I was very interested in reading this book from the moment I heard about it. It was getting some really great reviews, and the topic was of high interest for me – as it is for all humans, in some way or another. The title refers to the average lifespan of a modern human – we have roughly 4,000 weeks to be alive, so to borrow a trite phase, how do we make the most of it? I’ve used up about half of that, and maybe that’s the trigger that has spurred me to think more about what it means to use our time well.
SPOILER alert for anyone who hasn’t watched The Good Place (one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen – funny, full of heart, sort of philosophical without getting preachy – if you haven’t seen it, please put it on your list – and maybe skip this paragraph). Okay, so moving forward I’ll assume we’ve all seen The Good Place, or at least that you don’t mind hearing about something that happens near the end of the series. In it’s final season, the characters all reach heaven, and when they arrive, everyone there has been there for a looooong time. As the first new entrants in several hundred years, the main characters expect to find all the joy you might associate with being in the literal most perfect place – and instead, everyone who’s been in heaven for all that time is nearly inert. Over the course of the episode, the gang comes to realize that the problem with heaven is that it is eternal – that it is the finitude of life that actually gives it its meaning. Because heaven has no end, at some point there’s nothing to provide meaning, and therefore all that perfection is wasted. What ensues is the creation of an actual end – a sort of reincarnation portal, that allows for an actual END. And with that, the old souls are new again.
That’s essentially the point of this book – you’re not going to live forever, and that’s actually what gives any time that you have here meaning. The first few chapters had me hooked – I was very much into the concept of recognizing that we don’t have forever, so what do we do with what time we are actually “given”? There was some interesting discussion in the first half of the book about what it means to actually face our limited time – and how we might harness that to help us make choices with what we spend our time doing.
For me, the book was way less successful in the second half. While I buy the discussions about time as a resource – one over which we have little control, one for which we really need others to make meaningful – I did not feel that the book was offering important insights. In fact, as I read deeper into the second half, I began to feel as though the author was uncomfortably dismissive of all but the richest among us. While the first part of the book was really focused on considering humanity as a whole, the second half seemed almost to be arguing that rich people really have it so bad because, despite having access to money to buy things, the best things in life ARE NOT things. This is not a surprising or new conclusion, and for a moment in the middle of the book the author sort of lost me. Burkeman pulled a parabola, however, and turned it around again and more or less stuck the landing. While I did get the impression that this book was very likely aimed at people with a surplus of luxury time and unclear intentions for how to use it, it’s also primarily about something that we all have access to, regardless of what our material situation looks like. It’s not fundamentally about wealth – no philosophical problem is ever directly about wealth. But as a human living in a time and place where I have enough money for the things that I need – a home, food – and many things I want – a car, clothes I like to wear – I still, especially in this insanely inflated economy, feel as though I’m dangling off a cliff financially. And maybe it’s because the margins are shrinking that I’m just very aware of this right now – money isn’t ever going to buy happiness, I know that, and the writer of this book knows that. But it also frustrates me when people ignore that money DOES offer choices and options in life that are meaningful! It feels as though Burkeman resists that complexity, probably because his book is not meant to be a discussion of that particular topic – but a stronger acknowledgement of that would help.
While the tone of the book ultimately struck me as being one intended for wealthy liberals looking for a way to indulge their search for meaning, I do think it had some interesting tips and ideas for ways to approach your finite time. I’m going to present here the five questions he suggests you ask yourself to help “come to grips with the reality of your situation and start to make the most of your finite time”:
1.) Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
2.) Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?
3.) In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?
4.) In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
5.) How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?
Basically – don’t be afraid to make the uncomfortable choice if it aligns with your values; understand that our lives are short and most of what we do is ultimately, cosmically meaningless – which frees us from having to do it all!; be aware the you’re never going to escape who you are AT THIS MOMENT – you don’t have to earn your time, you ARE your time; don’t put off living until you [insert goal here] – you’re living life NOW; don’t judge yourself only by the results.
I do intend to think about the lessons from this book when I’m planning my units next year – the idea that you cannot do it all, so be strategic about what you do NOT do is one that I would love to consider more fully. There’s interesting lessons to be learned from this book, and I’m glad that I read it! But I think some of the missteps remind me why we need diverse authors, with a variety of experiences – another author might have been able to share very similar ideas but ALSO acknowledged how access to money and power and privilege might influence our ability to put these tools into practice.