an art piece representing the fish of lijiang by James W Hedges

an art piece representing the fish of lijiang by James W Hedges

I’ve found myself catching myself from thinking too quickly recently, the thoughts tumbling over each other and jostling for the room to breathe. Sometimes my mind feels like a bumping nightclub in the rush of the night—overwhelming sights and sounds fighting for your attention. The game is one of being more attractive, more provocative, more desirable than all the others, and the battleground is our senses. It’s a race to capture our senses, then our imaginations, and finally comes our entire self. Sometimes there’s a disturbance in the universe of ideas and emotions that lumber deep below my mind’s surface. A wave of disparate worlds and feelings rips forward, each demanding my full attention, yet I have nothing to offer but strands and fleeting spans.

In the Fish of Lijiang, a Chinese short story by Chen Qiufan (I read the English translation by Ken Liu in Invisible Planets), time has fallen from its place as the Great Equalizer. A common trope in a lot of English literature is that time is the one thing that no one can escape regardless of how powerful or rich or famous they are. In the end, we all have to face death and our maker and come to terms with our life. In this story, Qiufan explores a world where that isn’t true: one where time crawls for the haves and flies for the have-nots.

The people below throng like a nest of ants controlled by an invisible hand, divide into a few groups, are stuffed into the different squares: time flies past the laborer, the poor, the “third world”; time crawls for the rich, the idle, the “developed world”; time stays still for those in charge, the idols, the gods …

In this world, time is a commodity like any other luxury good. If you have the means, you have the time. Instead of having a final countdown to achieve all that you want, you’re only limited by your imagination. If you don’t have the means, you’re forced to grasp at goals that seem to constantly be slipping away. It’s like you’re drowning and using every ounce of your being to push towards the surface, yet right when it looks like you’re about to break through, a current pushes you back down. It’s movement without motion—a struggle without progress. A frivolous exercise in tedium.

Although this sort of technology doesn’t exist today, the concept of time running slower or faster presents itself in your mind, a reflection of whether you feel rushed and bereft of time or relaxed and like you have all the time in the world. It’s the difference between always being busy and being curious. It’s the difference between a scarcity mindset and an abundance mindset.

If you live in a big city, work in a competitive and fast-paced industry, or are active on social media, you have surely felt the pressure that comes from that environment, the weight to do more and be more that follows you and hovers over every free time block that comes up. This pressure isn’t unique to your relationship to your career; it extends to social, romantic, and extracurricular pursuits. Especially as a recent graduate of university, there’s an idealistic image of the perfect adult life: one filled with exotic travel and decadent foods and wild nights out and full creative actualization. During the days, we need to show that we work hard and care about all the tedium and are on track to steadily advance through the corporate ranks. The grind has become romanticized, a signal that you’re willing to sacrifice more than everyone else around you to get what you want. The image to maintain is a careful tightrope between investing in every area far past the point of exhaustion and making it seem like it’s effortless and unintentional. You have to do it all and look like you aren’t breaking a sweat.

We want to seem like we do everything and that we do it seamlessly, like it’s a walk in the park for us to juggle a million commitments and sustain a million surface-level relationships and entertain a million casual hobbies. The perfect new-age emerging adult is one that can live and influence and excel at everything they put their mind to. It’s a life where the American Dream is tough but achievable. It’s a life where you embody the idea of perfection.

In a world where we’re all chasing this sort of image, it’s no wonder that we all feel like we’re always missing time for all the things we could be doing. It feels like every hour, every inch of our lives are fought for by thousands of external suitors, and we hate the idea of having to choose one to commit to.

Scarcity is this mindset where you feel like you never have enough time, like you’re constantly chasing after an ever-moving goal, where you desperately claw against the time slipping away with the idea of realizing your goals. Even when you’re aware of this sort of thinking, it’s easy to slip into the mindset without even realizing it. The pressure starts spreading from the pit of your stomach. You need to get everything out before it’s too late (too late for what?), and the anxiety around getting things out quickly causes you to choke and underperform.

I’ve felt this sensation most intensely in dance. At the end of each class, you’re split into small groups that sequentially perform the choreo. It’s a high stakes environment that encourages a mindset of rushing through the routine. The paradox is that the more you think about the specifics of how you need to do every single move the more likely you’ll freeze on forgetting the exact next step when your mental calculations fail to keep up. The answer, maddeningly, is to do the easy thing—to focus on the shape of your body movements rather than the mechanical instructions for what your body needs to do. When you take your time and focus on just enjoying the music and trusting your body to follow the choreo that you just hammered over and over into your limbs, your body takes over and follows the path of least resistance, which carries you naturally into a form that captures that same shape and energy.

The key piece that allows you to do this is feeling like it’s safe to mess up, where it feels like you have all the time in the world to try again over and over until you get it right, or at least to a place where you feel good about it. While pressure and intensity can be useful as vectors for performance, taken too far to the extreme, they become complete blockers of action. Only by breaking through the illusion of time can we escape, at least in our minds, the scarcity mindset of time.

My main motivation for continuing to writing these has been hearing from subscribers about what these pieces made them think of, which pieces resonated, and which parts made them curious, so I’d love to hear from you if you’ve given this a read. I’ve been out of commission for a bit, but I’m excited to dive back in and especially put some work into some longer pieces of work and ideas, so excuse the next few essays if they feel rawer.

When was the last time you felt this way if you’ve felt it before? How do you train yourself to naturally default to the abundance mindset or catch yourself when you’re slipping into that scarcity, panicked mindset? Are there ways to structure communities that encourage this?

This is the 29th installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here or view my evergreen, longer pieces on my website.