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Finding Common Ground: Points and Trajectories

Much of our education trains us to make distinctions. Little of it trains us to see similarities. Both are important. If you are in the business of foraging for berries, it’s a very good idea to eat the edible ones and not the poison ones. This means that it’s a nice skill to be able to distinguish them.

On the other hand, for many purposes, it’s important to see similarities as well. When it comes to human beings, most of us spend far too much time noticing differences between people and far too little time noticing similarities. 

In a large organization, focusing on differences among employees is often used as an excuse for keeping ineffective, inefficient processes, procedures and tools. For example, a manager might insist that all programming be done in a particular language that might have been state of the art decades earlier. As the organization continues to face deadline after deadline, it looks to the manager as though changing tools or processes will simply delay things further (indeed, it likely will for a time). So, year after year, the management delays a look at better equipment, tools, and training.

Part of their rationale is that some people are still very productive so it can’t be the tools and systems. It’s just that the other people aren’t working hard enough or aren’t smart enough so they promote the really good programmers to managers. Many of the best programmers will none-the-less eventually see themselves as getting more and more out of date in their technical skills and “jump ship” before it’s too late. 

This isn’t to say that there aren’t real differences in programmers. Of course there are. But those differences are too often used as an excuse for bad management. Quite likely, everyone would be more productive if there were changes, but individual differences serve as the “proof” that none are needed.

It isn’t just in programming. When we meet someone, we are much more likely to notice how they differ from others. Are they unusually tall? Short? Striking blue eyes? Or brown? Are they more muscular than average? More obese? Unusually skinny? As they begin to talk, we tick off other boxes: are they smart? Well-read? Do they have an accent? Where were they born? Where do they live? What job do they have? Are they well-off financially? 

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Very seldom do we take the time to reflect on how very similar this person is to every other human being and to us, and for that matter, even to other life forms.

Perhaps we should think more about trajectories and less about points.

For example, let’s say you meet someone and they are older than you and bald with a salt and pepper beard. His young son is with him. The son is neither bald, nor bearded, nor older than you are. The three of you are all different! — at this point!

What if you perceived these features, not in terms of points, but in terms of trajectories? For example, age is a moving target. Some day, if he is lucky, the son will be the same age as the father is now. He will likely also grow bald. He might or might not grow a beard but he could. If he did grow such a beard at a young age, it would likely start out all dark and gradually turn to white — not uniformly in time, but with a trajectory that will very likely look a lot like that pattern of change experienced by his father’s beard (and the beards of many other males).

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In general, we have more commonality in our trajectories than in our momentary status. For example, your bone density might be greater or less than mine, but the bones of both of us will generally become less dense as we age. And that trajectory is true for virtually everyone. Furthermore, if any of us go up in space, our bone density will lessen quickly. Conversely, if we stay on earth and do weight-bearing exercise, our bone density will increase. 

Trajectories are typically more diagnostic than statics.

For example, would you buy a used car based on simply looking at it, or sitting in it? Of course not. You want to make sure the car actually works. You want to take it out for a test drive.

For your annual physical, the doctor might look at your fasting blood sugar level. If it’s too high or too low, he may order a more sensitive test — a glucose tolerance test. How your body reacts to a sudden influx of sugar is more indicative of underlying health than is static level.

Similarly, your Doctor might simply “listen to your heart” or take a resting cardiogram. A stress test is more revealing of function though.

Aristotle is credited for saying “Character is revealed by choices under pressure.” This is the great truth of literature. It isn’t one’s current status that reveals one’s character. They might have been born rich or poor or blind or in peace or in war. It makes a different to them, of course, but what the reader wants to see is that they make of what they are. How do they bend that trajectory to inspire others, save lives, learn from their errors, reform themselves, or prove their loyalty. Or, on the other side, how do they exhibit mindless selfishness, or betray others, or refuse to change, leaving disaster in their wake.

It isn’t the challenge, per se that’s critically important. It’s how a person either bravely met a challenge — or how they showed their essential cowardice and refused to see the problem; refused to admit the problem; and blamed everyone else for their inevitable failure to solve the problem.

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