I used to work at a geothermal power plant. The facility, with its immense pumps, turbines, generators, cooling towers, and tanks the size of mansions, converted energy from hot, high-pressure underground water to electricity. It was a safe place to work until one of thousands of pieces of equipment erupted and sprayed 230 Fahrenheit, corrosive, acidic, sticky brine in all directions. If you were in the area when it happened, you were lucky if your hospital stay was only a few days. Anyone caught outside the air-conditioned control room without wearing safety glasses, steel-toed shoes, and a hardhat was fired. That was thirty years ago. Now, I work in a safer environment. But to this day, when I walk into one of the company's machine shops, I experience a pinch to the ribs and reach up to feel my uncovered head. I must then remind myself that hard hats are not required in this area. I cannot seem to overcome the jab of a standard ingrained in me so many years ago. This is how standards are supposed to work. When breaking them, you experience a mental and emotional shot to the gut, a metaphorical fingernail-scrape-against-chalkboard.
The pickup truck
My first professional position after college was being the Plant Engineer of a geothermal power plant north of El Centro, California. It was an environment of piping, metal, hissing steam, pumps the size of automobiles, and large, ear-piercing turbine generators.
I was standing with a group of crewmen who were trying to maneuver a tractor around some equipment when one of the foremen yelled at me, “Jeff, move that pickup truck out of the way.”
Being new on the job and wanting to demonstrate that I’m as capable as anyone else, I got in the truck and proceeded to move the vehicle as directed.
While in the process of moving it, a voice in my head screamed, “First, you must find out if it’s a manual or automatic transmission.” But, instead of making that determination, I continued to operate the truck until I had moved it to an appropriate place.
Once that was done, I looked down at the pedals. It was a manual transmission.
I was able to function properly without thinking because I had so much experience driving a manual transmission.
When the time came to perform in an unfamiliar setting,
I acted without having to think or debate.
I acted automatically.
Your own standards
You must set your own personal standards. If you do not, who shall make your quick-reaction decisions when faced with threat, disappointment, or temptation? Your boss at work? Your friends? The world?
On rare occasions when I am not seat-belted in a moving vehicle, I feel uneasy. This is as it should be.
Most people feel queasy when standing close to the edge of a tall cliff. This is a good thing. My advice for you is not to overcome that fear unless you’re a high power line repairman or helicopter airlift rescuer. People in those professions have a great respect for heights and keep an armful of safety practices in place at all times.
The Doberman Pinscher
For an extended period of time in my younger days, I went from house-to-house talking with people. We had heard stories about people who were attacked by dogs, so I developed a plan to execute in case I were confronted with a large animal with jagged teeth. I decided that when attacked, I would hold out my notebooks in front of me with both hands as if they were a sword. This would put distance between me and my threat. I rehearsed this scenario in my mind hundreds of times.
Then, one day, it happened. I opened the homeowner’s front gate and approached his front door. From around the corner of the house galloped a Doberman Pinscher: snarling teeth, slobber, and hysterical anger. I backed to the gate, keeping my books in front of me. The dog’s jaws lunged left and right but could not get around my notebook. The homeowner came out his front door and swore at me for upsetting his dog.
But, I was untouched.
I am grateful for my health and wish to respect the physical and emotional blessings I've received. Below are three examples in my life when I was particularly unwise and could have been injured permanently or killed. These stories emphasize what can happen to us when we disregard the protections in our lives.
Jumping over a railing
When I was nine-years-old my mother took me on a hike to the top of Angels Landing in Utah’s Zion National Park. Angels Landing is a tall, narrow promontory of land with 1,500-foot vertical drops on both sides of the trail. Signs along the way warn hikers of fatal falls from cliffs and alert those who are afraid of heights.
My mother was terrified on the hike because I was so fearless.
I did not tell my mother the following story until years later.
While on a break atop the vertical cliffs, I noticed on the other side of a railing a strange rock face behind some trees. I had never seen such a texture. I climbed over the railing and approached the rock wall, intrigued by its patterns. That was when I realized I wasn’t looking at a boulder, but the vertical walls on the other side of the canyon a half-mile away. I had walked to the edge of a thousand-foot drop.
That experience terrified me. I returned and climbed back over the railing before anyone noticed.
Then there was that fence
A few years later I was playing hide-and-seek with some of my friends in the Old Town area of San Diego. The wooded park was up on a hill near an old Spanish mission. I was running as fast as I could to find a spot to hide, when I jumped over a fence. I was about to leap over the bushes on the other side of it when I had the feeling that I should stop. That was when I realized that on the other side of those bushes was a forty-foot drop onto a highway just under the cliff. Had I not stopped, I would have fell onto traffic from above.
