This past week, I hit the wall.
Last weekend we held the four-day conference that I had been organizing for more than eighteen months. An incredible amount of work was distilled into four days. The conference went well. Not without hitches, but none that were visible. A success, then. A day of clean-up and wrapping up loose ends, and I was home. This past weekend was the first one that I have had genuinely taken time off in what feels like a very long time.
There was only one item on my agenda. Last Tuesday, I had received an email rescheduling my second vaccine dose. 9:20am, Saturday, in Toronto.
With a 1.25 hour drive ahead, and the unpredictability of traffic even on a Saturday morning, I resolved to leave no later than 7:30am. That should get me there in plenty of time, and a good book would while away whatever extra time I had. This was an appointment I did not want to miss. I had to be there.
As I rolled down the driveway, the car felt a bit odd. There was a rumble towards the rear that wasn’t normal. There had been rain in the previous days, and it had been humid for several days more. I suspected rust on the brake rotors. As I got up to speed, I hit the brakes sharply to clean them off, and got back on the gas. The car seemed to settle in. I kept going.
Less than ten minutes later, I blew a tire travelling in the fast lane of the 401 highway while moving at a speed of 120 km/h.
If that’s not a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is.
By the time I pulled safely off the highway on the shoulder it was 7:50am. My appointment was in 90 minutes, and I was standing on the side of the road with an undriveable vehicle. Changing the tire was not a practical option, nor was it a safe one. Calling my wife to pick me up and take me to Toronto—and abandoning the car on the side of the road for a few hours—seemed questionable in advisability and practicality. The time margin was razor thin, and the strategy of leaving a car on the side of Ontario’s busiest highway felt both unsafe and unwise.
Rescheduling the appointment wasn’t an option that existed on the booking web site. The phone number I was given for the health team was no longer being monitored. With enormous reluctance, I hit the button to cancel my appointment. Resigned that my day wasn’t going to play out any way like what I had hoped, only then did I call for a tow truck.
You can push through by force of will for only so long. That limit is often further away than you might think, but it is unquestionably there. By Saturday, it felt like I had been doing that for a very, very long time. Of late, things have felt persistently harder than they need to be. I have been pushing too many ropes up too many hills for too many months. Saturday was the culmination of that. I needed things to line up and go exactly my way. The universe had other plans.
Hindsight is a powerful but annoying power. You can always see in retrospect what you might have done differently. When I first felt the car wasn’t driving properly, I could have taken the time to stop, get out and look for a problem. It would have taken all of thirty seconds. I would have very likely seen a flat (or at least flattening) tire. I could have parked the car back in the garage, taken my wife’s vehicle to Toronto, and dealt with the flat later.
I did not do that. I didn’t want to take the time. I needed the car to be fine. I willed the car to be fine. I attributed the problem to a benign cause, tested for it, and kept on going. It wasn’t fine. Hope is not a strategy. Just because I wanted my car to be in workable condition didn’t mean that it was. I wasn’t relying on force of will to keep going; I was relying on luck.
It is important to recognize what is in your control and what is not. And it is all too easy to assume control over too much, and assert control in situations where you may at best have influence (or in fact be entirely deluded about being able to shape the outcome you want).
I’ve written before about the Challenger launch decision. Most of us are at least passingly familiar with the decision (this book is an excellent and detailed exploration for those who would like to understand the nuances, and this article provides a good summary). While tires on cars and o-rings on solid rocket boosters aren’t directly analogous, there are some parallels that are worth exploring.
A quick overview of the facts: the night before the Challenger launch, NASA and representatives from Morton-Thiokol—the manufacturer of the solid rocket booster—were debating whether to proceed with a launch scheduled for the following morning. Morton-Thiokol was strongly advocating against launching, based on the projected temperatures at the launch site. They believed that given the expected temperatures, the o-ring could fail. This was not a general and vague discussion; they were debating the specific cause, and the specific point of failure, that ultimately brought the shuttle down.
