Time tells

September 22, 2010

My 13 year and soon to be 15 year old daughters have completely different personalities, but as they grow up I can clearly see bad habits that they have ‘caught’ unwittingly from their parents and no doubt these will travel on through the next generations. It’s scary because while I see myself turning into my mother before my eyes, little bits of them are turning into me. The youngest is perpetually late by ten minutes every day. Now I know where she gets this habit from….

I am a just in time person and this works mostly, until my last minute project and the last minute projects of the two girls collide, often with tragic results. I think there is a kind of optimistic thinking going on that there really is time for all the just this then just that errands , but I don’t think this is the root cause for the routine lateness. The real problem is her perception of time.

I worked out long ago that I am perpetually late by up to ten minutes. I’d seen the pattern in myself a long time ago, but hadn’t put any effort into thinking through why, until I remembered how things were set up when I was her age. We had a clock on the stove in our house in Melbourne. It was an electric, analogue style clock and it gave the equivalent of Greenwich Meantime for our family. If ever the power went off we were going to have a rough few days.

The solution my mum had set up to prevent us running late every morning was to wind the clock forwards by …. ten minutes. When we were running late, little calculations went on in four heads about what the ‘real’ time was. The problem was that when the power went back on, we were never sure if it had been set to real time plus the bonus time or real real time or something in between. I had a wind up watch and I only had the stove clock to set it by. This temporal roulette was played for a few days until one of us would decide to call the telephone number (at the third beep it will be……….) to set the clock again. We would always debate whether we would reinstate real time or put the false time on again. Now my daughter wants to put her watch forward by 10 minutes and I won’t let her. I told her the story. The problem is that somewhere between nature and nurture her time perception has now been set incorrectly and I think it’s all too late, both figuratively and literally. I do live in hope, though.

It may just be that my mum inherited the problem from her own mother. One day I will get around to asking if my surviving two siblings have the same difficulty. Forty years ago it might have seemed an inconsequential act, but twisting the control knob a tad too far had far reaching effects. Makes you think about how small acts take on a life of their own and how a simple explanation for running late would be much less memorable and maybe less useful for my youngest daughter than the story of the stove clock.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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