Slowing Down Time

“Retiring was the best decision I ever made!” Professor Dr. Roger Wainwright was sitting across from me. “What do you mean,” I asked, “aren’t you still here?” He laughed then explained, “Oh no, I don’t want to ever retire from teaching, I would be bored! I meant retiring from being the Chair of the department. Now I’m busier than ever, spending all my time teaching and working with the students. If I had known it was this good, I would have retired a long time ago!” He punctuated that remark with his signature laugh and contagious smile. 

Last week I had the opportunity to spend a few days with my old college professors at the University of Tulsa. Among them was Dr. Wainwright. He is a founding faculty member and former chairman of the Computer Science program. As you can probably imagine from my dialogue with him, he continues to be one of the most beloved members of the faculty and is still introducing the joy of programming, algorithms, and discrete mathematics to all incoming CS students. I’ll never forget his classes. They were challenging, eye opening, and fun. He had an uncanny ability to teach complex concepts in a way that felt like you have always known them. It was an absolute joy to see him again and reminisce about those days. 

Time flies. I couldn’t believe how many years it had been since I was in those university classrooms hearing professors like Dr. Wainwright wax eloquently about quicksort, binary trees, and finite state engines. I mentioned it to him. He agreed and reflected how it seemed that even for him, those first years at the college had seemed to go by so slow compared to today. So much in life is like that. Do you remember your first years in college, in a new neighborhood or at a new job? Didn’t they seem to go by at a slower lingering pace than today? Back then, days were millennia, and months were eons. What happened? Why did things start getting so fast?

I’ve heard several theories about the accelerating time phenomenon. Someone suggested that it is a relative perception we have. At age 2, one year is 50% of our life memory. At 20, it is 5%, and so on. That seems plausible. Someone else suggested that our years of our life are all wound up in a roll like toilet paper. It spins faster the closer you get to the end. Yes, it’s a lot less scientific but a lot more humorous! 

This past week I ran across another theory that had even more merit. The researcher hypothesized that the way our mind perceives time is through signature events and cognitive attention moments. Think back. How do you organize your memories? I can see myself at different ages and different places. But many of those orbit signature events: a celebration, a tragedy, a discovery moment, a new place, or a new face. In all those cases, something new was recorded. A new feeling, a new learning, or a new fear. Something novel was happening that had gained my attention. The theory goes that in times where we have a high degree of new things happening, we experience a “slow down” of reality. The density of those novel events dictates the velocity at which we travel through time, at least in our mind. This explains why after the “new wears off” in school, work or at home, time seems to fly. We aren’t creating enough novel signature events in our memory to slow things down.

That got me thinking. A long life isn’t about the number of seconds we live, but the number of events we experience. It’s time for signature events! Learn something. Embrace an uncomfortable and new change. Create something novel. Explore something fresh. Etch those memories deep into your timeline. Celebrate them and decorate the moment with innovation and novelty. By doing that, it seems we can slow down time a little and extend our life story.

Retire from the fast mundane pace and make a deliberate decision to try something new. As Dr. Wainwright observed, it may be the best decision you will ever make.

Campus of the University of Tulsa

University of Tulsa – Campus