In the summer of 1995, I stood outside my room in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy at 0510 in the morning listening to my upperclassmen explain the importance of being on time and thought, “this is the stupidest thing I have ever heard in my entire life.”
We were on Day 2 of Plebe Summer and my company-mates and I had already earned ourselves the “privilege” of being 10 minutes EARLY to every evolution due to our consistent tardiness. Every time we were late, we’d add one more minute to our new, earlier arrival time. By the end of that week, we would eventually max-out the opportunity and be required to arrive 25 minutes early to all things at all times.
Let me take a step back.
One of the first things you learn as a plebe at the United States Naval Academy is your five basic responses:
- “Yes, sir.”
- “No, sir.”
- “Aye, Aye, sir.”
- “I’ll find out, sir.”
- “No excuse, sir.”
Nope, that’s not gonna work.
That’s some pushups right there.
Our little cohort of thirty-four 18-22 year-olds quickly learned that with too many things to do in the time allotted to us, we couldn’t possibly be on time, ever. At the same time, the five basic responses denied us the opportunity to explain our failure within a reasonable conversational structure and thus we were constantly left striving to meet a set of highly unrealistic expectations.
The Plebe Summer system, in its infinite training wisdom, determined that imposing an increasingly difficult set of standards on an already degrading set of performers would, at some point, motivate those performers towards achieving excellence.
In other words, the beatings will continue until morale improves.
As my 18-year-old self so eloquently said…
Amazingly, stupid doesn’t always mean ineffective, and as much as it hurts my soul to admit it, the system somehow worked. We eventually began to arrive on time and earned our way back to a normal schedule.
Ironically, I also found an appreciation for the importance of being on time.
Now almost 25 years removed from that summer and fully retired from the Navy, I’ve begun to think that arriving on time is actually much less about efficiency and time management and more about failing to consciously admit what’s important in our lives.
You have an unusually early 7:45am appointment tomorrow so you plan on getting up about 40 minutes earlier than your normal 6:30am wakeup. Sounds like a good plan.
Unfortunately, it’s 10:30pm the night before and you’ve just now gotten the kids to sleep after a rough bedtime routine. You are exhausted. The kitchen is still a mess from dinner and you have a dozen emails that you wanted to send before going to sleep. You can’t keep your eyes open so you say, screw it, the kitchen can wait until the morning. You punt on the emails and plan on sending them after dropping the kids at school. You assume you will have enough time if you get up an hour earlier instead of the originally planned 40 minutes. Sounds like a good plan.
Quick brush of the teeth, strip off the day’s clothes, hop into bed, lights out. Done and dusted.
The alarm, still going off at 6:30am instead of 5:30am because you never changed it the night before, jerks you out of a weird dream that you wish you could remember. You are now already late.
The kids are up and moving but they can’t find any of their school lunch containers because they are all still dirty from the night before. You scrounge up some cash for them to buy lunch. The kitchen will have to wait again…you’ll deal with that shit show later.
At 7:40am, you’ve still not left the house, the kids are definitely going to be late for school, and you are most definitely NOT going to make your 7:45am appointment. You send the inevitable text of desperation, “Hey, I’m going to be about 5 minutes late. Sorry.”
In reality, you will probably be closer to 20 minutes late, if you hit all the lights green. During the appointment, if you even make it, you’ll be distracted, probably a little rushed, and you will inevitably cause a downstream cascade of additional missteps and tardiness. This day has derailed and it’s unlikely to get back up on step.
This is me. This is me in my glass house. This is me throwing stones from my glass house.
Look, we all really WANT to make it to things on time but for some reason “life” always seems to throw obstacles in our way. None of it’s our fault, per se. We don’t want to be late. Things just happen.
As a plebe, I often felt the same way. The system didn’t offer me the chance to provide explanations, or the exculpatory “I’ll be five minutes late” text. We had five basic responses and as mind-numbingly dumb as that system was, it did facilitate a lesson in swallowing my personal sense of “fairness” for the sake of learning to take responsibility for things that may or may not have been my fault.
At 0510 in the morning on that second day of Plebe Summer, that’s what I thought was pretty stupid. Why should I be responsible because some other dingle-berry couldn’t get his shit together? This wasn’t my fault. I shouldn’t be held accountable because some dumb-ass can’t get somewhere on time.
Well, I came to learn that I hadn’t read the rules of the game correctly. One of the challenges of being on a team or part of a community or in relationships with other people is learning to accept their failures because the associated benefit of that relationship is that they will inevitably reciprocate and accept yours.
Most of you will recognize this as basic empathy. For me, that’s still a skill I am learning.
This is where my analogy with Plebe Summer ends. We aren’t plebes at the Naval Academy, this isn’t a military operation, the fate of the free world does not rest on our promptness, and being 5 minutes late isn’t really that big of a deal. Most times, if someone is late to a class, or a meeting, or a quick chat over coffee, I honestly don’t care, I’m just happy to see them.
However, when someone is consistently late, I struggle not to assume that the person is maliciously wasting my time. I often default to the worst case scenario…but I also recognize this as unhealthy and instead of assuming the worst, I try to instill a sense of curiosity towards what’s going on in their life.
Life is hectic, messy, and seldom follows a schedule when you want it to…not a surprise. So I wonder, does this person need help with something? Are they too scared to be vulnerable and admit that they’ve taken on too much? Could I provide clearer boundaries and expectations? Is their tardiness even worth addressing? What if I just leave and let the chips fall where they may?
These are really simple questions and yet they are extremely difficult to ask and to answer honestly. However, I will tell you that in my experience, if you have to send a text that you are going to be 5 minutes late more than once, you never actually wanted to make that appointment in the first place.
Aristotle says, “we become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.” If Aristotle had ever gotten a “I’ll be five minutes late” text, I’m pretty sure he would have added, “we become prompt by performing prompt actions.”
My last thought on this is that time is a relative construct we have created to give order to a world inherently without order. As much as we may push against this construct, it is the structure of the world as we understand it and a shared reality that time is the most scarce resource for all of us. Those are the rules of the game.
Therefore, stealing time, disrespecting time, disregarding time, or thinking that your time is somehow more important than someone else’s speaks to a deeply problematic crack in the foundation of this shared metaphorical construct. Our time is the trust that we bestow on others. We trust that we all have each other’s best interests in mind and that this trust stems from a deeply shared sense of love and respect.
But maybe that’s too much. Maybe I’ve read the rules of the game incorrectly again and I’m making too much of being on time. Maybe I’ve spent too much time standing in the hallway with my bedsheets at 0510 in the morning.
If all of this being on time crap is a waste of your time, I get that too. You’re busy and you got things to do. If, for some reason, reading this made you late and you need to send the “I’m gonna be 5 minutes late text,” I hope whoever you are sending it to will wait for ya…I know I would.
We’ll see you on the creek.