Margin of the 3rd World

Despite our best efforts- and our accumulation of lots of stuff, I’m not 100% sure Americans have it all figured out. We do most things really well. But from my experience it seems like most of my friends, coworkers and acquaintances are still unsatisfied in one area. For all that we are doing right in the U.S., one thing still feels like it is missing: Margin. Although margin often is used in the context of money, I’ll jump in and throw out the incredible and often overlooked concept that is Time Margin.


I spent the summer of my third year in college studying abroad in Australia and Fiji. It was a pretty epic trip and one of the most memorable times that I can remember. It truly whetted my appetite for travel and exposed me to new and different parts of the world that are completely unique. I’m sure I read a few books and did several projects but I’ll never forget the culture I was exposed to on that trip. The sights and sounds of Australia were great, but I think one of the most memorable nights that I can recall was during a village home-stay in Fiji. As students, we were paired up with a family and spent our time walking around the village, drinking kava, relaxing, eating and talking.

My first observation was that surprisingly few people ‘worked’ in traditional jobs. Most of the family lived together with multiple generations and, in our little village, a single part time working male might be the bread winner for the entire extended family. I don’t think they measure unemployment the same way, but I would estimate in our little town about 20% of the able bodied individuals were working “American Full Time”. It made me completely rethink the notation that our society goes crazy when employment drops a few percentage points (from 96% to 92%).

I spent my time hanging out with my family, eating amazing fresh caught fish (our house was a few feet from the ocean) and playing with the kids. The most striking feature was that everyone seemed to have plenty of time. The pace of life was slow and the mantra of island time felt quite appropriate. Most of the food was grown or collected from sea. Almost everything was made by hand. Organic was the only way of life. Mothers spent most of their time with babies and extended family. Children played. And honestly, stress was pretty low. There was very little material wealth. Kids mostly played outside. There was an abundance of food and nature but not a lot else. Nothing was fancy and houses were small and made from cinder blocks. I’m sure everyone might have a list of a few more things they would like, but overall the mindset was enough.

What The 3rd World Has Right
In America people spend most of their time in the pursuit of one thing: Money. Primarily in the form of hours worked, we tend to be held captive to our employers for most of our able-bodied life. Many of us spend hours sitting, commuting, meeting and stressing all in the pursuit of money. Not just for ‘enough’, but so we can afford the luxuries of life. But what do we give up for this? For many, and at times myself included, we give up relationships and time with our friends, families or children so we can have just a few more dollars in our account.

If I had to submit to the one thing that the third world gets right it would be: Relationships. Often, opportunity costs are low and time margin is high in the third world. Perceived high partial employment means, that often, people do not spend all of their time sitting in cubicles counting down the hours until five; but are often spending that time with their family and kids. When no one has money, the focus on contentment comes from building strong relationships. It may take millions of dollars to realize it but playing with your friends or kids, having sex with your spouse, kicking a soccer ball outside or just enjoying nature are all activities that are basically free but do require time and margin.

Mission Trips & Finding Joy in Poverty
A few years ago I went on a mission trip. I was out to change the world. But, in reality, most of what changed was actually me. I think many people that do mission work or service projects actually find that they are often more affected than the people they are trying to “help”. I think I learned more working with habitat for humanity in the Philippines than I was able to give in return. I was actually a pretty poor brick mason but I learned a ton about life, contentment and joy by simply interacting with some amazing people during our service time. I remember thinking that most of the locals I was working with were much happier and content than even the wealthiest children I know in suburbia. The other thing I noticed: Happy Kids. No really, I remember the biggest take-away I had from traveling overseas to do some mission work was simply that kids are happy. Maybe partially due to naivety, but I think kids are the perfect example that we don’t really need as much stuff as we think. Often, having a lot of stuff complicates the situation, especially if we spend all of our hours working toward its accumulation. We don’t need stuff; but we do need time.

I Want My Freedom
If you had millions of dollars but no time to spend it, is it actually worth anything? If you have a great job but your marriage is crumbling and you never see your kids, is it worth it? Are you suffering from a lack of time margin? I think America does most things really well but I still believe that many other countries, including some in the third world, have the margin of time figured out. I want us to earn lots of money and have financial margin. But I want to make sure we are not making money the absolute priority. Relationships are important and they are often the first thing that goes when we run out of time. So, are you working towards prioritizing margin in your time?

6 thoughts on “Margin of the 3rd World

  1. This concept is one of the most important things that I must constantly remind myself. Many of the best parts of human nature (love, happiness, fertile relationships) are laid bare in many ‘3rd world’ settings. When we, in the ‘1st world’, strive to strip away the manufactured? designed? trappings we find what many of us search our whole lives for. Often with the misplaced belief that this can’t be achieved without wealth…which many never find. Your Margin of the 3rd World is a great REAL and personally experienced example of the the parable of the Mexican fisherman! Thanks

    • I think you are exactly right, we tend to overlook some of joy of life that don’t really require wealth at all to enjoy. It is funny that you mention it, but I almost included the Mexican fisherman parable in this piece. Still one of my favorites and I’m sure it will show up again in the future.

  2. I like the idea of time margin quite a bit. I’d say I am flush with it now that I work from home, but it wasn’t always this way.

    My mom came over from the Philippines back in the seventies, but most of that side of my family is still there. It’s a different culture, for sure. Thanks for your insights!

    • It sounds like you are in a great place. I think working from home does give you a unique opportunity to have a bit more margin than most of the people I work with. I suppose once you hit 40 you’ll have even more time!

      That is pretty awesome. I love the Philippines and I lived in Manila for a little while. We actually went back over there for our honeymoon and spent a few months traveling all over the country. I still have lots of friends from the PH that I keep up with. I have a post our the Philippines that I’ll post in the near future.

  3. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, Stephen! You’re absolutely right about relationships being way more important than money. In fact, I think the lack of a solid relationship support network is part of why Americans try to fill that gap internally with stuff.
    There’s a great Simpsons about the mission thing. Hilarious!

  4. Spot on. Travelling to poorer countries really does open your eyes to how much humans actually need to make them happy, and it’s a lot less than most folk over here in the developed world think. Once you see it, and then think about why for a minute, it’s blindingly obvious as well.