One of the best pieces advice I’ve ever got came from Robert Greene.
I was working full-time at a really good job but planning my next move, saving my money and thinking about what I might do next. I told him I wanted to write a book one day, but I wasn’t sure what how or when or what about.
He told me, Ryan while people wait for the right moment, there are two types of time: Dead time—where they are passive and biding and Alive time—where they are learning and acting and leveraging every second towards their intended future. Which will this be for you?
It’s actually a fairly old idea. In the 60s, French political protesters had the slogan vivre sans temps mort (live without wasted time). Some of the greatest figures in history took seemingly terrible situations—a prison sentence, an exile, a bear market or depression, military conscription, even being sent to concentration camps (see Viktor Frankl)–and through their attitude and approach, transformed that circumstance into something that fueled greatness.
Is this going to be Alive Time or Dead Time? It’s the question they asked themselves–and answered with their actions.
I decided to print it up and put it on my wall.
Robert is one of the most productive people I know because he has lived this advice. In fifteen years, he’s written five classic books that will almost certainly live beyond his lifetime. What many don’t know about him is that that fifteen-year period of creativity began when Robert was in his forties. Before that, he’d done very little that people would have thought was significant. I think he said once that he’d worked 80 different jobs in those years while he searched for what he’d wanted to do with his life.
For most of us, decades of low-level jobs would be a recipe for dead time. In fact, every moment–good or bad in those years–was expanding Robert’s larger picture of the world. The psychotic bosses. Rejections. Power moves. Relationships. All of these became the insights we marvel at in his books. It was all material.
Now, who knows what you’re currently doing? Maybe you’re sitting in high school, maybe you’re making smoothies despite a solid degree, maybe you’re stuck waiting out a contract or a tour of duty. Sometimes, on the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. Often when we are just starting out, our first jobs “introduce us to the broom,” as Andrew Carnegie famously put it.
These situations give us a choice. Do we feel shame and anger? Or do we say: This is an opportunity for me. I am using it for my purposes. I will not let this be dead time for me.
The last few months, I have been working a tough gig in Los Angeles, 2,000 miles from my home and my normal life. There’s no question it’s been disruptive to me both literally and emotionally. I won’t say I didn’t have a choice about it, but there are certain parts about it that I have very little say in.
What I do have a choice about is what I do with my time while I am there. Is this a period where I put my books and business on hold? Or do I find some way to make this a work study program? Can I figure out how to be alive in this time rather than letting several dead months pile up?
I’m not sure I would have been able to do that all at home. And that’s to say nothing of the actual job I’ve been doing, the observations I’ve been able to make, or things I’ve learned about people and myself because I decided I was going to keep my mind open, I was deliberately going to soak things up like a sponge.
Here is the notebook I’ve filled, writing a daily note to myself (I made the decision that I would open this journal every day before checking email.
Here is the box of notecards I have filled.
We are always so busy thinking about the future, we don’t take enough time to focus on the opportunities right in front of us. Especially when those things look like burdens and not like opportunities. We think the future is something that happens, rather than something we make.
We think, This is just a job, this is just a crappy couple of [months, minutes, weeks] it doesn’t matter.
Like Robert says, if you’re going to think like that, you might as well be dead. Your mind apparently is.
Resist the temptation to get distracted with silly politics or wanderlust. Make the most of every moment as you prepare for the next move or the next event.
If you want to be productive, be fully alive.