Time (or the lack thereof) has haunted me for as long as I can remember.
My husband likes to joke that before I even finish talking about an idea, I'm already working on making it a reality. It's not that I rush through the days, it's that I'm hyper-aware of how few of them we have and how many of them we waste.
I've been thinking about this since Wednesday, when I published a Profile Dossier on Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the popular musical Hamilton. The play focuses on the life and career of Alexander Hamilton, one of the nation's most prominent Founding Fathers who is credited for developing the U.S. financial system.
Born out of wedlock, raised in poverty in St. Croix, abandoned by his father, and orphaned by his mother as a child, Hamilton moved to New York City as a teen. Determined to make the most of his life, he authored two-thirds of the Federalist Papers, served as George Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War, and ultimately became America’s first Treasury Secretary.
Miranda says he was struck by Hamilton's impatience and determination to achieve more. "I think what Hamilton had is what I have, which is this thing of 'Tomorrow's not promised; I have to get done as much as I can today.'"
I feel like many of us have lost that sense of urgency. Much of what I see on social media has turned into a mess of deterministic thinking, depicting a world in which we’re all forever bound to the communities we grew up in or the difficult upbringings we endured. It assumes there is no opportunity, no upward mobility, and nothing to strive for. And that's a dangerous way to think.
Hamilton had the opposite view. His belief in free will fueled his work, and he was in a constant race against time. The Hamilton song, "Non-Stop" has a refrain that goes like this:
How do you write like you're running out of time?
Write day and night like you're running out of time?
Every day you fight like you're running out of time
Like you're running out of time
Are you running out of time?
How do you write like tomorrow won't arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write every second you're alive?
Every second you're alive? Every second you're alive?
Hamilton spent his life educating himself every step of the way. He made sense of the world through extensive reading and elaborate note-taking. But he always knew it wasn't enough to just learn. He knew he needed to immediately put it into action.
Hamilton studied, took, and passed the bar exam after only six months of self-directed education. Time and time again, he would follow learning with swift acton. He translated many of his ideas into proposals, political arguments, and eventually, America's financial system.
Here's how he put it: "Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this; when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. I explore it in all its bearings. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort which I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought."
In other words, what made Hamilton successful wasn't some God-given talent or intelligence. It was constant learning paired with constant deliberate action. Day after day. Year after year. As author Ron Chernow put it, Hamilton was a thinker and a doer; a "sparkling theoretician and masterful executive."
In today's world, we've got way too many sparkling theoreticians and very few masterful executives. Hamilton knew that it took more than a political proposal (...or a tweet) to make a long-lasting difference. It takes consistent, individual action. As I've written before, a true democratic state requires action, and we all have a responsibility to do our part.
Unfortunately, I've felt that many of us have been taking a very passive approach lately. There's been a lot of talk of waiting. Waiting for the election results. Waiting for the pandemic to end. Waiting for the right time to start something new.
The truth is that we're all running out of time. So I want to leave you with the question asked in the Hamilton finale: "Who lives, who dies, and who tells your story?"
It's meant to remind us to be the authors of our own stories by living life like we're constantly running out of time ... because we are. "Your story will be told by those who survive you, you have no control over that. You can only control what you do and what you put into the world,” Lin-Manuel Miranda says.
Learn to operate like Alexander Hamilton: Learning paired with action. There's no time to wait. Whatever you want to accomplish, do it today.
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