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My mother is the most punctual person I know.
A few years ago, we had a Halloween party at our house. The party started at 8pm. My mom showed up at 6:30pm. This was unwelcome, because we still had a bunch of things to do to get ready for the party, and my mom wanted to gab and hang out. She left at 8:15, just as people were starting to arrive. She had put on a costume and everything.
Back in the mid-2000s, my mom took me to my first NASCAR race up in New Hampshire. We stayed at a hotel in Manchester. She informed me in no uncertain terms that we would arrive at the track at 7am, so we could get the best parking. It was about a 45-minute drive to the track, which meant we had to get up at 5am. So we get up at zero dark hundred, drive to the track, park right next to the entrance, go inside, and…there was nobody there.
The race started at 4pm.
What ensued was five hours of crushing boredom. We were the only people in the stands until noon. This was before smartphones, and I hadn’t brought a book, so there was really nothing to do, except for sit in the bleachers and sizzle like a burger for five hours. I have never been that bored in my entire life. At around noon, the vendors started opening up their trailers for business. I spent some time in the Skoal trailer, getting my picture taken with the Skoal girls. I checked out all the Big Johnson T-shirts. We still had four hours until the race started.
The race finally begins at 4pm. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a NASCAR race, but it’s awesome. It’s impossible to describe the feeling of being next to the track when cars are whizzing by at 180 miles per hour. It’s a huge amount of fun. But after about 30 laps, my mom starts packing her shit. Time to go, she says—we have to beat the traffic. We waited nine hours to watch fifteen minutes of a race. I managed to convince her to stay a little longer.
This is madness, of course. And look. I am all in favor of not being late to things. Being late is rude, which should be obvious. But being excessively early to things is a function of anxiety. It is said that Janet Yellen gets to the gate three hours before her flight. She would rather sit in the airport for three hours than deal with the uncertainty of a missed flight. This is not someone who is comfortable with risk, and neither is my mom. Interestingly, they are about the same age.
I think all of us acquire our code of conduct somewhere in life, maybe from your parents, maybe from church—for me, it was marching band. And in marching band, they told us that if you were early, you were on time, if you were on time, you were late, and if you were late, you were dead. I heard that again in the military. So I do not make a habit of being late for things. But there are some situations in which etiquette dictates that you want to be a little bit late for things. Like a party. Showing up on time for a party is tres gauche—you want to give the hosts a little extra time to get things set up if they need to.
My current intern generally shows up to work about 1-5 minutes late. I have never said anything, on the principle that 1-5 minutes is small stuff, and the small stuff doesn’t matter. Yet, if you are in an apprenticeship role of any kind, particularly in finance, you would prefer to get there 30 minutes early, before your boss, and be sitting there bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to start the day. Let me clarify this by saying that I am not a morning person. I get up at about 6:30 every day, and if I set my alarm for any earlier than that, I am plenty grumpy and end up hitting the snooze button a bunch of times. I just cannot haul my ass out of bed. When I was at Lehman, I had to be at my desk, open for business, at 7am, which meant getting up at 5:30 at the latest. No fun. There were some guys who got to work at Lehman at 6am, which meant that if they were getting a workout in before work, they were getting up at 3:30. Insanity. What the fuck are you going to do for three-and-a-half hours before the market opens? I always felt like this was some kind of dick-measuring contest to see who could get in the earliest. But that was Wall Street in the 2000s. People worked their asses off. I am nostalgic for those days, for sure.
Punctuality is a cultural thing, and being on time means different things in different parts of the country. In California, people are late. At Berkeley, everything starts 10 minutes late: they call it Berkeley Time. If a class is listed for 10:10am, it starts at 10:20. And if you throw a party, expect people to show up 2-3 hours after it starts. If you show up on time, you will be the only person there for two hours.
America is basically the only place in the world where things start on time and end on time, with the possible exception of the British, the Germans, the Swiss, and the Scandinavians. Lots of places in Southern Europe and Latin America, expect meetings to start one hour late. Africa takes it to another level. Meetings start several hours late, and there are a lot of speeches and pomp and circumstance that need to happen before you get down to business. I took a class on this in business school, about doing business in different parts of the world, and dealing with all the cultural predilections. In Asia, if someone hands you a business card, you take it with both hands and stare at it for a moment. In the U.S., I am always a little put out when I had a business card to someone and they jam it in their pocket without even looking at it.
I personally get to the airport about one hour and forty-five minutes before the flight. It’s the Myrtle Beach airport, and it’s not too big, but you have to be careful because sometimes in the summer, the TSA line is out the door. Lots of times in New York, I will get to the airport 3 hours early, but that’s because there is an AMEX lounge there, and I can get some food and spread out and work with my headphones on. I generally don’t mess around getting to the airport in NYC—you never know about the traffic. But I am not one of these people who rolls up to the airport a half an hour before the flight. I will add that in my lifetime, I have never missed a flight on account of being late. If I have down time, I just get the laptop out and work. It’s really about stress minimization. I don’t like the feeling of being late and wondering if I am going to make my flight. I don’t like the stress. So I get there early, and my travel is completely stress-free. Also, at my age, I am not running through an airport. The last time I sprinted through an airport was about 8 years ago, and I was actually in decent shape back then. Never again. I’ll just miss the flight.
If you think about the airline business, and how precarious it is, where food, bags, fuel, pilots, crew, and everything else has to be carefully choreographed to the minute, and there are a lot of ways that things can go wrong, and not many ways that things can go right. I was on a flight recently that was delayed because of a broken seat. And think about how upset people get when flights are even five minutes late. I like this culture of punctuality that we have here. I mean, the stock market opens on time. Can you imagine if people were loosey-goosey about the stock market and it just opened whenever people got around to it? Everything must work with precision. I visited Switzerland once. All my meetings were on time, which suited me just fine.
One last thing. If you are late for whatever reason, you must apologize. Even if it is a lame excuse. If you are late too many times with too many lame excuses, people will think you are a shithead. Don’t be a shithead.
P.S. THOSE BASTARDS: 69 Essays on Life, Creativity, and Meaning is available for sale on Amazon! Pick up a copy or three today.