The value of having less time

I gave a talk last week at the MIT Media Lab. To my surprise, many of the questions afterwards were not about the things I had talked about.

Rather, they were questions about my process. How do I work, and how do I prototype? What goes into deciding how long to spend on an idea, and how do I know whether to move forward?

I understood that these questions, all of them asked by professors, were for the benefit of the students in the room.

One of the beautiful and startling things about youth is that the young know they will live forever. Oh, if you ask them, they will acknowledge that they will die one day. But in their hearts they do not believe it. Life is infinite, possibilities are endless, and it is all just beginning.

But after a while the heart begins to understand differently. We look upon our parents and see our own future, we understand that the clock is ticking, and we recalibrate.

And we learn the value of time.

Much of what I do is rapid prototyping. When I have an idea, I work fast to implement a quick sketch — perhaps a short interactive graphics program that runs on the web — without worrying too much about the details. I’m not looking for perfection, but for a sign that will tell me whether to stop now, or to go forward. Or maybe to veer off in a related direction.

This is what the professors asking those leading questions were getting at. Time is valuable, and spending three months to build something that may lead nowhere is not a good use of one’s time. Good rapid prototyping skills are a way of maximizing life, of making the most of the time we have.

Because when all is said and done, you know only two things for sure: (1) You do not know how much time you have left to get things done, and (2) You surely have less time than you did a year ago.

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