Meet Michel Siffre.
Unless you are an avid spelunker or a chronobiologist (scientists who study the biology of time) you probably haven’t heard of this man.
In the summer of July 1962, he descended into a subterranean cavern to study how his biological rhythms would be affected by living in a world “beyond time”. He was equipped with basic supplies, food and some books. Without any calendars or sun he had no effective way to measure the passage of time.
As you can imagine his daily routine didn’t include a lot of variation. Siffre spend the majority of his time reading books and conducting various tests. His support team, which stood ready to help him was not allowed to contact him under any circumstance.
Siffre’s research team had originally planned to retrieve him on September 14th after roughly 3 months underground. When the day finally arrived, Siffre was thoroughly surprised to see his “rescuers”. He had calculated the time to be only August 20th.
In a subsequent interview conducted in 2008 Siffre said,
There were two tests I performed every time I called the surface. First, I took my pulse. Secondly, there was a psychological test. I had to count from 1 to 120, at the rate of one digit per second. With that test we made a great discovery: it took me five minutes to count to 120. In other words, I psychologically experienced five real minutes as though they were two.
His psychological time had compressed by a factor of two. With no variation within each day and an utter lack of stimulation, Siffre’s sense of time had compressed. His dark subterranean cave void of light, humans or any distractions had hyper accelerated his sense of time like being cryogenically frozen.
At this point you may be be thinking what does this have to do with the psychology of success.
If success is built upon the idea of taking on challenges and adapting to new stimulus than its antipode would be monotony.
The monotony that makes everyday look identical with no measurable difference, where each day and scene brings a familiar sense of deja vu. We often pass through the same scenes, conversations and people unable to differentiate between the last week and this. The routine of life, although essential for most becomes the ultimate accelerator of time.
Similar to Siffre’s empty cave the passing of time only offers a faint echo which at times is barely audible. Like Michel’s surprise at the seemingly early arrival of his research team we are equally perplexed when we once again find ourselves at an annual party or event. Our last birthday always feels both far away and close at the same time like a mirage in the distance.
Where did all the time go? Why does my life feel so fast?
As we get older we inevitably ask ourselves this question. Our natural inclination may be to say, time just flies. But if time flies, it definitely flies faster upon the wings of hedonism or when you are faced with the tedium of everyday living.
Reality dictates that we must work in order to survive. We must get to work, do work, and return from work which implies routines, schedules and traffic. These are the multipliers and accelerators of monotony, as anyone who has sat in traffic for several hours can attest to.
Even within the freest of lives, routines will form. For anyone who functions within the confines of the “system” they are as inevitable as taxes.
As we travel from office to home to office and back, our sense of time collapses on itself and crushes a little part of our soul with us. We greet Monday with the same enthusiasm we reserve for seeing our cat after a long day.
For me nothing exemplifies this more than taking the subway. A thirty minute commute void of trees and scenery, where I find myself opting to look at my phone or stare at a wall rather than making accidental eye contact with someone who is as equally uncomfortable as I am. Each journey is as unremarkable as the next , with an earthquake being the only thing that could potentially break up the monotony.
This existence isn’t something most of us strive for but rather create as an eventual by product of convenience and necessity.
What is a human to do?
When faced with the relentless onslaught of time we are faced with but few solutions.
- Drink more wine, buy more things and have more sex. This will offer you a temporary respite from your life, but this cyclical existence only serves to speed time up.
- Subscribe to a philosophy like a 1950s crew cutted hard-working father of four who secretly hates his job but does it because there is a solid pension and believes that work isn’t supposed to be rewarding. This is the traditional sacrifice your life now for a retirement later model of living.
- Kill yourself. Like 25,000 Japanese do every year.
Hopefully none of these options seem appealing. However you still have one more. One that can extend your life and improve the quality of each passing moment.
Live like an artist.
If monotony collapses time, creativity unfolds it.
The creative energy that flows from within towards some goal outside the self revitalizes and creates meaning in each passing moment of life. The tapestry of our existence becomes colorful and full of memory.
The world of the artist is not the hallowed timeless cavern of Siffre’s, but rather the vivid universe of experience.
Despite the fact that we may be all trapped inside some outward routine of existence our internal world can be rich and meaningful if we want it to be so. Each day is an opportunity to experiment and find what creative pursuit truly brings us fulfillment.
This is the art of successful living.
The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. Pablo Picasso
To the self appointed non-artist who thinks without musical, theatrical, literary or artistic ability, they exist in a world void of art. Think again. Life is art.
My life is my art. Yours is too.
I will be the first to concede my selfish interest in myself. One clearly reflected by my decision to pursue academic psychology and read way too many self help books.
What unfolds my sense of time is my creative construction and destruction. It’s what makes me excited to wake up each morning. It’s what makes me feel each failure deeply and what makes me want to spontaneously dance upon every success.
Find your passion. Find your calling. Find your path. Find what makes you excited.
Find your art. These are ALL the same.
Do it every day. Accept no obstacles.
The cure to live longer and better lies in creating something. The time invested will not be used but rather multiplied.
I know it sounds vague. I’m not telling you what to make. Or how to do it, but I am telling you that the creative process and rewards are the same regardless of the art.
The reason that art (writing, engaging, and all of it) is valuable is precisely why I can’t tell you how to do it. If there were a map, there’d be no art, because art is the act of navigating without a map. – Seth Godin
Your art can be the ship which brings you to a far away land of freedom, a land you had never dreamed of going to. Beware sea sickness in the form of doubt, criticism and impatience.
The choice to live in Siffre’s barren cave watching time melt away unremarkably or painting your mind into a beautiful mural of experience is yours.
Find something. Make something.
The act of creation is the most empowering gift of mankind.
Time and location are not impediments to the creative mind.
Perhaps I have written enough now, I should get off the subway and go to work.