On the Value of Time

Clocks in ShanghaiClocks in Shanghai.

“Space I can recover. Time I cannot.”
—Napoleon Bonaparte

The Afghans thought time was relative. Not in any sort of metaphysical sense. They believed it literally, that things would happen when they happened. As the saying went whenever we discussed schedules:

“You Americans have all the watches. But we Afghans have all the time.”

Different parts of the world have different ideas about time. It seems to be a reflection of the culture. The Germans and the Swiss, with their mechanical precision. The Mediterraneans with their relaxed pace. The Chinese with their regimented order.

And then, as with everything else, the Americans are the cultural melting pot of all others.

We’ve been thinking about time a lot lately. In structuring our days, we see time as our most precious resource. Money comes and goes. Popularity the same. Time is the only resource you can’t get back. For Napoleon, in war, he was talking about sacrificing territory in order to buy time for other actions. His view, which we’ve adopted, was that there’s always another move, there’s always another play, there’s always another opportunity—so long as you have the time to make it.

Through this lens, the world looks very different. Yes, everybody is busy. But that’s not what this is about. This is about valuing other people, respecting their time, expecting that they’ll value yours in the same way.

It follows that when somebody is habitually late, what they’re saying is they don’t value your time, or that they had something better to do. It might only be subconsciously, but it doesn’t change the reality.

Sure, there are margins for error. As we write this, we’re stuck on Rock Creek Parkway in Washington. A section of the road has been shut down for a triathlon. Traffic is practically at a standstill.

But again, that’s not what this is about, the time when you get caught, the time when it’s unavoidable.

This is about the times when you’re late, or you’re kept waiting, and what it says about you.