Friday, August 06, 2021

Mind Versus Matter Structural Failure

 If you missed it in the comments from The Great Day Of Failure, there has been a wonderful conversation between John in Philly and STxAR about the nature of human failure, viewed as a physical material which at some point becomes deformed or extended beyond its ability to recover (I have the best commenters!).  The discussion point, if I do not mistake it (John and STxAR, keep me honest) is that materials have a point of structural failure and that humans also have their own mental point of structural failure - in the context of failing at things, but in other things as well - beyond which they are never quite the same.

I actually find this an engaging topic because I have had to work my way through it personally.

For those that are newer arrivals, in February of 2020 I was transferred out of the job role I had held for the last 18 years (A Sort of Hammerfall) due to the perception that the position I held was significantly beyond my ability to effective execute it.  I was not let go but was reassigned into a new role in Project Management.

What I have found, over the course of the last year, is that my interest and my ability to learn and execute on this new subject have drastically waned.

I cannot fully define it for you other than to say I feel "different" - much less plugged in and much less engaged in learning, both in this role as well as other things in life.  I feel less enthused about learning on the whole, less willing to plug into things.

Is this evidence of being stretched beyond one's ability to recover?  Not physically of course, but mentally and spiritually?

I am different after that afternoon in February - or rather, I am different perhaps not so much from that afternoon as the two-three years that led up to up to that afternoon.  The stress - all mental of course - was such that I never, ever want to be in that position ever again.  Frankly, if I never managed another person again or had to make an assessment on a quality-related issue not directly related to me, I would be happy.

In trying to assess this, I do wonder if it can be recovered from - not the sense of going to back to the role (having tasted the world of non-supervisory work for the first time in 20 + years, I am not going back) as much as my concentration, focus, and interest.  Human minds are not structural materials; they are far more elastic.  

Bu the reality to me is shocking real, even now.  In some indefinable way, the before and after February 29th me is different.  And I do not know quite what to do about it.


  1. I am not a doctor. Even if I was a doctor I do not have a professional relationship with you so I would not be in a position to "diagnose". So take everything I say with a shaker of salt.

    Depression has many of the symptoms you describe. Your give-a-golly is broken.

    Depression re-wires the brain. It changes the lenses and prisms your observations flow through. It changes the way you put data together and form conclusions.

    Regarding the brittle vs. ductile failure question: For high performing people, "depression" can be a response to being placed in a situation where you are programmed to fail. If others around you change the programming enough to make the environment survivable then I think you are more likely to get a ductile failure. If the environment does not relent, or doubles down, then a brittle failure happens.

    Shrinks characterize this as "a cry for help" but I think that is demeaning to high-performing people. To me, it is more a case of "If I am given a kamikazi mission I am going to go out in a fireball so the next pilot has a warning.

    1. ERJ - That is a pretty accurate summary, my "give-a-golly" being broken.

      I have dealt with depression in one form or another for a great deal of my life, and this is certainly not like the depression I have had before. There is just, more or less, a singular lack of enthusiasm for what I am doing.

      Am I having a ductile failure? Perhaps. If not an environment where I seem destined to fail, it certainly always feels like I am on the edge of failure.

      I get the Kamikaze mission analogy. In far lesser ways, I have done such things in my life.

  2. The workplace has changed a lot now too. I seriously consider middle management as impossible in today’s political climate - you have any number of problems pushed up at you from below, and the usual stuff dumped on you from above. I flat out refused to get involved when I saw what was going on.

    I got around it by getting into senior sales. In a role like that the CEO himself has to heed you and you have the indirect clout to get things done.

    1. Glen, it certainly has since I started as well. One of the best things that happened through all of this as my role changed is I no longer have to supervise people. I hope to never do so again.

      But it is not only rules to follow. The need to succeed and be effective in everything you are doing at all times is seemingly more insistent than ever. One of the lines you most hear now is "We can end early, so you can have X amount of minutes back in your day".

      Minutes. We are measuring time in productive minutes.

    2. People became idiots, which made "supervising" them a minefield to be tip-toed through.
      The *country* has changed since 2020. The crazy, bat crap loonies are in charge and all the rest of us can do is hunker down and watch for the time, when hopefully, we can make our move to restore at least a semblance of sanity.

    3. Linda, it is not just that people are idiots (although many seem to act that way). It is also in the litigious age we live, companies go over the top to protect themselves from lawsuits.

      It certainly seems like we are rapidly becoming every authoritarian's dream society. Unfortunately for those that seem to love such things, history is not kind to those that act in this fashion.

  3. I was once in a very challenging role and while I enjoyed the challenges, I absolutely hated the stress along with the impacts on my health and family. Having left the challenging role to one with little in the way of career challenges, I much more enjoy my new life. My health and family are much stronger as a result. I have also just learned to challenge myself in different ways to compensate for the ones I left behind in my career. I'm not sure they are as important to everyone else, but they still give me a degree of satisfaction.

    1. Could that have been a function of just getting old, Ed? It wasn't that long ago that I would have been the first one getting on the phone, or teeing up a meeting or diving into the manuals... but now the thought of doing that just turns me right off. Nowadays I get tired just thinking about it.

    2. Definitely age plays a significant part. When I wasn't married and young, I probably would have done anything to get ahead.