I hope you understand the point that fences and railings are standards we should not cross.
Watching solar eclipse through binoculars
I wasn’t much older when I learned that on a certain day there would be a partial solar eclipse. I had a good pair of binoculars at the time. My mother was into the old-style of photography that involved materials called film and negatives. When you picked up your developed pictures from the photography store, you were also given the negatives for those pictures so you could make copies of them later if you wished.
Wanting to see the solar eclipse through the binoculars, so I gathered a stack of my mother’s film negatives (without asking her) and taped layers of them over one of the two large lenses of my binoculars. I was careful enough to look at the partial eclipse only through the protected side of the binoculars.
As I gazed in wonder, I felt a sharp, burning sting on my cheek. The burn was caused by the uncovered half of the binoculars that focused the sun’s light onto my cheek.
What if I had tried to look at the partial solar eclipse through those binoculars without the protection of those negatives?
This story I have yet to tell my mother.
You haven't lived until you've seen the Grand Canyon, and you haven't fully lived until you've hiked to the bottom of it. It is a humbling experience in more ways than one!
About twelve people die every year in the Grand Canyon from falls, heat stroke, and other causes. It was announced this week that another person in the Grand Canyon fell off one of the cliffs and died. The "Grand Canyon official" making the announcement over the radio said, and I quote, "It is important that you say on or near the trails." I heard this on my drive to work and almost crashed my car. Or near? "Or near" in that canyon is death. There are many trails that run along cliffs. I hope the official was given a week off without pay to think about his job.
Whale of a splash
Holding to high standards won't make you free from all travails and afflictions. But, I promise you they'll be minimized compared to living foolishly.
One summer we were on a family vacation in Orlando, Florida. Maybe I deserved what came to me at SeaWorld because of some strange twist of Karma.
It was late July, which meant it was sweltering and humid under the sun as we walked all day on hot pavement. Eventually we made it to the huge Shamu amphitheater. The first few rows of seating to the water were guarded by signs saying,
You WILL get wet!
That was what I wanted the most. But alas, my family said, "No Dad, we can't sit this close. We'll get drenched."
"That's the point!" I pleaded. "We want to be splashed by Shamu! Aren't you sweaty and hot? And besides, we'll get to know Shamu better."
No amount of persuasion worked on them so we sat among the boring people several rows behind the danger zone.
All went well with the show until they instructed Shamu to make a series of high jumps specifically intended to make the biggest splashes possible.
The photograph below, which doesn't look like much, is the last photo my camera ever took.
This story is an example of when I met the standard and still wasn't entirely protected. Or, Shamu was particularly energetic that day.
But, I got splashed, and that's what I wanted the most.
Ten minutes to live
How would you like to pilot your own airplane? After reading the following, you may think twice before signing up for the next Ground School class.
One of the leading causes of light aircraft crashes is the combination of the following two conditions:
Loss of instrumentation--the dashboard gauges that show the altitude and orientation of the aircraft relative to the ground, and,
Loss of visibility--when you're inside a cloud or fog or when it's really dark outside (no moon) and you can't see the horizon.
When such occurs and you can't fix either condition, you'll be dead in ten minutes. That is how long it takes under those conditions for the plane to hit the ground.
The condition happens more often than you think:
Pilot is flying along happily.
Instrumentation suddenly goes out 1) when the aircraft is either in a cloud, or 2) beneath the plane is overcast in all directions as far as the pilot can see. The plane can't stay up there forever.
At that point the pilot issues a "Mayday," over the radio.
What most people don't realize is when a plane is flying slightly up or slightly down, it feels exactly the same as when it's flying level. And when a plane is in a slight spiral but is otherwise stable, it feels the same as when the plane is flying straight. Thus, if you've lost instrumentation and you can't see out of the cockpit windows, you're life is in imminent, mortal danger.
Without standards (dashboard gauges) our lives are threatened. We must do our best at establishing and maintaining the best standards we can for ourselves and for those whom we're responsible.
It is up to you
You must decide in advance what you'll do when confronted with threat or temptation. Rehearse your response repeatedly over a period of days and weeks. The more often the better. You must do this or risk incurring hurt upon yourself, your career, and your family. Besides, who in their calm moments doesn’t mind imagining themselves victorious over adversity? If you do not decide ahead of time what your actions will be, then your actions will be decided by your circumstances and the world around you.
Whom do you trust more?