Lucy Kellaway: Obama and I share the ‘arriving early’ trait

Having time to spare makes you feel in control – and comes with moral high ground

US president Barack Obama said: “My commitment to being early isn’t just good for me. It’s good for the nation. It’s good for the world.”  Photograph: Yuri Gripas/Reuters

US president Barack Obama said: “My commitment to being early isn’t just good for me. It’s good for the nation. It’s good for the world.” Photograph: Yuri Gripas/Reuters

 

I was sitting in Heathrow Terminal 2 last Wednesday, having arrived a couple of hours early for a short flight to Dublin. I had installed myself in Eat, where I was enjoying a bowl of porridge and doing my emails, when I came upon a link to the latest ad for the Clinton campaign.

Normally I would have ignored it: the US election has become so ugly that the only rational response is to pretend it isn’t happening. But as I had time to kill I clicked on the link and there was Barack Obama, his handsome face alert and amused, speaking to camera. “My greatest strength? Probably that I’m always early.”

The president went on to explain that he likes to turn up early for every meeting, speech and press conference. At this I started nodding so violently that the man next to me looked up to see what was going on.

Earliness has almost everything going for it. Being early makes you feel in control – or makes others think you are in control, which is the next best thing. It gives you the moral high ground. If you arrive first at a meeting, not only do you choose where to sit, you are also in a position to lord it over those arriving later.

The only time when it is not entirely good to be super-punctual is when arriving for a meal at a private house. But in that case, all you need do is walk round the block a few times, by which time you will have built up an appetite for the meal ahead.

Defining characteristic

Earliness is the defining characteristic of my entire family. Both my parents were wildly early for everything. All three of their children and all 10 grandchildren – even when in the throes of assorted teenage phases – could always be relied upon to pitch up with bags of time to spare for any given occasion.

To my knowledge, none of my blood relations has ever missed a plane. This means, according to George Stigler, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, we are managing our time poorly and spend far too much time in airports. I have seen the maths that supposedly proves this, but I am unmoved.

Time spent waiting is not wasted. It is time that you have chosen to set aside and is a peaceful period that can be used for reading, making phone calls and emailing. Moreover, the stress saved by knowing that you will never have to run down a moving conveyor belt with heavy bags just as flights close has too great a value to be captured by any equation.

To see how the famous and successful feel about turning up before the appointed time, I have been leafing through the archives of Lunch with the FT. My impression was that our most self-important guests were routinely late – their time, after all, being more important than the time of journalists.

I was wrong. Most of our interviewees arrive on the dot – or are neither early nor late enough to warrant the recording of it. Among the rest, the early outstrip the late by about five to one. The only two examples of lateness in recent interviews were Edward Snowden and Russell Brand – both of whom have upset so many people in the course of what they do, it makes no odds if they upset them a bit more by virtue of showing up late.

Reclaiming brownie points

The early crowd were more of a mixed bunch. Adair Turner, former head of the Financial Services Authority, was predictably early. So was Paul Krugman and Nouriel Roubini and, more surprisingly, Sean Penn, the former Hollywood hell raiser turned political activist. People on the back foot seem to make a point of arriving super-promptly, possibly in the hope of reclaiming a few brownie points. Sepp Blatter got there early for his lunch. So did Jeremy Clarkson.

But my favourite lesson from Lunch with the FT cuttings comes from Stephen Green, then head of HSBC. He turned up three minutes early for the meeting and apologised for being late.

This is a stroke of genius. It forces the other person, who had been occupying the moral high ground by dint of getting there even earlier, to pull out his watch and protest that, on the contrary, the new arrival is early too.

Thank you, Mr Green. I will remember this trick if I ever find myself in the unusual position of arriving at anything after anyone else.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016

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