles are appropriately coined “first-world problems” because they aren’t really problems in the grand scheme of things.  Losing your entire family and half your limbs while living in a war-zone is a real problem.  Having your life destroyed by a tsunami and then fending off cholera is a real problem.  Life is inherently unfair and, if you are dealt a good card, it is useful to take stock of this sometimes – it really helps when building your resilience.

In an earlier post, I wrote about competition in life – how it can be sub-optimal and lead to a race along a well-trodden path.  Other writers refer to this sort of idea as blue ocean strategy vs. red ocean strategy – the red ocean is analogous to a well-known market where competition is fierce (think a bunch of sharks trying to kill each other & spilling blood), whereas the unknown path (the blue ocean) is calm and peaceful.

selective photo of gray shark
In the red ocean, competition is fierce

I started off swimming in the red ocean – I went to a good university, spent my summers cramming in internships and took a standard career route.  I then jumped into a bluer ocean by joining NEF and switching to start-ups.  The quasi-paradox, though, is that swimming in the red ocean helps you in the blue ocean – some of the skills I learnt from these jobs kept me from drowning.  The path doesn’t matter as long as you feel that you are being worthwhile with your time.

Because I spent all my time at university working, I didn’t do any travelling until after graduation.  My first backpacking trip was around Australia for 5 weeks – I had a sick time, but I could only do it because of the savings/jobs afforded by my red ocean approach (Australia is one of the best places in the world to go travelling in my opinion, but the strength of the Australian Dollar makes it prohibitive to most young people).

When it comes to backpacking, you need time and money.  The irony with life, though, is that (in general) you are doing one of the following:

  • You are a student – you have time, but no money
  • You are working – you have money, but no time
  • You have commitments (a family/any form of debt – mortgages, etc) – you arguably have no time and no money

After resigning, I found myself at a junction.  When many people switch firms, they often choose to have a period in-between jobs to do some travelling – they have time (not being limited to the typical 2-week block in the UK/less in the US) and money – the holy-grail.

I, however, found myself frustratingly just out of reach of this chalice – I had the money, but not the time (due to the NEF start date and my notice period).  However, I wasn’t about to let this sort of chance go and fought to get some time (in exchange for working longer hours where needed to ensure I delivered on my accountabilities).


Many people will never buy their first house.  Many people will never see the world.  Heck, many people will never get the chance to live beyond their 30s due to hunger/disease/disaster.

Appreciate the lottery of life and the finiteness of time – be grateful if you can measure it in years & decades rather than hours & days.  Will “future-you” be glad that you:

  • Bought that fun convertible/motorbike in your 20s, or saved & paid off your mortgage at 53 rather than 55?
  • Spent your weekends watching TV, or developed the skills that you wanted/needed to improve your quality of life (e.g., Cambodians learning English to get better jobs)?
  • Took time out to see the world, or reached middle management a year earlier?

It may make financial sense to try and do some things, but question whether it makes time-critical sense.  Work out your priorities, and then execute.  You only live once – make it count.

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