One of the big news stories this week was the offer of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to buy the NBA Los Angeles Clippers for the price of two thousand lifetimes. Hold on to that thought. We’ll circle back to it in a moment.
When my wife and I bought our first house, it was new construction on a barren lot save for the obligatory three boxwood shrubs and one spindly pin oak. Consequently our first years of home ownership found us often at the local nurseries as we improved upon our blank-slate yard. The staff was always helpful, pointing out that the hundred dollar twig I was holding would grow to over forty feet high. I would nod sagely, as if this was exactly what I needed, and drive off with said twig because it was less embarrassing to pay ridiculous prices than to admit I had no idea how high forty feet was.
Humans aren’t born with an innate sense of measure. If you’d been raised by wolves–and I know who you are–you would not know how long five miles is or what forty pounds feels like. Two-legged wolflings don’t know the boredom of five minutes with your senile father-in-law, can’t eyeball a furlong, scan an acre or have any idea of what the hell a cubit is.
Some years after buying that first house, as part of filing a claim on damaged siding on it, I had to measure the dimensions of the affected part of our house. I dutifully applied my tape measure and learned that the peak of the roof on our rancher was exactly twenty feet off the ground. Suddenly I knew how high my megalomaniac twig (now almost three feet tall) was aiming for. It would eventually (sometime in the next century or so) be two houses tall. Or as tall as my neighbor’s two-story house. I carry that twenty-foot image about with me to this day to estimate heights.
A scale is a standardized measure that can be used for comparisons. We use scales throughout our lives. It was five miles from that first house to Walmart. A seventy-five pound of salt was about the most I could handle when I worked at Church’s Fried Chicken (back when it proudly touted its fried products). One hundred and sixty five was the pulse rate at which I neared collapse when mowing my lawn on thick summer Alabama mornings. An acre is almost the size of a football field, as illustrated in this hilariously boring YouTube video that presumably gets to the point eventually but I never had the patience to wait for.
Closely related to scales are heuristics, or rules of thumb. I used to dutifully check the temperature before heading out of the house, but I had no real idea of what fifty-two degrees Fahrenheit meant. (Even less so in Celsius.) I eventually developed a clothing heuristic: when the temperatures were in the sixties, I probably want to wear long sleeves; a light jacket is needed in the fifties, a heavier jacket in the forties, a full coat in the thirties, and there was no way in heck I was going out when the temperature was any lower. (I hate cold weather.)
Scales and heuristics are a valuable underpinning of daily competence. I know multiple twenty-minute milestones from my office, so I can plan to be on time for business appointments. Living in New Mexico, I’ve learned to buy gravel and stone by the ton and estimate how large a pile it will make in the street out front.
We’ve all heard that time is money and it is useful to build heuristics on this equivalence. For example, suppose I value my personal time at fifty dollars an hour. If I spend two hours shopping about to save ten dollars on a coffee maker with built-in MP3 player and garage door opener, I’m in the hole for ninety dollars (ten dollar gain less one hundred dollars of personal time lost). This time-money equivalence can be used on longer time scales, as well. For example, Tax Freedom Day occurred on April 21st this year. This is the how long you have to work each year to pay your income taxes. We’re familiar with idea of a new car equating to three years of payments. (If you’re financing your car for five years or more, you need to re-examine your finances.) We also blithely speak of thirty-year mortgages.
Perhaps the time longest scale of all is retirement. The details vary, of course, but a good rule of thumb is that to fund a successful retirement in today’s world requires on the order of a million dollars. Most of us will work about seventy years trying to set aside this amount of money. Since our average life expectancy is around eighty years, we essentially spend our entire lives trying to put a million dollars in the bank. Thus we have a scale for a human life: one million dollars is roughly equivalent to one lifetime.
This is a useful scale for envisioning large sums of money, such as those associated with athlete’s salaries. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the highest paid NASCAR driver, earns roughly $25 million each year. This works out to $690,000 per race, or two-thirds of a lifetime per race. Similarly, Peyton Manning will be paid one lifetime per game in 2014. (I’m a huge fan of both, by the way.) Which brings us back to the LA Clippers. Ballmer offered this week to buy the team for two billion dollars, or two thousand lifetimes.
When viewed this way, the phrase ‘obscene riches’ takes on new poignancy. It also explains why we have so little patience with the Dez Bryants of the world who are squandering multiple lifetimes and think they are entitled to even more. Time is precious, whether measured in hours or dollars.
One of the oldest time management rules is to always trade time for money. Do whatever it takes to get the most out of your time. Remember, they print new money around the clock, but there is no such thing as new time.