“Everyone has the same amount of time in a day”
One of the great myths of the self-help movement is that everyone has the same amount of time in a day. I have read that phrase in countless self-improvement books and articles during my adult life. I’ve heard it offered as advice by so many, including people whom I respect, like Oprah Winfrey. But is it actually true? And, if it’s not, what is the effect of offering that advice on the psychology of those who are struggling to overcome barriers and craft their best life?
Let’s start with the basic question – is it true that everyone has the same amount of time in the day? On the one hand, it is technically true. Every person alive on this planet will experience 86,400 seconds every day, regardless of their class, status or any other identifier. But it seems to me the more important question is this – is it true on a practical level?
To illustrate, let’s compare two different young men between the ages of 13 and 18 (it could just as easily be two young girls). One comes from a typical middle- to lower middle-class suburban home. He begins cutting the lawn at his house around the age of 13. Let’s say it takes him 30 minutes to cut the lawn, and he cuts the lawn 20 times a year, for 6 years until he turns 18 and goes to college. By the time he heads into his college dorm, 60 hours of his life will have been taken up cutting the lawn.
Now, consider another young man, maybe even at the same high school, whose parents make enough money to hire a lawn service. By the time that kid enters college he had 60 hours his classmate did not, and he could take advantage of that time however he wished. Maybe he spent those hours smoking weed and playing Xbox. Or, maybe he spent those hours learning a computer programming language. Those two guys, walking into the same dorm on the first day of college, both had 86,400 seconds every day, but didn’t have the same amount of time in a day to pursue personal self-improvement.
And cutting the lawn is a simple, easy to understand example of the way in which social inequality multiplies over time. Our lawn cutting kid also spent countless hours in other activities that our rich kid did not – everything from filling out FAFSA forms and scholarship applications, to waiting for the bus rather than driving to school, to making dinner while mom worked a second job, etc. And that assumes other things were working in our lawn cutter’s favor such that he could even get into the same school as our Xboxer.
There are two reasons “everyone has the same amount of time in a day” is a myth that, offered by itself, is more destructive than motivational. First, it feeds a false narrative that life begins on a level playing field, and success is solely determined by what you make of your life and time. There is no doubt that success is impossible without hard work. But while effort is a necessary condition for success, it is not sufficient. Improving ones’ lot in life always, every time, involves having resources in your network and learning to use those resources strategically.
The other reason the time argument is a myth is that it also feeds a false sense of morality we tie to financial success, especially in America. Like the Calvinists Max Weber observed, we tend to equate being successful with being good. This has the unfortunate effect of casting a pall of moral failure over those that did not achieve success at the same level of others who had greater starting advantages.
This does not mean those who are successful are morally corrupt, an idea too often inferred or outright stated by certain unthinking liberals. But it does raise a separate moral question – what obligation do you have to be a success factor in someone else’s life? If success is more than simply working hard and redeeming the time, and you are successful, how did that happen? And then, the next question writes itself – how will you be the success factor in someone else’s life?