A few weeks ago, I attended my younger brother’s college graduation. As I watched him glide through the aisle of Old Campus cloaked in his cap and gown, I was swept over by the disbelief that comes with a mark of time passed: “Wow, is he done with college already? It feels like he just left!” While only somewhat unsettling in itself, the disbelief resulted in a more troublesome, existential worry for me: This means it’s been 3 years since I’ve graduated college. Where does the time go?
The final notes of Pomp and Circumstance were still floating like clouds above me when Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey ascended the stage for his Commencement Address (it was phenomenal, and if you have 48:44 to spare, I highly recommend you watch it). In a nutshell, the speech was about vision. Setting your sights on where you’re going and taking care to make sure you’re moving in the right direction, but also, and maybe more importantly, seeing where you are right now, in this moment. In addition to being good at talking about vision, Cory must also have supernatural eyesight. Because in this very speech, he read my mind (and transformed my thoughts into more eloquent ones): “In life the days go by so slowly,” he proclaimed, “In life the days go by so slowly, but the years fly by.”
In the foundational anecdote of his speech, Booker explains that he was once friends with a young, misguided boy who lived in his apartment building. While at first he mentored him and helped recalculate his route, Booker got busy with his election campaign and with becoming big and important. He toured around town and once back in his apartment each night, was too tired to do anything else. He passed the boy in his hallway every night. It was only when he was attending this boy’s funeral, only after this boy was killed in a gang-related incident, that Booker saw how plowing towards his grand success had only opened his door to failure. A failure that made him too ashamed to get out of bed in the morning. Something we all take for granted everyday. It’s the small acts of kindness in your everyday, he explains, not the vague pursuit of something big and important, that matters in the end.
The next time you start a new job, try a little experiment: Keep a journal to record every time someone tells you what day you’re on. My hypothesis is that your journal will get the most action on Day 1. “Wow! Day 1! Welcome,” they’ll say as your manager parades you around the office. “Still surviving Day 1?” someone will ask as you walk to lunch. And, just as you’re packing up to leave, you’ll get the obligatory, “We’re so happy to have you here. I hope you had a great first day.” You’ll probably fill up an entire page (especially if you’re handwriting is like mine) on Day 1. And then you’ll probably have a lot of action in Week 1. “Day 3, huh?” someone will ask in the kitchen. “Good ol’ day 4,” someone will say as she washes her hands at the sink next to you in the bathroom. And then, there will be the celebratory clink of Day 5. Maybe someone will recognize your first month, you’ll note your first year, and then, well, all bets are off. Until, Year 5 or something.
My brother’s graduation came a few days after I started a new job, making me that person who starts her new job then takes time off before she gets her first paycheck. While I wouldn’t have missed my brother’s college graduation for the world, I was extremely nervous about the number of days of work I would be missing when I had been there so few days to begin with. I tried to minimize them as much as possible. So much so that I woke up at 12 AM PST to catch a 4 AM PST flight to get back in to San Francisco at 1:30 PM and go straight into work. But it was only (lucky) Day 13 and I didn’t want it to slip away.
At the beginning of June, I was in a meeting when someone looked at me and said, “What is this? Week 4 for you?” I didn’t know off the top of my head. Weeks had already flown by.
Every morning, I throw a piece of bread in the toaster after going to the gym. While the bread gets toasty, I stop everything — my response to that email, unloading those last few dishes, reading riveting status updates — in order to prepare for the toast’s arrival into the world. While the bread is in the toaster I take out my peanut butter, a plate, and a butter knife and wait by the toaster so that the moment, the exact precise moment the toast enters the world, I can snatch it and start slathering on the peanut butter.
There is a certain art to being able to create a perfect slice of peanut butter toast. One which involves painting the peanut butter onto your toast while it holds maximum toaster heat. This is when most of the peanut butter will melt, but a thin layer will remain at room-temperature consistency. If you miss the window, the toast cools and the peanut butter doesn’t spread or stick as well. It’s kind of like this.
When I miss the peanutbuttertunity, it is typically for something that could have waited, something like typing one last sentence of an email. It’s never worth it. There’s nothing worse than poorly-spread, room-temperature peanut butter on a cold piece of toast, especially when you only allot yourself one chance a day, and the next opportunity isn’t for another twenty four hours. An eternity, if you ask a fruit-fly. I eat my peanut butter toast at 8:30 every morning, and I spend longer eating it than I do entire meals during the rest of the day.
I am not suggesting that my (really odd) guilty pleasure is a Cory-Booker-daily-small-act-of-kindness. It’s a metaphor. There is no reason why Day 1 should be any more important than Day 36 than Day 100. Or why the moments in each of those days should trudge by. It’s up to us to create the specific moments in each day that stand out to us, as banal as they might be to others. It’s when you give up the opportunity to create markers in your everyday that you admit defeat to time. That you wave goodbye as the years fly by. Find something small in your each of your days and transform it into something hugely, deeply, intrinsically rewarding. Not to fall too far into college mode, but as Keats so succinctly put it, “Life is but a day.”