How the Greeks Hacked Time: Kairos Versus Chronos

Time is the most common word in the English language. This might actually be a bad thing - we may be over-extending the use of a single word that actually contains a broad variety of interpretations and meanings. The Inuit have more than 50 words for snow - how can english-speakers possibly have only one word for time? The vagaries of time can be a funny thing: even as we pretend that clocks rule our lives, and that seconds add directly to minutes that add to hours, the reality is that the way we often experience time is anything but linear. Time speeds up, it slows down, sometimes "time stops.” 

The Greeks, in their wisdom, had two words for time, “chronos” (χρόνος) defined as linear, sequential and quantitative time and “kairos” (καιρός) defined as qualitative, in-the-moment time signifying the opportune moment for action. I like to think of chronos as clock time and kairos as human time. Throughout Greek writings in history, kairos was the word more often used to describe how events unfolded. As we consider our businesses, practices and interactions with leaders and employees, which kind of time is more important today? 

The etymology of kairos brings even more clarity to the meaning ascribed to the word. Kairos’ roots are to the moment when an archer releases an arrow at a target, where everything happens at once and the trajectory is set. From Wikipedia, kairos is “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved."

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Consider the interactions we have daily in our businesses and relationships: even as hours and months of chronos time elapse, big shifts often take place in moments not minutes, hours or months. The passing praise of a coworker, feedback shared in the hallway after the meeting, the hug of a tear-stained toddler, the breakthrough of “a-ha” ideas – all these meaningful exchanges rest on the mantle of chronos but are ultimately kairos moments of human time and connection. 

So, how can we all wrangle kairos time to benefit our lives, relationships and companies? One of the most powerful ways is simply to recognize that small moments can really matter, more specifically that the value of an increment of time is not related to its duration. If we raise our awareness to the untapped potential found in the small moments we can expand our influence and leadership in ways that matter in the broader context. 

A smile, a nod, a kind word, a quick course-correct, listening attentively, applauding loudly – all these simple aspects of everyday life are, as it turns out, incredibly important. Cast back for a moment to remember “one of those days” where everything was going off the rails and you wanted to crawl under your desk. Then, just when you wanted to call it a day and go home early, someone dropped by your office, and with just a few kind words re-energized the rest of your week. That is kairos at work – a special form of time magic where trajectories can be re-set in seconds, and months of momentum can be released in moments. It is time: It is time to bring your kairos watch to work.

Life is Long if You Know How To Use It...

Time, by most conceivable measures is simultaneously finite (we all have a terminal illness called "life") and infinite - in that what takes place "in the dash" of your headstone represents infinite possibilities and a near infinite number of "moments." 

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The universe is approximately 13.4 billion years old - a nearly inconceivable span of time when thinking of the artificial construct of "earth years." That said, the universe is vastly older than that when you consider the division of time into seconds, microsceconds, nanoseconds, femtoseconds, and the base unit of "Planck lengths." In terms of scale magnitudes, the universe's age is 60 orders of magnitude greater than a single Planck length of time. Of course even the Planck length can be infinitely subdivided, so essentially there is an infinite amount of time within any specific duration. 

Consider this amazing graphical representation of the age of the universe and the inconspicuous blip our lifespans represent...

https://helixtime.io/

Yet, on the converse, despite our short span, our decades of life, consciousness, actions and meaning are nearly infinitely longer than the origins of the universe...

Physics models of the origins of the universe suggest that as much may have happened in the first nanosecond of the universe as in the billions of years since. All this to suggest my main ongoing thesis about time, specifically, that "the value of an increment of time is not related to its duration."

Our solar system centered, second/minute/hour/day/week/month/year human view of time carries all kinds of bias. Arbitrary elliptical circuits of the star we call the sun suggest an important tick on the yardstick of time... but what about the mayfly whose tenure on earth never sees a sunset much less a solar circuit? What about a Bristlecone pine with a lifespan of 5,000+ years. Are sunrises and sunsets like a strobelight? To the Bristelcone, is the birth, growth and death of other trees like the surge and collapse of an unwatered bean sprout? What about an entity with a lifespan of a "google" (10^100 years)? Would the universe's expansions and contractions (if it actually contracts) look like the blips of a firefly? 

Time, at least for us humans is not made of seconds or months or years or eons. Time is made of memories and the rest doesn't matter. Much like time follows in the wake of space in the expansion of the universe, so too does time follow in the wake of memories created in our brain. Time is made of moments: more moments equals more memories equals more time.

Perhaps Seneca had it best oh-so-short-ago: 

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”  Seneca