Layers of Time: Learning, Purpose, Meaning


Time is the enclosure that encircles us all. ~Robyn Schiff

Preindustrial, pre-clock time was perceived as running in long cycles, and not as a linear succession of uniform hours, the system we have adopted since the rise of railroads and factories, where schedule keeping has come to dominate the concept of time. And long before that, ancient civilizations took the cycle of days, moons, and years, and sliced them into minutes, hours, weeks, and months, to subordinate the natural order to the purposes of kings, nations, and religions.

The fundamental cycles — the daily passage of the sun, the seasonal transit of the earth’s annual circling of the sun, and the coming and going of the Moon and its tides — are still with us. We feel these in our bones and blood. We have only to look up, after all. But the role they play has been — apparently — superseded by regulated, caged time.

However, we are still living things, and the relatively brief period since we yoked time to schedules has not really reached into our DNA. We have not evolved away from biorhythm and the pulsing of our heartbeat, however pervasive the cultural indoctrination into linear time. The alarm rings Monday morning, and a few hours later we are at work: either at the office, on the shop floor, or working on a laptop at the kitchen table. We transition from one sort of time to another, and back again, almost without reflection.

In Layers of Time: Pandemic Time Distortion, I wrote about the experience of distorted time brought on by the stress of the pandemic, where individuals are shaken by time seeming to speed up or slow down, and not in a good way. It’s more like PTSD or vertigo than being transported by ritual or peak experience. It can be deeply unsettling.

Throughout this series, I’ve spoken about the differences between me-time (individual deep work) and we-time (group communication, cooperation, and coordination). We shuttle back and forth between these sorts of work, and too-frequent transitions lead to a fragmentation of me-time, with negative consequences. This is something like time distortion, although better called time fragmentation: since me-time requires peace and quiet to focus and push on a problem or task, interruptions can lead to a large chunk of potentially productive time broken into sections too small to accomplish much.

There are other critical cycles in our lives and work. Businesses are based on the cycles of innovation and value delivery to customers: the solution loop.

The Solution Loop

Intelligence about customer needs and market forces can be gathered to improve the company’s delivery of value and to develop a deeper knowledge of market needs, at the organizational level. This is the learning loop, below.

The Learning and Solution Loops

These cycles operate at their own pace, but the best companies place a high premium on learning since it is the wellspring of innovation and therefore the key to future success. You can’t win in tomorrow’s market simply by doing what you were yesterday. I depict the two cycles running in opposite directions: this is to indicate that there is a tension — a competition — between the two, since time is semi-rivalrous: time spent in one loop may be time not spent in the other. For example, from time to time, the assembly line must stop: the organization must take people out of delivering value to assimilate what has been recently learned, and to make changes to the delivery of value.

At a different scale, each group and individual should be involved in the same balancing act: delivering value — by doing your job — and learning: preparing for an uncertain future.

Companies can easily burn out their contributors by running the machine too hot, and not allowing adequate time to reflect and learn new skills, necessary for new approaches and thinking.

Finally, perhaps a lower level of cycle, just above the foundation of celestial time, biorhythms, and the pulse of our heartbeat, is our pursuit of meaning and purpose, which is another, slower pace layer, a highly personal one.

I recently wrote about revisiting the well-known Ikigai diagram in Revisiting Ikigai. I won’t belabor all the details, but I came out with a significantly different Venn diagram than the ones that have been popularized in past decades.

I was motivated by a saying I have often employed to discuss our primal motivations for meaning and purpose:

We need a new work culture that relies on the primal drive for autonomy and mastery in our work, the sense of belonging that comes from sharing goals and meeting them, and the impulse to gain the respect of those we respect.

This is where I came down: Meaning and Purpose Is Many Cycles, Not One

Meaning and Purpose Is Many Cycles, Not One

This diagram is based on the interplay between learning, mastery, respect, and helping others. These all interact in complex ways, but there is a foundational cycle at the root:

  1. Learn What You Are Drawn To — We should follow our natural curiosity to learn about the things in the world that interest us.
  2. Master What You Learn — As we explore more of the aspects of the subjects of our curiosity, we approach mastery, which is the natural outgrowth of our pursuit of understanding and knowledge.
  3. Gain The Respect Of The Respected — Our activities related to learning and mastery lead us to others who are likewise involved in their own efforts toward learning and mastery in the subject area we are investigating. We may come to respect those others, especially those who help us gain a deeper understanding, such as those we work with. This leads naturally to wanting to gain the respect of the respected, as well. One form of respect is payment for our work: perhaps the baseline. But payment without true respect is more of a pale shadow, a corruption of respect, than what we aspire to.
  4. Apply What You Know To Help Others — Helping others is a high calling. Choosing to help others in their own search for learning, mastery, and respect is the impulse of most teachers. And just as important is helping others outside of the learning relationship, in more direct ways, such as supporting family and community institutions, contributing time and money, or other forms of service.

The vertices include auxiliary motivations: passion for learning and mastery; compassion for others leads us to community; vocation — our calling — is the tension between mastery and respect; and avocation is the calling away from one’s work in service to others in hope of gaining the respect of those we respect.

And as for purpose and mastery:

We can find meaning in any and all of the explicit circles and implicit loops of this diagram, which is an outgrowth of the dynamics involved.

Purpose is the reason we get up in the morning, the goals we set, and the sense of making progress toward those goals.

Meaning is a muscle, not a mood. Meaning emerges from the myriad activities associated with the circles and loops of purpose. It’s not a medal or a parchment with a seal of wax, but something that animates the space between us and others the way that a carpenter’s workroom smells of wood shavings, and how a crowded city square hums with ten thousand sounds of people walking, talking, and maneuvering their passage past each other and through, all happening at once, at once independent and dependent on one another.

There is no summation of meaning, it must be considered as both tiny and enormous at the same time.

So there is more than one sort of time. Actually, many. And we need to balance the transitions across all, as hard as that may be to do. We have to hold onto, return to, a sense of time based on cycles rather than linear clock time. Only then can we learn how to be human, at the deepest and highest levels.

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