Why A Watched Kettle Never Boils – Explaining Time in the Context of Major Gifts

publication date: Jan 1, 2019
author/source: Mide Akerewusi


Aristotle contended that, “time is the most unknown of all unknown things”.

I feel the same way. For a couple of years, I’ve been fascinated at the phenomena of time, and how we as humans have an existential perception of it.

In the next 10 minutes, I am going to help you answer one of the most profound questions concerning time: Why does a watched kettle never boil? This question finds a fundraising equivalency in Why does it take ages to secure a major gift?

Time’s Fake Truths

“Time is on our side, time is against us, we run out of time, there’s plenty of time, time is a healer, there’s a right time and the wrong time, and time and tide wait for no man.

These are just some of the fake truths we tell about time. But they also speak to our limited appreciation for the complexity of this phenomena. In many respects time is the most equitable resource known to humans. We all get 24 hours and when they run out, we get 24 more the following day for every day of our lives. And then we die. Or at least, that’s what my mother says!

So, what really is time?

Defining time is tough. There are lots of fairly complex definitions, like Websters’: “Time is the measured or measurable period during which an action, process or condition exists or continues.”

But the definition I like the most is from the physicist, John Wheeler: “Time is what stops everything from happening at once!”

The Brits conquered the world and one of the perks of doing so (apart from feeling superior to everyone else) was the discovery of tea in the east. They brought it home, brewed it and promptly discovered during the process of boiling water that a watched kettle never seems to boil.

Why does it take so long to heat a kettle of water – especially when we are gazing at it during the kinetic process?

Let me put this in more general terms:

Why, when we are paying attention to it, does time seem to slow down and conversely, seem to speed up when we are not paying attention? I mean seriously, watching a kettle boil seems to take forever, yet the decades can seem to speed by. One day I was a teenager, the next day, I woke up and I became middle-aged. Why?

The first major gift I ever raised was $6 million – it took six months to secure. The last major gift I raised was $1 million – it took three years to secure – and arrived on the final day of my employment at the nonprofit. Arguably, I was more pensive about the last gift than the first, but could that be why it took so long for the gift to arrive?

The Short Answer Is That Time Works With Our Imagination!

The short answer is that time works with our imagination! Time itself has no physical aspects it is not an element, like oxygen or hydrogen. We can only imagine time. It is as objective as it is subjective in our measurement of it.

Saint Augustine the Christian Philosopher puts it this way: “In you, my mind, I measure time,”…. “Words, sounds, and events come and go, but their passage leaves an impression….Either time is this impression, or what I measure is not time.”

What Saint Augustine is saying is that the absence of physical attributes lends itself to imagining time through different realities. Time is one thing if we imagine it one way and another thing if we imagine another way.

That may be too poetic an explanation. So, try this:

A watched kettle takes longer to boil only because we measure time more slowly when we pay attention to it, and it seems to pass quickly when we don’t pay much attention. And so, perhaps major gifts merely seem to take longer to secure because, as in my experience, we place so much attention on attempting to secure them. If we were less attentive to the time it takes and less pensive about the outcome, perhaps major gifts would occur with more frequency and greater rapidity.

This theory of time speeding up and slowing down in relation to the degree of measurement has everything to do with the second law of thermodynamics, which states that time is an arrow shot from a mysterious bow. It is omnipresent (it straddles history, exists in the present and inhabits an unknown future). We don’t know where time comes from, but time just keeps moving forward and is irreversible.

The forward motion of time towards a conclusive end is known as entropy. Simply put, entropy is the force that creates chaos and disorder. It’s because of entropy that food rots, people die, and stars disappear. It’s all about the redistribution of mass over time. Eventually all the worlds mass will be spread over time until everything disappears, and the world is no more, and time is no more. If time were a major gift, the theory stands that the world would soon run out of money due to infinite redistribution and therefore major gifts will be a thing of the past. Imagine that!

But I hear you say, what does the arrow of time and entropy have to do with why a watched kettle never seems to boil or why a major gift seems to take so long to secure?

That’s what the Quantum Zeno effect, is all about…

Scientists in the University of Texas proved that - the second law of thermodynamics can actually be interrupted by observing entropy in practice. Experiments have shown that the observer can physically impact what he or she is observing simply by observing it. The act of measuring some atomic particles can either stop or speed up the particles’ decay and measuring more frequently inhibits the decay. Although these principles apply to the atomic world, more loosely they could also explain why a watched kettle never boils and why securing a major gift seems to stretch out over longer periods of time.

Meaning, the reason why a watched kettle may never seem to boil is because it is being watched and measured by our subjective perception of the speed of time. If you left the kettle to boil without observing it, it would do so in no time at all. The true measurement of this theory can be applied to fundraising. Perhaps we should spend less time trying to secure major gifts for a fiscal year or campaign window, and more time looking at our responsibility to build authentic and trusting relationships with donors who are seeking interventions that make our world a better place in their own time.

Time’s Up!

If by now you are looking at your watch wondering when this article will end, the truth is it already has. But if on the other hand you feel that time has flown by as you have been reading, you may very well have lost all track of time because you have been fascinated by what I have had to say. Either way, I’d love to continue sharing thoughts on this important topic, but I am afraid, I have run out of time – or have I?!

Mide Akerewusi is President and CEO of AGENTS-C, a start-up company focusing on building transformational fundraising solutions for nonprofits and engaging philanthropic corporations, foundations and high-net-worth individuals in social change. His career as a philanthropy specialist spans more than 22 years of work on four continents.

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