Updated: Apr 14
When I’m not writing fiction, I’m a mechanical engineer by profession. A large part of engineering is predicting. How many cycles can a machine or mechanism endure before failing?
A component can withstand severe loads for a small number of cycles or lighter loads for a larger number of cycles. Curves have been created to help determine such matters.
But enough engineering talk. How about ordinary life? Over the years, I have come upon four curves that apply to our personal lives as equally as they do to engineering. These curves are the Worry Curve, the S Curve, the Difficulty Curve, and the Attractiveness Curve.
Your life will be greatly benefited by an understanding of these four curves.
The Worry Curve
Imagine having been assigned a task by your boss. Or imagine a party next month that you agreed to organize. With the due date safely in the distant future, you don’t give the task much immediate concern. “It will be fine,” you say to yourself. “I’ll get to it.”
When the inevitable date approaches, you realize you’d better start making progress or you’ll be in trouble. But, you still put off the task a little longer until your “worry quotient” looks something like the following graph:
If this happens to you, it means you’re normal. Unfortunately, “normal” usually results in increased personal stress and a shortened lifespan.
To avoid such negative anxiety, you should start worrying “a little more” right away while it is still early on. Then, when the eventual deadline approaches, your final increase in worry will be greatly reduced, as pictured in the following graph:
You yawn and say, “Everyone knows this.”
Then why do you keep putting off things? Do you want to worry and fret? Fine. But don’t whine about how tough things are for you.
Maybe after you mature a bit more you'll see things my way.
The S Curve
Even if you are one of the “one-percenters” in life and start on tasks right away, a significant period of time will pass before you make noticeable progress in completing the work. This delay in productivity is experienced by entire engineering departments, faculty departments, banks, police departments, school districts, and every other organization. This is because it takes time before those involved in the job begin to know what they’re doing.
Mid-way through the completion of a project’s timeline is the “progress sweet spot.” This is where the majority of productive work is accomplished, when everyone enjoys the work, life is good, the music is playing, and the food tastes great.
Then there is the final third or so of the timeline when productive work starts to taper off. See the following curve:
As the project winds down, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain productive. At some point, we say to ourselves, “Okay, we’ve done enough. On to the next venture.”
Many years ago I worked at Raytheon Missile Systems Company. I helped design missiles. Neat stuff. One thing I experienced there is this: just when a project is about to be completed, management reassigns everyone to a new project.
“No!” I would say. “I'm almost finished! You can’t take it from me now!”
Well, too bad.
The reason management did this is because the point when the project is “about done” is also the point when people become less efficient. Management gives the project “new eyes all around.” The fresh eyes (different employees) are—from their standpoint—further back on the “S Curve.” The project is completed more quickly than had the original employees stayed on the task.
The Difficulty Curve
I’ve been receiving engineering assignments for about thirty years. Perhaps two hundred of them. For at least one hundred and ninety-five of them, I’ve felt a twinge of “insult” from being assigned such a menial task.
But then, after working on the project for a time, the job starts to become more difficult. The workload increases steeply until just about the point when it becomes unbearable, when all hope is about lost.
Then a miracle occurs. I realize I've been approaching the problem incorrectly. That's when I look at the problem differently. Soon enough after making the correction, the problem becomes easier until the result ends up being surprisingly simple. It wasn’t that hard after all. This process is portrayed by the following curve:
This process continues to repeat itself until this day. You’d think I’d learn.
A famous author once wrote (I have changed three words):
“Any [engineer] who can’t explain to an eight-year-old what he [is] doing [is] a charlatan.” -- Kurt Vonnegut
How many times have I looked at my final work and thought to myself, “Anyone could have done this.”
Engineering designs that don’t look relatively simple are in danger of:
Costing too much to manufacture, assemble, test, and operate
Being less reliable than simpler designs
Having shorter service lives compared to their simpler counterparts
After thirty years of engineering, I cannot recall an exception to the above principles.
The Attractiveness Curve
The relationship between how perfect something is is not linearly proportional to how attractive, desirable, or in-demand it is. This applies particularly to the entertainment industry.
As you get better at something, whether it's singing, painting, acting, or writing fiction, no one outside your family and closest friends pay much attention to it until one day when your ability is nearly perfect, and you are suddenly considered to be accomplished and are in-demand.
This means that if you continue to practice and work hard for a long time, then someday your efforts will pay off. This is why only people who are highly passionate about their craft make it to the big time. If you don't love doing it, you won't get there.
Application to our lives
This is fascinating reading, but how does it apply to our lives?
Let me summarize here the four curves:
You must learn when to let go.
Keep it simple, stupid.
Make it look good.
These are principles we claim to know about but often dismiss. Quit dilly-dallying, complaining, and blaming, and get to work on your life's, finest challenges.