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The Fourth Dimension
If you slow down, you will get everything you want.
When I was younger my parents would constantly compare my life to the lives of those around me. The axis of comparison would always be something that the other person was good at and I was not. This would happen almost every day of my teenage life and for years it was the only measure by which I knew how to calculate my self worth - how good are you at something compared to the people around you?
It was not just that they would compare me to the same person every time, along the same axis every time. Rather they would make these comparisons between me and multiple people, each time choosing different things to compare. So if person X was good at thing A, then I was told “.. look at person X excelling at thing A, if you’d only focus your efforts then you could be as good as them too.” And if person Y was good at thing B, “.. look at person Y doing so well at thing B, if only you could follow their example and work to become good at thing B too.”
Hearing this would stress me out a lot. It felt like no matter how hard I tried the bar was so high that I would never get there in time. Suppose I did spend a few months becoming more skilled at thing A and leveling up to match person X, person Y would use that time to get better at thing B. Which meant that no matter how much time I spent, I would always fall short along some axis of comparison.
My parents never took into consideration that in order to please them I was trying to juggle multiple things at once, whereas the other people were spending all their time focussing on the one thing they cared about. So even if it looked like the same amount of calendar time had passed, the amount of actual time spent doing the thing was different for me and other people.
But that didn’t seem to matter to them. They only ever compared the current version of me to the current version of someone else and always came to the conclusion that I was lacking. They expected me to be the best version of all these people without ever giving me enough time to accomplish that.
I always felt like a failure compared to everyone else around me. No one ever discussed the qualities I had, or the things that I was good at. No one ever stopped to ask if I was even interested in becoming good at the things that the people around me were good at. And it never even occurred to me that I had any sort of choice in the matter. As far as I was concerned the calculation was simple, if you want to win your parents’ love then you must compete with every single person around you at all times to show that you are worthy of it.
It was reward hacking at its finest. Nobody cared whether I was *actually* good at something, so long as it *looked like* I was good at it. Nobody cared whether *I actually cared* about becoming good at something, so long as it *looked like* I was getting better at it.
So for the longest time I had no idea what I was interested in or what made my unique skillset valuable. I spent all my time trying to compete with other people without realizing that if I didn’t independently care about doing those things too, I would always be fighting a losing battle. To me it was about winning my parents’ love and nothing seemed more important than that. At the time, spending any time finding and developing my own interests seemed as fruitless a pursuit as trying to grow a fifth limb.
This experience warped my understanding of time. I always felt like things should be taking less time than they did, and that it was my fault if I wasn’t able to move them along any faster. I always felt like time was my enemy; like I was always running out of time. Like no matter how fast I went I would always be late, always be behind someone else who got there first. Time was not my friend, not a resource that I could use to gain skills or to rest and recharge, but a dangerous enemy whom I was constantly battling, constantly racing against, constantly losing to.
Dismantling this understanding took learning about the idea of time dilation. In physics, time dilation is the fact that time passes at different rates for different observers, depending on their relative motion or position in a gravitational field. I have found that a version of this concept holds true for my life as well.
If you keep close track of how you spend your time for a week, and then evaluate the results at the end of the week, you’ll see that things took longer than you thought they would. The funny thing is that while you were doing them it probably didn’t *feel* like they were taking that long. So we feel like time is passing at different rates depending on the point in time when we’re making the observation.
If I’m standing in the present looking back at my past, I may feel like I wasted a lot of time because I didn’t finish all the things that I had planned. Or if I’m standing in the present looking forward at my future, I may plan to do a lot of things that may not end up happening. Because at the time of planning I may not have realized that these things will take a lot more time than I anticipate.
When this happens, the easy conclusion, and the one that my parents regularly came to, is that I was wasting my time. That I didn’t know how to manage my time; that I was not allocating my resources appropriately. The reality is that they didn’t have a good idea for how long things actually take. It may have taken person X years to get good at thing A and expecting me to do it in far less time was a mistake on their part. They set arbitrary goals based solely on how much time things *seemed* to take from the vantage point of the observer. And when the reality failed to live up to these expectations they thought that the fault lay with me.
I continued to punish myself for years for their mistake because I couldn’t see all the nuance that their viewpoint was lacking. The reality is that unless you are looking from the vantage point of the person doing the task, you will never truly know how long something is going to take. The reality is that if I measured my performance based on how much time I was *actually* spending on a task, then I would have realized that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Anyone who’s ever tried to do anything difficult is aware that there are resource constraints. There are only so many hours in a day and you only have only so much energy to spend. Any effort you put into one thing comes at the opportunity cost of not being able to put that effort into other things you care about.
Also, the people that surround you during your childhood are largely there by an accident of fate rather than by any conscious decisions you made. It is unlikely that you will be similar to them in any meaningful way, and even less likely that you will be interested in pursuing the same goals as them.
So it stands to reason that the way to make the most of our time is not by blindly competing with those around us, but by figuring out what we care about and working on that. Measuring our progress by whether we’re able to push the limits of our personal best, and not paying attention to where other people are in their journeys.
The crucial question at the heart of all this, is how? How do you go from being a person who has a warped experience of time and defaults to competing with everyone around them, to becoming someone who is aware of resource constraints, wants to improve their personal best and is only focussed on their own life?
The simple answer is: by giving yourself time.
Time to process any unresolved feelings you might have, time to notice and respond to your intuition, time to build boundaries so that other people’s opinions don’t affect you as much, time to learn how to manage your psychology so that you’re able to pull yourself out of low moments, time to slow down so that you are able to be fully present in every moment that you’re alive.
In order to do this you will need to be honest with yourself about who you really are now and where you want to be in the future. But beyond that the details of how you learn to let go of other people’s expectations and choose to focus only on what matters to you, will look different for everyone. You are the only expert on your own life so only you can know what will work best for you. It may take you some experimentation and playing around to figure it out, but no one can give you an answer that will magically solve all your problems. All I can tell you is that I trust with my whole heart that you will figure it out for yourself, if you just give yourself enough time to get there.