There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Indeed, there’s no such thing as a “free.” Anything you have and anything you’ve done was traded, by you, for something else that you don’t have and didn’t do. Even if your old friend Joey picks up the tab for lunch, you’ve traded your time. An hour spent at lunch with Joey instead of that same hour spent doing anything else you could conceivably have been doing. Whether or not that was a good trade depends on how much you value your time with Joey.
And that, writ large, is the conundrum of life. It’s easy to observe that everything is a trade, but difficult to determine relative value.
The 2011 film “In Time” used sci-fi to explore this issue. In the future imagined by writer Andrew Niccol (also the writer of “Gattaca” and “The Truman Show”), money has been replaced by time. Instead of bank accounts containing currency, a chip implanted in every citizen’s forearm tracks the exact amount of time they have left to live. At points of purchase both formal (e.g. stores) and informal (e.g. back-room gambling), people exchange minutes, hours, days and years for food, housing, transportation, medical care and other necessities. When your balance drops to zero, you drop dead. As long as you have time (the definition of wealth), you can live indefinitely, at whatever biological age you please.
Since money, in an abstract sense, does represent time, the conceit of the movie is that it lays bare what is true, although rarely acknowledged. We trade our hours of labor for the dollars we need to pay rent, make car payments, and hopefully enjoy ourselves a little. Every hour we spend at work is an hour depleted from our life’s remaining stock of time. Unlike the characters in “In Time,” we have the disadvantage of not knowing how much of our reserves we are depleting.
Time is not our only currency, of course. There is also energy, which we commonly refer to as “attention.” When we “pay attention” to something or someone, we are paying dearly for whatever it is.
As with the dollars in our pocket, we have the choice to spend our time and energy either wisely or foolishly. We can stick to a realistic budget, or we can run up a debt, which we then pay (whether we want to or not) through damaged relationships, lost sleep, and impaired health.
Clearly, it is imperative to do two things:
- Know the value of what we are trading for our time and energy.
- Choose to make those trades consciously.
This doesn’t mean that every second has to be spent in optimal pursuit of some unrealistic goal of maximized life experience. Perhaps, tonight, four hours spent binge-watching something on Netflix is worth four hours of your life. It’s up to you to decide. But is it worth four hours every night? Or two hours? Or one hour? What about for your children? Is it worthwhile to trade two to five hours of childhood every day for the privilege of consuming products manufactured by the entertainment industry?
Many of us reach a certain age (often 40), and are forced to face the fact that we failed to live up to our potential. We may be okay by societal standards, but, deep inside, we know that we are something less than we could be. Now, with less time remaining than we have already spent, we begin to feel buyer’s remorse. Why didn’t I learn the piano instead of endlessly scrolling through my social media feeds? Why didn’t I write my novel instead of watching all that TV? Why did I spend all that money on a car, instead of traveling?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but there is one bit of comfort: every day, the account resets. Because we don’t know how much (or how little) time we have left, every day is an opportunity to trade our time and energy for something we value, instead of something we will regret.