Problems with the o-rings were not new. There had been several flights where there had been a failure of the o-rings, leading to hot exhaust gases escaping the body of the rocket booster. A previous launch in 1985—at the time the coldest one on record—had resulted in the greatest damage of any previous incident. The temperature on 28 January 1986 was expected to be much lower. To the extent that the o-ring was sensitive to temperature, risks of failure were significant.
We know today how that played out. NASA overrode the recommendation. The concerns of Morton-Thiokol—and a separate warning by Rockwell, another contractor, on the morning of the launch—was not communicated to launch executives. The shuttle launch proceeded on schedule, and the o-rings failed as anticipated. The explosion was catastrophic, destroying the shuttle, killing everyone on board, and nearly bringing the space program to a close.
The question that needs to be asked in all of this is why, given previous problems with the o-rings, nothing had been done prior. That ignores a great deal of work that was actually done to evaluate, assess and attempt to remedy the problem. After the 1985 launch, Morton-Thiokol was charged with researching the several instances of o-ring failure that had occurred to date. They reported their findings back to NASA, with specific guidance and recommendations about sensitivity of the o-rings to temperature. NASA executives instructed the report be edited to replace any mention of temperature sensitivity with a more vague and oblique reference to “o-ring resiliency.”
NASA’s argument on the night before the launch that there were no launch-commit criteria based on temperature was predicated on the fact that there had been active collusion to prevent any criteria from being included. NASA had sold the shuttle program on a system capacity of 65 launches per year. In the previous year, 1985, there were nine shuttle launches, which was a record for the program. The schedule called for fifteen launches in 1986, a massive acceleration of the program schedule.
NASA knew there was a problem, and chose to ignore it, because it interfered with their priorities and their short-term objectives. Doing so didn’t just cost lives. It nearly imperilled the entire organization; after Challenger exploded, the shuttle fleet was grounded for nearly three years, and NASA came close to being disbanded. The findings that emerged during the subsequent accident investigation was that any of the previous o-ring failures could have resulted in the same catastrophic loss. Until that point, they had just been lucky; any previous failures of the o-ring had pointed away from the shuttle and the massive fuel tank it was mounted to, not towards them.
You can ignore your reality for so long, and you might get lucky. Eventually, though, you will encounter a catastrophic failure. But at what cost? In the case of my tire, about $325 in repair costs. It could have been much worse, though. I might have lost a rim. More importantly, I was lucky that I was able to get across three active traffic lanes to safely reach the shoulder. Different traffic patterns, heavier volumes or lack of awareness of what was going on by other drivers could have led to a very different outcome.
Regardless, willing the car to be fine so that I could get to my appointment on time was an exercise in foolishness. The car wasn’t fine. I didn’t get to my appointment. The shape of my day was very different, and could have been much different still, depending upon circumstances.
As already acknowledged, the lessons are obvious in hindsight. Pay attention to signals that there is a problem, even if those signals are weak. Don’t operate on faith. Don’t depend on luck. When you sense something isn’t right, pay attention to it. You may not want to take the time to do so, but not investigating when you have the opportunity because it’s inconvenient or undesirable is rarely a winning strategy. You might be lucky in the short term, but ultimately that luck won’t hold. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Most importantly, recognize that there are limits to being able to operate on sheer willpower. Forcing through can work in the short-term in some circumstances, but there are finite limits that you will eventually surpass. When you reach those limits—and you may not see them coming—you are going to crash, hard. Know when you are stretching yourself past the boundaries of what you have the physical, mental and emotional stamina to sustain. Step back as soon as you can. Find ways to relax, reassess and recharge. Pay attention to the circumstances that led to the situation. Take the time to figure out what got you there, and what you can do to course correct for the future.
Learning this about yourself is hard. Some of us are stubborn enough to not want to admit that we have limits. Others are naive enough to think the limits are far beyond where they exist. It’s fine to test the edges. Pay attention, though, when you start to feel the rumbles at the limit. Driving past them is rarely a good strategy.