Slowing Down Time

Campus of the University of Tulsa

“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

Four Keys to Happiness

It is undeniable. Some people aren’t happy. In fact, I have heard that 6 out of 7 Dwarfs are not Happy. Sorry, sometimes I can’t help myself. 

All joking aside, are you happy? Do you feel content, satisfied, joyful and serene? Look, I get it. There are times we aren’t happy. Happiness is a complex and multifaceted concept that encompasses many psychological, emotional, spiritual, and social factors. It is a complex gradient that varies over time. That intricacy means it can be as hard to predict as weather in the Midwest and often, even more difficult to change. But don’t lose hope, it can be changed!

I’m not an expert on this subject, but I am a perpetual practitioner of happiness. I can’t help it. There is so much good to experience. Life is an incredible gift. It is packed with so many things to savor and enjoy. Every season of life opens a new chapter of surprises. These are meant to be enjoyed, not just survived. In my experience and studies, I have run across several keys to happiness. Here are four that I’m thinking about this week:

  • Hope – Something amazing is coming! I’m convinced that practicing optimism, focusing on positive aspects of our current and coming situations will help breathe life into those future realities. There is something magical and even transforming about faith. It changes us and begins to radiate out from us to others. It can even change the world. Be hopeful. Be optimistic.
  • Gratitude – There are few things in life that will provide an immediate return on investment. Thankfulness is one of them. With all your heart, express sincere gratitude to someone else, and watch what happens. You will feel it. Your brain will release neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, propelling you towards feelings of happiness and well-being. Wired into us is the need to be thankful. We are optimized for gratitude, yet we often fail to express it. Please, if you are reading this, stop right now and find someone you can appreciate. Express your gratitude. Notice how that changes things. And if you did that, thank you. And I mean that, with all my heart.
  • Engagement – Setting goals and pursuing activities that align with your values, interests, and talents will unlock overall well-being and happiness. You have a purpose. Your life will make an impact. Every human life is immensely valuable and precious. You are holding yours in your hands. What will you do with it? One of life’s greatest joys is being who you were made to be. You are unique and you are needed. You were made to be the part you play in this grand composition of the universe. Play your role and engage in the activities made for you, the hard work and fun work, with all your heart and mind. Are you engaged? If not, let’s talk!
  • Focus – Practice mindfulness. Be present and absorbed in the current moment. Each day is full of everlasting moments. Like Easter eggs, they are hidden all around us. We can walk right by them and miss some of life’s greatest joys. Pause, stoop down and pick up each moment. Focus on it, examine it, and savor it. Isn’t it wonderful? Let the detail and intricacy wash over you. Meditate on this moment and practice all the above. Be optimistic, thankful, and engaged. Don’t let this moment pass you by.

Happiness is a gradual, ongoing process. Setbacks will come. Don’t give up. Plant the seeds of hope, gratitude, engagement, and focus. The harvest of happiness will come soon enough.

Be Redemptive

I’m sore. In addition to hunting for eggs this weekend, I needed to do a bunch of work around the house. A week ago, we received the news that our kitchen sewer line under our house had ceased to exist. I wish that was an April fools day joke. Unfortunately, it was true. The half-a-century old cast iron line that runs from the kitchen to the center of our house had completely corroded and collapsed. The solution? Saw and blast away the foundation in the middle of the house and replace the line. I remember feeling lightheaded and slightly dizzy before I hit the floor. Maybe I exaggerate, but it was a shock. Thankfully after some measurements, the plumber was able to plot a new path that would route it outside the house without invading the foundation. It would require cutting through the patio, brick walkways and the driveway, but it was 10 billion percent better than cutting up our tile floor and main foundation. 

Construction started. The contractor even promised to “put it back, exactly like they found it.” Workers wielding saws, jackhammers, grinders, shovels, trowels, and mixers showed up and started working their magic. I drove into our driveway on Thursday and noticed the holes in the front of the house had been closed. The concrete was in place. But then I saw it, the repaired brick sidewalk that the pipe had to pass looked more like a rumble strip more than a flat sidewalk. Edges of bricks were sticking up a good half inch above the rest. Oh no! It would definitely trip anyone walking up to our house. At first, I thought it must have been just roughed in, but no, the mortar was in place. After discovering that the contractor would not return to fix it for many days, I knew I had to act. First, because the mortar was still wet but drying quickly, and second, because I’m massively impatient and obsessive about things being out of place. 

I dug it up. I took out the bricks and the mortar. My wife, bless her for putting up with my “engineer everything” OCD, even helped me level the bed. After a trip to the hardware store, which by the way always results in me buying more toys, I mean tools than I need, we went to work placing the bricks back in the proper herringbone pattern. We used a level to ensure every brick was plumb and the grade was consistent for stormwater runoff. I mixed and added the mortar to set the pattern. As with any project, we couldn’t help but expand the scope a little and ended up cleaning up the brick edge next to the adjacent flower bed. All too soon it was nighttime. Thankfully, we had completed the task. We had our sidewalk restored and a little bit more. And yes, in case you are wondering, we informed the contractor. I wasn’t going to let them touch the back patio that needed similar treatment. I would be doing that myself and completed it this weekend as well.

I am exhausted. It is a lot of work carrying 60-pound bags of mortar around and floating concrete into place. But I am so glad I did. It looks so good. I spent the whole time wondering how someone could do the work that sloppy and think it was done. 

I know I’m high maintenance. But to be fair, I come by it honest. My dad was the same. He always insisted that anything we did needed to be engineered well. We had to leave things better than we found them. If he borrowed something, he would spend half the time cleaning or otherwise making whatever he borrowed better than what it was when he got it. As a kid, I hated that. We would get lists of things to do if we rented a car, boat, or house. My sister and I would spend all day doing that work instead of playing. But I also recall how incredible it felt looking at the work we did and realizing we made something better for someone else. Life is full of opportunities like that. Yes, they require hard work and effort, but they are so rewarding.

Be redemptive. That word refers to something that has the power to make amends, restore something that has been lost or damaged. It is about something that has the power to bring about a positive change to improve any situation. I often used that phrase with my kids. Don’t leave this world without somehow making a positive difference. Be redemptive. Make things a bit better for yourself and those who come behind you. We have that choice. We have that power. And with some Advil, you can even redeem your sidewalk.