Years ago, I went on a date at a fancy restaurant uptown.
“I thought you’d stood me up,” the guy remembered when we met again recently.
Apparently, he waited nearly 20 minutes outside the restaurant and was about to leave when I showed up, not looking especially harried or apologetic.
All of this makes sense. Up until recently, I was a chronically late person. I was late to dinner dates, late to job interviews, late to class — and I didn’t think it was a huge problem.
Today, I am a compulsively early person.
More often than not, I find myself doing a lap (or five) around the block because I’m 20 minutes early to a friend’s party. It’s hard for me to remember what it was like to consult Google Maps without adding half an hour onto the expected travel time.
If you’re looking for a formula that will help you make a similar transition, I can’t give you one. I’m not really sure what flipped the switch in my head.
What I can say is that being a reliably early person is a great way to trick people into thinking you’ve got it all under control. And what is being an adult if not learning to manage the impression you make among coworkers, romantic partners, and potential coworkers?
Back in my tardy days, I would try to fit everything — running an errand, showering, eating lunch, washing the dishes, and commuting to an appointment — into 15 minutes. The idea, I suppose, was that if I successfully completed all these tasks, I’d feel way more accomplished than everyone else.
Unfortunately, that strategy rarely (ok, never) worked out. I’d either wind up at the appointment un-showered and sweaty from sprinting, or 45 minutes late after having checked everything, including a gourmet lunch, off my list.
The jig would be up. It would be obvious I didn’t have my life in order, at least not compared to the other person who’d somehow managed to arrive punctually like a functioning human being.
At some point, I must have learned the great secret of growing up:
No one has their life in order. But if you can do a believable impression of someone who does, you’re off to a good start.
Maybe there are still dishes in the sink and 10 uncompleted items on your to-do list and you feel like you’re failing at life — the person you’re meeting doesn’t know that!
I imagine that everyone has their personal strategy for feigning togetherness. Maybe your hair and makeup is always perfect. Maybe you work out six days a week. Maybe you don’t hesitate to brag about your professional accomplishments. Or maybe you do really have your life in order.
How would I know?
If you’re worried that deception isn’t the best motive for punctuality — that it’s more about learning to respect other people’s time — I get it. But I think the deception motive is fine.
Because in the end, being reliably early is less about convincing others that you’re a capable adult and more about convincing yourself, until you almost, maybe believe it.
I don’t yet have kids; I don’t own a house; sometimes I fall asleep with my work clothes on. But right now, it’s enough that I am here, and I am here on time.
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