Negatively skewed time and only Caterpillars become Butterflies!

Lately I have been spending a lot of time thinking, reading, and researching about “time”.  There is a ton of data available on this topic, fortunately. And most of the literature on the subject matter makes it abundantly clear that time is the most “precious gift” that Nature has bestowed upon us. And yet a lot of us mindlessly waste this gift in pursuit of other commodities such as money, power, simple pleasures, etc., without much regard to time.  Wonder why we do that?  Here is an interesting response from two of the wealthiest people on earth (Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) when asked, “if you could have one superpower, what would it be?” – “More time!”

My very simple and naive explanation using basic statistics is this.  We prefer events and activities with positively skewed distribution and shun or undervalue negatively skewed distribution. Here is what I mean. If we plot, for example, pleasure from owning a BMW (for most people) on y-axis vs time on x-axis, the pleasure-time distribution curve demonstrates the positively skewed distribution as shown below on the left.  Similarly, eating healthy, pursuing passion, etc., on y-axis and time on x-axis represent negatively skewed distribution on the right below. Here is my crude representation of these distributions.


Not always but in a lot of cases positively skewed distributions lead to long-term misery. They tend to be addictive with diminishing returns.

To put it simply, the longer the expected outcome is the higher the discount factor tends to be and hence we value the outcome less at current time. We do exactly that when it comes to our “time”.  We undervalue time when we have a lot of it and complain a lot when we don’t.

Longevity, for example, does not carry much value beyond say 10 years for a lot of people. Here is a histogram of total deaths by age in Australia in 2012 and here is how to read it. Solid red bars in the figure below show number of people died in 2012 in each age bracket (Left axis) and the green distribution curve (overlaid) represents the percentage of deceased in each age bracket (Right axis). For example, ~27,500 (Left axis) people died between the ages of 85 – 89 in 2012 in Australia. That age bracket represented ~19% (Right axis) of all the people died that year. Another conclusion to draw is that almost 55% of the people lived to at least 80 years or longer.


Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

You are probably thinking…so what Sherlock? Well, my point is if we have a choice to contemplate between planning for living happily at least till our mid 80s and buying a BMW this summer, which one would we spend our time on? BMW is a positively skewed event. We prefer to spend our time on getting a loan for the BMW that gives us immediate pleasure even though that could give us financial heartburn in the future. We hate thinking about planning for our long-term wellbeing. How long do you think before we take the BMW ride for granted and not get much pleasure out of it? And yet we keep focusing on positively skewed events.

Very few of us are hardwired to think about time as a precious gift that melts away if we are not mindful. Here is a simple calculation for a 45 year old (let us call him Buck) to emphasize the importance of time. Let us assume our young Buck is lucky enough to last till he is 85 and has 40 more years to live. Feels like a long time and Buck gets busy with his daily activities (my favorite quote from the movie, Shawshank Redemption – Andy shares this with Red –“It comes down to a simple choice really, get busy living or get busy dying.”)

An average person like Buck spends about 8 hours sleeping and another 4 hours on various other mundane and social activities per day. That leaves Buck about 12 hours per day to focus on self over the next 40 years (this includes at least 20 years of work). In other words, the 40 years that Buck thinks he has is really only 20 years or about 175,000 hours. Interestingly enough our young Buck may spend a third of that time working. So really Buck only has about 116,000 hours for self. But here is the pickle and gives heartburn to most people after some contemplation: Most of those 116,000 hours (about 87,000 to be more precise) are actually available after the age of 65. In other words, the young Buck only has 29,000 free hours or 3.3 valuable years for self over the next 20 years. Also note that time is a continuous medium and it is hard to be happy after work if Buck is not happy at work.

Depressing isn’t it especially if Buck is not passionate about his work? Remember Buck is expected to spend almost 58,000 hours over the next 20 years at “work”. It is absolutely imperative that one recognizes the value of time and not compromise in every aspect of time management. One can either get depressed realizing that there is not a lot of free valuable time available or get busy enjoying each and every valuable minute mindfully. I belong to the latter camp.

I hope I made a compelling argument for value of time. Let us move on to the next big question… “So what should I do with this time?” Of course, I am not going to answer that for you. But most of us already know or heard from various sources (reliable) that pursuit of passion is the best way to spend time. However, most of us struggle to find our true passion as we don’t have enough time to figure that out as we are too busy. That makes it hard for us to set goals and work towards them. What a mess. Don’t despair.

Mr. Ray Dalio (a US based hedge fund manager) has some interesting views on this subject matter. Some might find his belief system a little radical but I found his framework very helpful.  Severe problems require radical thinking. Mr. Dalio argues that one should first differentiate between goals and desires as a lot of people spend time chasing desires thinking them to be their goals. Most desire chasers realize at some point that no matter how much more they get what they desire, it never seems to satiate them. And in most cases it actually makes them unhappy. We could apply the positively and negatively skewed distribution concepts here.  Goals generally tend to be negatively skewed events, i.e., require a lot of work and no instant gratification but the pleasure grows on the goal seeker with time. Warren Buffett jokingly said that he will retire 5 years after his death as he loves his work so much that he tap dances to work every day.  Desires tend to be positively skewed events. Here are some examples of desires: I want to travel the world or I want to eat at the finest restaurants or I want to own a Ferrari Enzo, etc. There is nothing wrong with having these desires but it is important to realize that they are not goals. These desires can be met as part of pursuing one’s goals. Desires don’t last a lifetime but goals do. It is important to internalize this distinction and not to confuse goals and desires. Even after amassing considerable amount of wealth (~$15 Billion USD), Mr. Dalio still pursues his key goal – meaningful work through meaningful relationships.

I spent a lot of time listening to and reading about various people I thought might have figured this out.  One common theme I found in all of them is pursuit of passion, reaffirming what we already know. In most cases wealth was a by-product of passion. Obviously not all of us are hardwired that way. Most of us are more than happy to trade our valuable time for a few simple comforts as we fakers hate discomfort the most. This is where my Tussur moths came to rescue again.

I came across a Scientific American article describing the caterpillar to butterfly metamorphosis and the details of the process blew me away. I like watching butterflies (caterpillars not so much) as they remind me of all the beautiful things in this world. The Scientific American article made me realize that the process a larva (or a caterpillar) goes through to become a Tussur moth (or butterfly) is not only amazing but also unbelievably spiritual.  The larva completely digests itself in its chrysalis (cocoon) before morphing into a butterfly. Granted the process is hard-coded in its DNA but the preparation needed for the larvae to turn into butterflies is not a trivial task. Why is this such a big deal? Well, a hairy big slug that can barely crawl morphs into a beautiful dainty flying wonder. Anything is possible and that is very inspirational.

We live in an anthropocentric world and used to seeing uniform growth (i.e., smaller getting bigger incrementally) but very rarely do we realize that sometimes complete reconstruction of self is needed to achieve major transformation. Remember not all bugs morph into butterflies. We have grasshoppers, cicadas, a whole lot of other cool bugs but none of them have the ability to morph as caterpillars do.

I think humans are capable of this metamorphosis but have to fight positively skewed urges. We should not feel bad if we struggle to achieve our goals and constantly get dragged down by our ugly side (fear, laziness, greed, jealousy, etc.) If we don’t even try, we remain as maggots for sure. The effort itself is worth our time.  But let me warn you, less than 2% of all larvae morph into butterflies. The rest of them get eaten by the system.

Then what is the upside to the story?

Every butterfly was an ugly caterpillar once! It is a universal truth and that gives me hope.