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Bernie Ziebart

The Engineering Perspective

The blog is a view of life, science, politics and education from an engineering perspective. As engineers, we are taught to view the world objectively. We can hope, believe and calculate a particular outcome, but natural laws are inflexible and pay no heed to who we are or what we believe. We must approach the objective dispassionately, while compensating for our own distorted perceptions. Balance is also a key element; balancing between the ideal and the pragmatic, balancing cost and functionality, balancing analysis with action, etc.

Scheduling routine critical self-analysis is the foundation to objectivity. If we do not fully understand and compensate for our own failures, tendencies, habits and skewed thought processes, we will not see the world as it is. Without a regular critical self-analysis we will see the world as we are and then fall prey to self-delusion.

Failure is a great teacher. When failure is coupled with perseverance, it produces the fruit of patience and humility. An engineer, fresh out of engineering school is typically set up for failure early and often. The failure breaks the new engineer of any ideas of self-importance, arrogance and book smarts. Only then can the new engineer be formed and molded into a productive element in the industry.


The criticism - course correction continuum

President Lincoln, General Meade

I am fascinated by former leaders and presidents. I have read quite a few of the presidential biographies. One of the books ‘Lincoln the unknown’ by Dale Carnegie was more anecdotal in nature and captures the essence of Lincoln.  It was written about 60 years after the death of Lincoln and is, essentially, a list of stories.  The life of Lincoln, as presented in the book, caused me to evaluate the balance in my own life; the balance between criticism and course correction.

I have been around the block more than a few times and as a result I have found many of life’s pit falls and snares. I have made more than my share of blunders and mistakes and I encourage people not to make the same mistakes that I have made. But when warning people of impending danger, there is an element of criticism involved.   The criticism can be offensive to the pride of the individual and instead of helping someone I have made an enemy. Where then should I create the balance between warning/course correction and criticism?

Using the example from Lincoln’s life, I would need to refrain from anything close to criticism. Secretary of War, Stanton, said that he never heard Lincoln say anything bad about anyone in the years that he was acquainted with Lincoln. Stanton claimed that a person spoke harshly of a Southern secessionist in Lincoln’s presence. Lincoln replied, “Don’t criticize them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.” 

Lincoln’s ‘never criticize anyone’ attitude was severely tested during the Civil War. General after general of the Union Army was completely incompetent – McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker and Meade in succession. After a major blunder, Lincoln just thanked them for their service and replaced them with a new general. He had an attitude of “malice towards none, with charity for all.” According to Stanton, Lincoln was just finding the right man for the job. These were all fine gifted men; ideally suited for a different job.

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought during the first three days of July, 1863. During the night of July 4th, General Lee began retreating southward. A tremendous storm arose that night and by the time Lee reached the Potomac River he found the river swollen and impassible. Lee was trapped. He could not escape. This was the moment that Lincoln was waiting for. This was a golden opportunity to capture Lee and end the war. Lincoln gave General Meade an urgent message to attack immediately. In fact, Lincoln sent several messengers to Meade to stress the urgency of the moment. 

What did General Meade do? He called council of war and discussed the plan of attack with multiple advisors for many days. He telegraphed all manner of excuses for his lack of action back to Lincoln. Finally Meade responded to Lincoln that he refused to attack. During this time, the waters receded and Lee crossed the Potomac.  

Lincoln was furious. “What does this mean?” Lincoln cried to his son Robert, “We had them in our grasp, and had only to stretch out our hands and they were ours; yet nothing that I could say or do could make the army move. Under the circumstance, any general could have defeated Lee. If I had gone up there, I could have whipped him myself.”

The war could have ended, if only Meade had acted. In bitter disappointment, Lincoln sat down and penned a letter to General Meade. He listed his frustrations, anger and disappointment in the letter. But Meade never received the letter, because Lincoln never sent it. Instead, he shoved the letter into his desk drawer – only to be found after his death. 

In the days that followed, General Meade was actually defended by Lincoln from further criticism. Lincoln said, “If I had seen as much blood as Meade in Gettysburg and if my ears were pierced with the screams and shrieks of the wounded, maybe I wouldn’t be so eager to attack either.” Lincoln also understood Meade’s timid temperament and made accomodations for it. But Lincoln’s main reason for not criticizing Meade (or allowing criticism) is that this event had passed.  All of the criticism in the world could not change the circumstances.  

If Lincoln had sent the letter, it would have taken the burden off of Lincoln’s shoulders, but it would make Meade justify himself and it would arouse bitterness towards the critic and impair Meade's usefulness as the commander. 

On April 15, 1865 Abraham Lincoln lay dying in a lodging house across from the Ford theater and Secretary Stanton proclaimed, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men that the world has ever seen.”

Was Lincoln always a man of noble character? No. In Lincoln’s younger days as a lawyer, he was brash, impetuous and routinely mocked and ridiculed others.  In 1842, Lincoln ridiculed a vain pugnacious politician by the name of James Shields. Lincoln wrote a scathing article about Shields in the ‘Springfield Journal’. Shields, a very proud man, raged with anger and challenged Lincoln to a gun duel. Shields and Lincoln met on a sand bar on the banks of the Mississippi River prepared to die. At the last minute, friends had intervened; Lincoln apologized and retracted his statements. This event changed his life and he never criticized another person again.

But did Lincoln over react and place the balance point too far from criticism in the criticism – course correction continuum?

I look at my own life and I clearly do not like the direction that President Obama is taking the nation; from a perspective of pro-life, pro second amendment, pro business, limited government, limited spending, individual liberty, energy independence, etc. I see danger ahead resulting from the direction that he is heading. We had a golden opportunity to change course. 

Now, the opportunity is gone and I am bitterly disappointed. But I will move on and not criticize Obama. I have already said my part and speaking of the matter further will help me get frustrations off of my chest but only infuriate his supporters and produce resentment.  Should it be my attitude that Obama is fine gifted person, ideally suited for a different job?

For me to see trouble on the horizon and not to warn people that their actions and attitudes are leading to danger would be immoral.   In order to see where they are going I need to think critically and provide critical input on their direction but not be critical of who they are.

Drawing parallels to Lincoln, General Meade was eventually replaced as the commander of the union forces. Lincoln used some critical thinking to come to the conclusion that Meade was not the right person for the job. But Lincoln spoke highly of Meade and praised him…while replacing him. 

Balance is a manner of holding two opposing principles tightly to do the job that a single principle could not do.

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