A Positive View of Life

  • Posted: May 26, 2016
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Why do I listen to NPR on the car radio? Well for starters, Will Shortz’s puzzles on the way to church and Garrison Keillor’s dry dry humor on the way home from church. But what about the rest of the time? Listening to NPR the other day, I was thrown into a mood. If my insurance company knew how often this happened, they might insist the radio be removed from my car, or at least permanently tuned to a Smooth Jazz station.

It’s hard for me to put my finger on what it is about NPR. They really do a good job of reporting. To a fair-minded person, NPR presents a mix of balanced news and general interest programs, objective and fair. In fact, they report on the world more completely than anyone else. In any particular story, they are straightforward, accurate and honest. If you want to know what is going on in the world, rather than on sports talk or celebrity social media, there is no better place to listen. As an added bonus, NPR doesn’t insult our intelligence. What other radio station can you say that about?

But. Too many times, my frustration level along with my blood pressure, starts to rise. Its not what they say, it’s the barely visible background informing their point of view. Their reality is different than mine. It is as if I were listening to a cricket match in Australia. I understand what they are saying and can follow the action, but it’s a different ball game.

In any conversation, other than contract negotiations or legal disputes, the parties to the conversation have a mutual understanding about the nature of things, a common sense. This is a good thing. This is a bad thing. This is the way the world works. But on NPR, I am listening along to a story and suddenly left wondering. They have just said something that leaves my common sense floundering.

There is no one to argue with. There is no way to complain. It is not what NPR is saying that is arguable; it is what NPR believes about the world that is arguable. The study of literature has a concept, the subtext of the story, for the disconnect I struggle with. The subtext of a conversation, or a news report, is the underlying theme of the piece. The subtext of NPR’s reporting is buried below the surface, visible only in the implicit value judgments present in the stream of words.

But the thing is, NPR simply reflects its audience. Listening to NPR provides a navigation marker reminding me how far I am getting from the mainstream of my own culture. My natural inclinations combined with a lifetime of experience and learning, both secular and Christian, have given me my common sense. NPR brings me face to face, in a serious way, with a different common sense. This world, the world of the mainstream, has a different common sense than my own. Listening to NPR I gradually become disoriented as my own common sense is repeatedly left up in the air. Up is down, down is up. Water flows uphill. Strange things, no matter how bizarre, are possible.

I do believe that the skills we develop as young adults, and the ways of thinking created in acquiring those skills, is the road map we use in navigating through the world for the rest of our lives. Those patterns of logic we create to survive and prosper in early adulthood create our reality, a reality we live in and see for the rest of our lifetime. That reality is our common sense. My own reality is the common sense of the engineer and the Christian believer. Logic rules. The First and Second Law of Thermodynamics, as well as Murphy’s Law, work everywhere and everywhen. People are not basically good but are fallen creatures. There is no magic, but miracles are possible, though rare. Belief in Jesus Christ, God’s son, is the only way to fellowship with God.

Unfortunately for my mental equilibrium, NPR recognizes none of my realities. Just like the fact that despite the presence of balls, gloves and bats, cricket is a very different game than baseball. One of the buried beliefs often seen shaping the NPR landscape is the belief about the inherent goodness of people. The logic underlying NPR’s programming is that people are basically good, and so left to themselves and not deformed by “oppression”, they will do and be good if allowed to. And so it follows that encouraging people is better than chastising them. This is the common sense of positive affirmation. This belief in positive affirmation shapes NPR’s programming, reflecting an approach to life that is the common sense of our culture.

Schools, media, the caring professions are all thoroughly soaked in the belief of the power of positive affirmation. Who in polite society today would argue against the belief that the best way to deal with behavioral issues is by encouraging the good behaviors of erring individuals? What modern parent would admit to actually spanking their child? It is my suspicion that as with virtually all the pernicious beliefs in our culture today, the belief in positive affirmation is reinforced, if not grounded, in bad theology. In my opinion, positive affirmation is the idiot stepchild of Scripture’s call for us to “Love one another as we love ourselves.”

My own common sense was greatly influenced by my experiences in the workplace. It was my fate to begin my engineering career as an instrument engineer. In the dark recesses of a world given over to the mysterious practices of the Morlock’s, I sat at a stark steel desk, one of identical dozens, side by side in a large open room, the distant forerunner of today’s cube farms. There I selected specialized gear allowing dangerous and complex mazes of equipment in power plants and petroleum refineries to run automatically, without the need for an operator. Driven by a previously unsuspected streak of masochism in my character, I would also volunteer to leave my barren but familiar desk in the bowels of drab office towers to spend time on construction sites, scrabbling in the dirt and mud putting this equipment into service.

Being a part of crews starting up tens of thousands of horsepower, putting thousand degree flammable fluids at thousands of pounds of pressure into a complex choreography of processing was a rush. There is not a day goes by but that I do not remember and mourn the passing of that time and the fellowship of the people I worked with. It was an elite fraternity that was a special part of my life.

In the course of that time and experience spent, I learned the value of stability. In that forest of steel, concrete and wire, great forces were loosed to act in a complex and chaotic maelstrom. The safety of everyone on site depended on a stable equilibrium amid surging machines and fluids, pushed within inches and seconds of their own destruction. The process had to become and remain stable; else life would become very scary very quickly.

