14 October 2021

The Machine

A great cog is one that has lost its place

Gladstone, Queensland, is a quirky town in many respects.

This thought occurred to me as I was sitting and watching the sun set over the Gladstone harbour one day.

One of its defining characteristics is that it is host to a wide variety of heavy industries — coal, liquified natural gas, alumina, cement, ammonium nitrate and power generation.

Within this small, seemingly obscure regional Queensland town, there were these great machines working diligently and silently every single hour of every year towards the production of value — in the form of alumina that is used in the creation of new metals, coal that heats up a foreign overseas town and cement towards the construction of new high rise buildings in an up-and-coming metropolitan city.

Working in synergy

A functional ecosystem operates like a network of well oiled machines.

Within any one well oiled machine, there are a multitude of separate, individual components working together in tandem. Individual actions that have to synergise and accumulate their efforts to the ultimate outcome of generating power. Power which then fuels and facilitates the functioning of the wider ecosystem.

If a cog within one of the well oiled machines strays out of its usual pattern of operation, it tends to have a negative knock on effect on the rest of the system that it is deeply intertwined with.

Each individual cog is then, by necessity, intentionally designed to operate within a pre-determined range in order to produce a pre-determined range of outcomes.

No more, no less, just what is required. The ultimate achievement is to match what is expected. To do anything other than this is to thwart the order of the system.

What happens when things go outside of the bounds?

A noisy, underperforming cog easily gets filtered out and is replaced in preservation of the whole.

A good cog is the one that just produces results, day in and day out, without complaint. It is reliable and trustworthy, turns up at the right time at the right place, looks the part and does what it is told indefinitely and unconditionally.

A great cog is the one that produces all that a good cog does, and then some. Greatness is when expectations are transcended, and this would usually be seen as an act against the interests of the system. It is the black sheep among all the white coats. It is out of place and does not belong there.

If greatness is attained by exceeding what is good, there is no virtue in transcending expectations within a stable system that prizes order and pre-defined outputs.

Find a worthy machine

This post is not intended to be a rebellious statement against “the system”. An orderly human society consists of a vast network of well oiled machines, and within each of those individual machines are the individual human cogs who choose to invest their time, their life and conscious efforts towards some collective goal. It is precisely thanks to that order and stability that things do not dissolve into aimless chaos.

Instead, this is intended to be a reminder of sorts. If not for anyone else, for myself.

To find a worthy machine, where the expectations of “good” are far beyond where you think you can currently reach. This can then become a personal search for your greatness.

When the day comes, when you manage to comfortably achieve what is “good” and your work inches towards the territory of greatness, of exceeding the established expectations within that particular machine, do not feel encumbered by the sunk cost of past efforts. That is the time to set your sights even higher, or to climb back down the trail and to choose your next mountain.

Do not settle during your search for a machine that is worthy of dedicating your life to. To dedicate your life towards something is to choose to expend a portion of the finite amount of time you have in this world, be it a few weeks, months or multiple consecutive years. This is not the right place to “settle”.

Choose wisely, in service of pushing humanity forward towards a great future.