The Antecedents of an Obsession with Time
My obsession with time, well I have this obsession, it's been going on for quite some time. It started because as an athlete, as an elite athlete, I spent more than two decades trying to compress more meters, more miles, more strokes, more pedal circles into the same amount of time and I was glad I invested all that time because as it turned out, I was able to squeak by and by the smallest of margins, bring home a silver medal from the Winter Olympics, which you saw earlier. So as you can imagine, small increments of time really matter in sports. As we saw before, 33/100 separating first from 10th in the 2002 Winter Olympics so, as athletes, we get obsessed with these small increments of time and, by the way, the distinction between gold medal and fourth, that's a lifetime, right? The impact of getting a medal verses fourth is dramatic, how important that can be to your career and your future success and it's sad but it's just true. The medal winners get all of the notoriety and fourth...
is, you've never heard of. You ever seen the Jerry Seinfeld skit, it's quite hilarious but he's like, ya know, first, second, third, first, second, third, never heard of you. So here is the core idea that sits behind everything you're gonna hear and it's a simple sentence but it actually just, it distills everything I'm gonna talk about into one sentence and is really the core of everything I think about and everything I do and that's this idea, that the value of an increment of time is not related to its duration. The value of an increment of time is not related to its duration. If you can accept this, which is a fundamental belief system shift so this is not easy to embrace but if you can, then you can start to notice, day after day, moment by moment, hour by hour that the way you experience time is not related to its duration and that very specifically, small increments of time can have as much meaning as weeks, months or even years and we've all had those turning point moments so I'm gonna introduce a metaphor for you to think about memory and time and so picture in your mind's eye a giant grassy field, okay, and the grass is yay high and it's all smooth green grass and through this field are hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, millions of pools of water and there are various sizes and depths and you can see on into eternity these pools of water in this grassy field. The metaphor here is the pools of water are memories. We take in memories through our amygdala, roughly at about a second and a half frame rate, they're shunted to our longterm storage and the pools are your memories, we don't lose them, pretty sure, most psychiatrists will argue that we don't actually ever lose our memories but if you lay down memory, create a pool, right, so right now you're laying down a little pool memory and it might be coalescing with other pools and it's getting bigger and deeper, hopefully that's happening right now. When you remember that memory, you walk the field and you're gonna part the grass and you're gonna leave a track so you've parted the grass, you've left a track but if you only remember it once and then you let it go, the grass will eventually close back up and you might lose it. So the argument that most people say is we don't, we capture everything but we lose lots. We lost the way there so one way to always have access to a memory is to keep re-remembering it, right? So if you pull up certain memories over and over, you're gonna wear a track that's gonna look like a path, right, and at some point, it never goes away. From a brain science standpoint, part of that is myelinating circuits, you're gonna, wires that fire together, forget how that phrase goes but you're gonna remember it because you've myelinated those circuits and that path will be there forever. Now here's the special circumstance about laying down memories. So you have this field, you got all these pools that are various sizes and depth, you've got trails to them, some deeply entrenched, some shallow and some missing. There's a certain kind of mechanism for memory storage that your amygdala initiates and this is high stress and tense situations, good or bad. When you're amygdala gets involved, it's sort of the metaphor is like, it's like a tractor trailer going through that same field after three days of rain. It will lead a permanent gouge forever. That trail will never go away. That memory will always be available and good or bad, it's gonna be there for you for the rest of your life. Now here's where things go well or poorly. If it's a great memory, awesome. You're gonna want that first kiss, that first I love you, the first child being born, you're gonna want that for the rest of your life and you're gonna revisit it and you're gonna actually make that trail even deeper and stronger and that's all great 'cause that's a nice clear pool of water, you got toxic pools there as well with trailer tractor trucks tracks to them and those are your traumas, right, and so here's the thing about traumatic memories and all memories actually. Every time you visit a pool, you change it. Like, dip in a little bit of color into it. Every time you pull up a memory, the process in your brain is identical to imagination. So if you remember a memory and we do a brain scan or you invent something, you imagine a scenario, brain scan, identical. What your brain is doing is it's taking the disparate bits of data, assembling them into a story, in this case it just happens to be one that happened. In imagination, you're taking bits of data, you're assembling it into a story and it didn't happen, same to the brain. The other thing that happens is when you assemble that narrative, it's changed slightly. Every time you pull up a memory, you change it 'cause you're assembling it, when you put it away, you put it away changed. You fundamentally alter your memory every time you pull it up. Talking to Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist, and he said, basically the only way to know what happened in a crisis is to talk to the coma victim. Everybody else has rewired their stories, they've told it, they've modified it, they told it, they modify it, they put it away a bunch of times and suddenly new people are in the narrative that didn't used to be there, this thing happened that didn't, this thing that did happen isn't there and so you fundamentally rewire that story by keeping telling it so the only way to really know is by getting it the first time. So here's the both the pro and con here when it comes to traumatic memories. If you assemble it and put it away better, if you clear the water a little bit, then it gets better and better and better with time and you have now post traumatic growth. If you poison the well each time you go, if you make the rut a little bit deeper through that field, then you're gonna have more and more access to it, more and more easy and it's gonna be more and more painful and that is PTSD. It's almost the same thing, it's how you put that memory away. And so, ya know, the trick there is how do you un-poison a well, one thing that Moran had suggested is if you have an adjacent pool, sometimes you can coalesce them and when you're trying to go down this poison memory well, you can get this other adjacent similar memory, the other way is just to find ways that this bad thing has helped you or how it's helped you help others. So I don't know if you guys have this in your memory, there's some childhood traumas that are now quite funny. I don't know if you have any of those but I can remember a trip across the country, I think I was eight. Yellow Chevette, no air conditioning, going to Florida, super hot, no stops, parents don't, ya know, they're not paying for a motel, right, so 24 hours in the car with my 11 year old sister who's torturing me incessantly the whole way, I'm miserable, hot, can't sleep, we get to a gas station like five in the morning, somewhere in, like, Georgia and I'm sleeping and then about half hour down the road I think and my parents are like, "Where's your sister?" I'm like, "I don't know." "What do you mean you don't know?" Left her at the gas station in the middle of Georgia, an 11 year old girl at five in the morning, like this is trauma and she was not happy, right, and so again, it was like this big explosion but now this is funny, right, like, do you remember that time, like, that kind of thing 'cause it's been, that story's been told and put away and told and put away and now it's funny and nobody died so everything's fine but, ya know, true, true traumas are really hard to rewire but there's always a way and, ya know, some people that have had really, really traumatic things happen, when they turn that into helping others to avoid that circumstance, that's when they can also rewire those traumas into post traumatic growth. So, all that aside, memory is the core to time experience to chronoception, which is the technical term. So, after skating, I got a job at age 30, finally got my first real job and oddly enough, my life continued to circle around time because my very first gig after skating was to work at Goldman Sach's with 2000 other people planning for one second. One year, 2000 people, one second, 2000 man years to make one second happen, that was Y2K for Goldman Sachs, making the clocks go from 12/31/ to 01/01/00, 2000 people, 2000 man years, crazy, and then after that I actually went to Enron where I worked with them to create trading systems to increase trade velocity and to decrease trade time.