A few years ago when Sam Altman turned 30, he published this post on life learnings, which has since been widely read and circulated. In what is a thought-provoking listicle, the one bullet point that stands out is right at the end of Sam’s piece:

Of long days and short decades  1

Take a moment to process that.
Long Days.
Short Decades.

It’s a mathematical anomaly that captures life beautifully. When we look back at our decades, almost always we tend to envision these blocks of years as time periods in our lives that flew by. Rarely do we come across someone who indicates that “my teenage years were very long” or “I was stuck all the time in my 20s.” More typically, the sentiment is the opposite: “I can’t believe where my 20s went,” or “My teenage years went in a jiffy.”

Sure, some years seem long. When I was 29 and caught in a professional fix, there were blocks of months that felt particularly long. Similarly, for others, personal and/or professional anxiety can make extended periods of time tough, and often at times, insufferable. But how long do these extended periods of time actually last, when viewed through the prism of a decade?

And then let’s get to the days. In any given month, there are mornings that are long. There are nights that are long. And there are entire mornings and nights that are long. Pick your unit of reference and there will be times when that said unit of reference feels long, tough, and insufferable. But once again in the context of 3,650 days (10 years * 365 days), how many such units of reference can you remember that vividly felt long?

So what are we getting to?

First, a small digression to the power of optical illusions:

Professor Kitaoka, a known expert in optical illusions, revealed earlier this year how a person’s field of view influences the brain’s perception of speed. When focused on a particular object, the more we zoom in, and narrow our field of view, the more the brain perceives that object to be moving at a slower rate.

And the opposite also holds true: When focused on the same object, the more we zoom out and widen our field of view, the more our brain perceives that object to be moving at a faster rate.

The tweet below visually demonstrates the optical illusion through a moving train which seems to move faster when the video zooms out.

Coming back to our original exploration of long days and short decades, we can leverage Prof. Kitaoka’s small cognitive trick to alter the field of view of our life, and subsequently how we process and perceive it. When things feel exceptionally long for a few days at a time (or on a long day), it might help to zoom out, widen our frame of reference, and put those days in the context of a decade.

Two things will happen: a) collectively those days will not seem that long anymore and b) the wider prism might just offer us things to be grateful for when things seem particularly bad.

And we can use the opposite to our advantage as well. When things are moving particularly fast — “there’s too much going on in life” — it might help to narrow our frame of reference: focusing on half a day, an hour or even half an hour, will allow time to slow down, by effectively zooming in on what’s immediately at hand.

Since no piece is complete without an example from the cricketing world, here’s one: if you are a Chennai Super Kings (CSK) fan today (my condolences), you must be distressed in what has been your team’s worst-ever performance in the history of Indian Premier League (IPL). But you can take solace. Instead of focusing on 2020, you can widen your frame of reference to the past 12 years of the IPL and point to CSK’s overall stellar performance in the history of the league.

(And miraculously, if CSK were to play well this coming week, you can also do the opposite. You can cut out the noise, zoom in on that match, let time slow down, and soak it all in. But we know that’s very unlikely).

Summing up, the human brain never ceases to fascinate and these cognitive tricks are real not least because they allow us to shape the narrative of our lives. Widening or narrowing the lens of our life shapes its velocity, and we can control whether we want to view it through a short decade or a long day. The power truly is in our hands. Even if you are a CSK fan 🙂

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