When is the right time?

Jan 27, 2024 16:49 · 830 words · 4 minute read life


Looking back, it feels like there was often a ‘right time’ for me to encounter particular ideas:

  • I encountered a lot of ideas from religion very young (as many people do). I was also very interested in science, and so got hung up on factual disagreements rather than seeing e.g. the point of having a dedicated day of rest.
  • I came across the Feynman Lectures in high school, when I knew just enough math that it was possible to work through them, but not enough math or physics that it felt like review. My first exposure to many concepts in physics was through Feynman, and that’s colored my approach ever since.
  • I tried reading a Complex Analysis book in high school, and that was much too early. I could follow the mechanics of the proofs but the concepts really didn’t click until later when I had worked more with multivariable calculus.
  • I realized that there were exciting things happening in aerospace too late, I think. When I was deciding what to study the field looked stagnant (ahem Space Shuttles?). I now find what SpaceX does really exciting, and I think I’d have been excited back in 2010 if I’d known more about the company.

Whether or not I found something at the right time played a big role in what I made of it:

  • In the case of religion it was a long time before I understood the social/communal/psychological purpose behind the rituals, and that might have been easier to see if I’d encountered it later.
  • In the case of the Feynman Lectures I was excited! Everything was new and it felt like discovering a wide new world in every rainbow and on every shore.
  • In the case of Complex Analysis I didn’t appreciate the beauty of the subject on first exposure, and might not have returned to it properly had it not been required (and extremely well taught) in college.
  • In the case of aerospace, if I’d known about SpaceX earlier I might have studied engineering and gone down that path. It’s conceivable that I could still re-tool today to do something in that area, but it’s much harder now than if I’d realized it before college.

In general:

  • Encountering an idea too early usually means I bounce off of it. In the best case I just come back to it later when the time is right, but in the worst case I bounce off of it and actively avoid it, delaying that learning.
  • Encountering an idea too late usually means that I don’t explore enough, and that I don’t even consider some paths until the costs of switching become high.
  • Encounering an idea at the right time usually means that I can grasp part of the idea, and that there’s more I can see but don’t quite get yet. That gets me excited to learn, and I start exploring.


I thought about if there’s a similar effect with people. Are there people I’ve met too early or too late, or at just the right time? I think so, though the flavor feels different with people than with ideas.

There are definitely people I’ve met too late, in the same way that there are ideas I encountered too late. There are people who made a real difference in my life who could have made an even bigger difference if we’d only met earlier. And likewise there are people I think I’ve helped who, if we’d met earlier, I could have helped more.

There are also people I met too early. These come in a few different flavors:

  • I didn’t know how to be a good friend to them. In some cases this turned out alright in the end, but in others it didn’t. There’s a path-dependence to friendships, and getting it right at the outset can be important.
  • I didn’t know my own mind well enough, and they had too much influence over my path.
  • Their path involved ideas that were themselves too early for me, so I couldn’t understand what they were doing. I could have learned more from these people if I had encountered them later.

Separately, there are people who I’d love to have known more as an adult, but who passed away when I wasn’t old enough to really appreciate them. I’m not sure if that counts as ‘too early’, but it has a similar flavor.

And then, happily, there are people I met at just the right time. People who I just clicked with, or who were there to give a nudge at a crucial time, or who I was able to nudge in turn.


I’m not really sure what to do with this idea of “the right time to encounter something/someone”. It’s not obvious that I can plan around it in any sort of useful way. But maybe having the concept can soften the “bouncing off” effect of a too-early encounter, and encourage more exploration (making too-late encounters less likely)?

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