In the practice of their craft, instrument engineers learn a lot about the effects of positive feedback and negative feedback. Positive feedback is a positive affirmation; give me more and I will reward you. Negative feedback is negative affirmation; give me less or I will punish you. Before I acquired the scars of experience, I was a child of optimism thinking positive feedback much more appropriate for progressive young instrument engineers to associate with. Negative feedback sounds old fashioned and mean, something out of Charles Dickens. Of course, NPR and mainstream culture is definitely on board with optimism about people and things. But then I experienced my first example of positive feedback in real life.

Midnight in the middle of a giant petrochemical complex in Freeport, Texas. I’m climbing to the top of a crude distillation tower nearly one hundred feet high and twelve feet in diameter. As I climb up the man ladders attached to the side of the tower, the tower itself is swaying and jerking like a poorly sprung car on a badly rutted dirt road. The startup crew think that there is a malfunction in the pressure control valve on top of the tower. Pressure and feed rate through the tower is swinging wildly as the crude oil processing unit is coming on line for the first time. To stop the startup of the entire plant in order to find the problem would take days’ worth of time and waste thousands of barrels of oil. Back then, I’m too young and stupid to be cautious, even though I am scared, so I volunteer to climb up to see what’s wrong with the valve.

On top of the tower and gripping the platform railing, I inch over to the valve and begin removing covers on the valve, revealing the guts of its controls. It’s a simple fix. The commissioning crew had set the wrong position switch on the transducer operating the valve. This error has created a condition of positive feedback, causing the valve to slam wide open then slamming it closed again. Each time this happened, the pressures and temperatures inside the tower were violently oscillating, shaking the tower to its foundations. Flipping the transducer switch to the correct position changes everything. Now in a condition of negative feedback, the valve returns to a steady modulation. I resume breathing and, not for the first time, regret that I don’t smoke. This would be a great time to light up, let myself calm down and enjoy the spectacular view from the top of the tower.

I understand that a process plant is not made up of people. Wildly swinging control valves are not recalcitrant toddlers, wayward teenagers, drug addicts or abusive husbands. People are not made of steel, concrete and wire. They are human beings with emotions, responding to love and fear, rewards and punishments, instead of passionless electrical signals.

On the other hand, I have spent a lifetime in complex organizations, large and small. I have been on the bottom, on the top and everywhere in between. My experience, my common sense, tells me that the actions of people in organizations and cultures have a lot in more in common with process plants than we would like to think. My common sense tells me that positive affirmation (feedback), whether used to deal with a control valve or a human being, is playing with fire.

That experience with the crude tower in Freeport, Texas came back to me later on in my career. Having come to the conclusion that the adventure of climbing to the top of shaking towers in the dark of night was best left to younger, less experienced people, I had gone into management. One of the less fun tasks of management is the design of compensation systems for employees. As a young tower climbing engineer, I had always believed that incentive based compensation was best. Tell me what you want and I will give you lots of it and you will pay me accordingly. Yay!!

Except that now faced with the opportunity and the power to put my beliefs about incentive pay into practice, I had to face consequences as well. It was the philosophy of my organization to hire the smartest, best people we could find. The downside of having the best and smartest people is that they are smart and they are good at what they do. We would get a lot of whatever we paid bonuses for. What did we want to pay bonuses for?

The more I wrestled with the problem, the more I remembered that night on the top of the crude tower. Giving people a bonus is a positive affirmation. The organization is saying, “Give me more of that!” But a bonus also must be based on something that can be measured. But that would be like going back to that process plant and giving the pumps extra money for pumping more crude oil, or the heaters for making the crude oil hotter. Pretty soon, the valve is slamming open and closed.

One final thought on the effects of positive affirmation, again from my own reservoir of “common sense”. One of the most powerful rationale’s underlying our common sense about positive affirmation is that it provides the best possible outcomes for the person and the people involved. The thinking is that if we encourage people when they do well rather than slap their hands when they fail, we will get people developing to their highest potential. I wonder.

Back in the Sixties, I was totally plugged into the space program, especially the astronauts. What teenage nerd wasn’t? In the days before NASA became a bureaucracy, the first group of astronauts was selected, seven men whose names I still remember. They were the best and most capable test pilots of the time. All were fighter pilots with combat experience. I mean, how cool were these guys?

But there was one thing that always puzzled me. Only one of the original seven astronauts was an Air Force pilot. The other six astronauts were either Navy or Marine pilots. This seemed wrong. There were so many more pilots in the Air Force than the NAVY/Marines, how come six of the seven astronauts were Navy/Marines? Even more puzzling, the lone Air Force pilot, Gordon Cooper, was the astronaut that screwed up his landing, losing the Mercury capsule and almost drowning. Not only that, the movie Top Gun featured Tom Cruise as a Navy pilot, not an Air Force pilot. What was going on?

Some years later I read an article that I believe goes a long way toward explaining what puzzled me. Just a small factoid in the article mentioned that the Air Force used a different training philosophy for its pilots than the Navy/Marine Corp does. It is the Air Force’s practice to provide its pilots detailed instructions, i.e. what to do and how to do it. Air Force pilots are rated on adherence to excellence in following established protocols. Promotions come from following the rules and exceeding guidelines. That sounds a lot to me like positive affirmation.

The Navy/Marine Corp has a different operational philosophy. It is the Navy/Marine practice to inform their pilots of the few things they are not allowed to do. Everything else is permissible. Pilots are rated on not getting black marks. Promotions come from high performance without getting black marks. That sounds a lot to me like negative feedback.

I leave you to draw your own conclusions about the best path to excellence.

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