    3. Ed - At one time I enjoyed the challenges of the roles that I have filled. That enjoyment is gone - partially stress, yes, but also partially the realization that the effort is largely wasted, at least in the long term. Most of the products I have worked on are no longer marketed and the companies I worked for are mostly gone; my work existence is measured in boxes of documents and electronic files. It is hard to be enthused when you come to realize what the output of your labor really is.

    4. Glen - Maybe it is age? Or is the realization that certain things do not matter as much? When you reach your 40's or 50's most of us have gone about as far up the ladder as we are going. Work for the sake of "getting ahead" has a lot less attraction.

  4. What an irritating week. Twice my comments were gnawed upon by the 'net today. And lightning took out my network yesterday. From UPS to the laptop I normally post and blog with. Even the new fridge. Just call me Lucky, I guess.

    I had a physics prof explain some systems were difficult to reproduce, so we could use electronics to replicate them for testing. Resistor for friction, inductor for springs... It worked and I never forgot that.

    I apply that to everything. Even people. It takes time to do an NTSB investigation of a wreck. It takes time to go through the change and see how you adapted to it, too. That's what those alone times are for me. Time to sort, sift, measure and observe. I don't seem to be prone to depression (Thank GOD!). I'm usually upbeat and optimistic. I think that helps me find the root issues and responses without getting down about it. I crave clarity, and seek illumination. Maybe the motivation helps, too. I'm not just looking for dookie, I'm searching for truth.

    My guess, TB, is the change was drastic, as was the adaptation. Things scale like that. And high perfroming folks don't take rapid reduction in responsibilities very well. That will kill a high performing retiree without planning and having things to do.


    YMMV, rules vary state to state, read the fine print...yaddayadda...

    1. Dang it, that is annoying STxAR (I have lost comments exactly the same way).

      One example from a book I read long ago is perhaps helpful in this context. The author compared people and their accomplishments to either racehorses - sprinting ahead, racing away - or tortoises - slowly making their way towards a goal. Hobble a race horse and it will lose its will to run; push a tortoise and it will die of exhaustion.

      If you had to ask me what I am, my guess would be a tortoise - slow, steady, get the job done. Performing at a racehorse level can be done for short periods - but then changing course midstream leaves one breathless.

      I took a week off between roles. I wish I could have taken a month, or even a year. I wonder if that would have let me clear my mind more.

  5. Hi TB :) I do believe we can be stretched beyond our reach to recover. I've talked a lot about burning out at work in 2003. If I had to be back in the same environment where I burned out I would not be able to handle it and would likely burn out again. I am legally called an "invalid" by the workman's compensation board. Am I an invalid? Meaning, am I inept to the point where I can't function in the same capacity anymore in THAT field? Hell yeah. I can't recover. That job, those people, that idea that money rivals everything, the back-stabbing greedy business that is finance - exhausted me on many levels and I really don't think I can fully recover from it. It doesn't mean I'm an invalid and can't work anymore. Right now I'm working on building a new career as an artist and YT gal. It's fun and though I hope to make a career of it some day it doesn't feel like work. I feel no stress because it's not exhausting me. I believe that it's not exhausting me because I have no issue with it, it doesn't challenge my values or set off my gut instinct telling me "this is not right for you Rain"...

    There is another very personal incident that I will never recover from because it has stretched me beyond my ability to do so. It has to do with a relationship that nearly destroyed me and the inability to be back in the same type of situation ever again. But, even though I will never recover from it (not for lack of trying), I accept it and can live with knowing that. And knowing that doesn't destroy my current relationships, it just helps me to know what I am able to tolerate, what I'm not able to tolerate, what my needs/wants are and that I need to put my own health (emotional, mental, spiritual, physical) first.

    I've rambled lol! :)

    1. Rain - I do remember the story of your burnout. I think the same is true of me as well; I am on the outskirts of what is going on at the role I was in and simply put, I could not handle it (to be fair, I was managing five departments and the main role is now only two, but the principle is still true). What troubles me is that I do not seem to have the spark I would like to have in my new role, or really even in anything else: I can do what I can to learn the new role, but there is not quite the edge of enthusiasm I think I need to succeed in the role. Quite honestly, I spend my time doing the job yet constantly worrying I am not doing it well or correctly.

      And you are also right that there are other incidents we never recover from. I do not think that (consciously) I am aware of any, but that does not mean that is so, just that I have no consciousness of it.

      The initial promise I have made (at least myself) is trying to stick it out for two more years. That would get Nighean Dhonn through high school, after which (hopefully) other options appears.

  6. Late commenting due to being away for a couple of days.

    Years ago a friend told me of his "Bookshelf Theory" and how it related to human stress response.
    He said you can keep putting stress books on a bookshelf, but eventually the shelf collapses, and then the shelf cannot deal with any stress books at all until you slowly and carefully rebuild the shelf.

    I'm much more careful about the condition of my mental bookcase.

    1. I forgot to mention that the bookshelf theory is another example of a material failure and humans analogy.

    2. John, being a book lover, that really resonates with me - although with the bookshelf analogy, one usually has to replace the shelf.

      I definitely find that I approach new tasks and assignments much more gingerly than I used to.


Your comment will be posted after review. If you could take the time to be kind and not practice profanity, it would be appreciated. Thanks for posting!