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The Coping Point (by Paul W. Smith)

067-The Coping Point

Once upon a time, as I waited my turn for some minor surgery (major for me, minor for everyone else), my doctor stopped by the gurney and asked how I was doing.  “Fine”, I lied, and then added “More importantly, how are YOU doing?”   His simple reply -“Balanced.”

Hospitals have really good drugs, and the next thing I remember is staring at a wall in an unfamiliar room, sucking on ice chips.  Much later, I learned that “balanced” is a layman’s translation of “homeostasis”, a medical term denoting a reasonably stable state of equilibrium among the various elements of an organism.   My surgeon had a reputation for a fiery temper, so balanced was a good way to start our morning.

Whether you’re a gymnast or an accountant, balance is desirable.  I am neither, but the accountant for our Homeowner’s Association does send me a quarterly statement which has two pages of numbers.  One is labeled assets, the other liabilities.  I just know that the exact same number will appear at the bottom of each page.  I assume someone has labored diligently to achieve this goal, although I have no clue what they do when the numbers don’t match.  Somehow it just works, and the whole thing puts my mind at ease until the next statement arrives.  Balance happens.  Life is good.

Balance is such a blissful state that we will often lull ourselves into believing we are there when we are not.  Examples abound. 

When Green Bay played Miami earlier this NFL season, Packer’s quarterback Aaron Rodgers had the ball with no timeouts left and less than 15 seconds on the clock.  He hand-signaled a spiked ball, standard procedure for stopping the clock in desperate moments like these.  Failure to score would give Miami the win, and Rodgers would logically want a little time to think things over.  Instead of the spike, he surprised nearly everyone by completing a game-winning pass to one of his teammates.  The Dolphins were shoved completely off balance. 

Modern medicine in this country is amazing, and deadly diseases are always safely “over there” in some distant third-world country.  We felt safe and balanced, until Ebola showed up in Texas and New York.  In the post-911 era, we were finally starting to feel relatively immune from terrorists, until ISIS began backing up its threats with gruesome online videos.  Both disease and terrorism are generally held in check by a carefully orchestrated system of safeguards – balancing mechanisms – that work well most of the time. 

In some cases, we recognize the delicate nature of this balance, but are unwilling to act.  Underperforming employees can drag down an organization’s productivity, but often they are just too much trouble to replace.  The computer network may be limping along through scattered outages, but resources are scarce and it continues to work just good enough to get by.  We bask in the news that reinforces our sense of well-being and balance, albeit tenuous. Reality is harsh and even counterfeit homeostasis will suffice. 

The coping point is that surreal place where life feels solid and stable, a place where a phone call from your boss, your doctor, or your kids doesn’t produce an instantaneous knot in your stomach.  It is a wonderful place to visit, a destination where we all wish we could stay longer, and one of the top-rated places to retire. 

In theory, it is possible to balance a pencil on its point.  Any engineering student should be able to write down the governing equations.  A simple perturbation analysis will tell you that those equations are ominously unstable; the least little change in anything will cause the pencil to fall over. 

There will always be days when a pencil thus arranged feels like a perfect metaphor for life, days when even our best efforts at balance are thwarted.  Looking at life (pencil) with a new perspective, accepting the inevitable forces (gravity), and focusing on what we can control (center of mass) can make all the difference.


Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development. 

Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.  

Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.