It is sometimes said that time is money—which is meant to suggest that someone should not waste time that could otherwise be spent making money. But the one precious asset we all have is time. We may choose to forget that our time is running out, but it is—and has been-- from the time we were born. It is not that time is valuable because it allows us to make more money; it is the other way around. Money is valuable—insofar as it is valuable-- because it allows us to have more time to spend doing things that are worthwhile and that we enjoy. If we are rich enough to buy our food, we don’t have to spend time growing it or trapping it, or running after it. If we have enough money to afford clothing, we don’t have to waste time making it. If we have enough money to buy a car, we don’t have to waste time waiting for a bus. But how should we spend our time?
The way I see it, we should either spend our time doing something enjoyable or something useful. Sometimes, if someone is lucky, it is possible to do both at the same time. That gives plenty of leeway for individual tastes. I do not like some of the things that other people like. (Hang-gliding, for instance.) Different things appeal to different people. However, all these various things tend to fall into a limited number of categories: physical activities like sports or sex or eating; intellectual activities, like reading or listening to music or engaging in some sort of scientific enquiry; creative things, like painting or composing, or making anything from jewelry to sculpture; social activities such as talking or partying or even arguing about politics. Many of the activities that people enjoy fall into a number of categories at the same time: singing in church, for instance, or throwing a basketball around with children. If we suddenly come into a lot of money, we have more time for these things, for skiing, and travelling and eating out in restaurants. That is the principle advantage of being rich.
It is easy to overstate that advantage, however. I think it is important for a couple to go out together for dinner every once in a while; but I do not think it matters much if the restaurant is famous or if it is a neighborhood restaurant. Except initially, perhaps, until the novelty wears off. The important aspect of dining out is the social experience of two people being together, talking and laughing, and being away from the usual preoccupations of daily life. It does not matter if that restaurant is in a basement or on a revolving platform at the top of a skyscraper.
Similarly, It is important to go on vacations every once in a while. It is not important to go to a famous resort in a foreign country. It is important to feel a sense of belonging; it is not important to belong to an exclusive club.
Those special pleasures that are only possible with a great deal of money are real. But they are exciting mostly because they are novel and out of the reach of most people. They become ordinary with familiarity. Those people whom I have known who are rich enough to do these exotic things frequently know that what I am saying is true. Unfortunately, most other people do not believe me. They spend too much time thinking how nice it would be to visit the Taj Mahal or go skiing in the Alps.
And then there is the matter of things. Most things can be purchased with money. Most people can think of something they would buy if they had a little more money. But what happens when you already have a lot of things? It has been said that we don’t own things, they own us.
It is important, at least in suburban areas of the country, to have a car; but does it matter much if we buy an inexpensive, but comfortable and reliable car, or a really beautifully designed and prestigious—but expensive-- car?. I have known a number of people whose life-long ambition has been to drive an expensive sports car. When they do, finally, buy that dreamed- of car, it very soon turns into a simple conveyance that takes them from place to place. I can think of only two or three car aficionados who continued to remind themselves, and took pleasure in the fact, that their cars were so classy. Of course, there are a few neighbors or girl-friends who are impressed by such a prestigious car, but, after a while, they too forget that it is anything but a car. But suppose you really like cars.
Suppose you had so many cars you needed an elevator to keep them from piling up in front of the house—or mansion. Until recently, I never heard of such a thing. But I think a car elevator points out the disadvantages of having a great deal of money. Having money frees up time to do other things. Having a lot of money tends to take up time. Having never seen or heard of a car elevator, I am speculating here. But don’t elevators break down and require maintenance? Won’t you have to arrange for that? And for all the times a car gets stuck at an angle? Or repairing the car that was driven too quickly into the back of the elevator? Suppose you want a car that is in back of all the other cars, as happens frequently in a parking garage; won’t you have to wait while somebody shuffles the cars around? Won’t the elevator make noise and wake you up in the middle of the night? Will you have to make special security arrangements so that someone doesn’t come around with a truck and take away all the expensive cars? Won’t you have to spend time writing checks, talking to strangers and, in general, thinking about the car elevator? Suppose there are zoning regulations against car elevators. (I am not allowed to stable horses on my modest suburban property. A car elevator is definitely out of the question.) That means you have to hire lawyers and talk to lawyers so that they petition the authorities for an easement. Probably, you will have to talk to an architect and talk to engineers in order to determine the right size for the elevator. There has to be enough room so that the occasional expensive car does not have to park in the driveway after all. Suppose the elevator floods during a storm. Or an earthquake. Are you liable for the damage to the cars of the other tycoons who might be visiting? Won’t you have to spend more time sorting out the damage with the insurance company? Suppose a neighbor’s kid falls into the elevator shaft. Think of the legal travails that will follow for the next seven or eight years. Will the whole property have to be fenced off as you would have to fence off a swimming pool?
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking you would just hire a team of experts to handle all these problems so you would not have to consider them. But won’t you have to talk to the experts first? They need to know exactly what you have in mind. And suppose the experts are not so expert—as is frequently the case; won’t you have to oversee their work or spend time hiring a second set of experts to oversee their work?
Think of your situation, if you are only moderately well-off. Do you have three cars? That means somebody is always taking off time from other activities to bring the various cars in for inspections and repairs. Rather than driving all the cars around to keep their batteries charged, I have known some who let their car—or a boat—slowly fall apart in the back of their driveway.
I had a patient who was rich enough to live at the top of a long driveway about a block away from the nearest neighbor. Because the area was woodsy a little, she had to examine all three of her dogs for ticks whenever they came into the house. Similarly, her children could not go out and play with the neighbors’ because there were no neighbors. Play dates required her driving the children back and forth. A lot of time was eaten up with these chores.
Another patient lived in a house which was so big, it literally took a few minutes to come down for dinner. And all those rooms seemed to require work all the time—which meant talking to painters, carpenters and so on.
Another patient decided it would be really nice for his adolescent sons to have a farm to visit on weekends. He bought a farm, but had to visit it frequently to hire plumbers and architects and a general contractor to supervise everyone else. These visits became tedious after a time. When the farm was fixed up just right—guess what? His adolescent kids, now a year older, decided they did not want to spend weekends on a farm. So my patient had to sell the farm—which took up more time.
Enjoying oneself is one half of life; the other half is doing something useful, which usually means work. I find myself disappointed at how many people do not think the work they do is worthwhile. They think that if they work in advertising, or are salespeople, or do clerical work, that these activities are somehow not helpful to anyone. I don’t know what to say to them except that I certainly don’t feel that way. These jobs are part of society just as much as jobs that involve “helping” people , like a pastor might. There are differences between jobs, and I don’t think someone should work at something that is not satisfying; but I would argue that all kinds of work are useful and worthwhile. The Yom Kippur service has a prayer thanking God for work. I have always thought that meant not just a recognition of the need to support oneself, but an appreciation of the dignity of work itself.
So, if work is a good way of spending time, and enjoying oneself is a good way of spending time, what is a bad way of spending time? There are a lot of things we do that accomplish no purpose and are not satisfying. Channel-surfing in a good example. Trying to make sure we always dress properly and say the right thing, and concerning ourselves about what strangers think is another such example. I had a patient with five children who felt impelled to clean the bathroom every time someone used it. There was barely time for anything else. Cleaning a bathroom all day long accomplishes no useful purpose and certainly is no fun.
Using our time properly means standing outside ourselves from time to time and asking ourselves whether those particular things we do routinely, because we have always done them, are really worth doing. If you are lucky enough not to be extremely wealthy, you probably have fewer things to discard and fewer obligations you have to attend to.(c) Fredric Neuman 2012 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog