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Splitting Arrows


A cupboard door that won’t close, a screw that won’t go into its hole, a boat that bangs the dock while entering its slip, or a team that seems at cross-purposes with itself. What do these all have in common? They are all examples of misalignment. What is noteworthy about alignment and misalignment is the astonishing results that alignment can create and the equally astonishing disasters from even minor misalignment. Some examples will illustrate this point.


The English Channel Tunnel is more than 50 km (31 miles) in length. The tunnel was bored from opposite ends that aligned within 58 centimeters (23 inches) when they met. The angular error between the bores came to a remarkably small .00066 degrees. Consider that a pencil, laid on your desk with one end raised by a single sheet of paper, will have an angle 45 times the tunnel’s misalignment, and you start to get the idea.


Another example of precision alignment appears in archery, where hitting the bullseye on a target at 70 m represents an alignment accuracy of 0.1 degrees. Meanwhile, splitting an arrow (called “Robin Hooding”) is not uncommon, and represents an accuracy of .0038 degrees, an alignment that is one eighth of the angle in our pencil example.


To start with, you have to be crystal clear about your own values.

Misalignments can cause equally impressive results in the other direction. Consider the 1999 loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter. This $328 million debacle resulted from a unit conversion error that caused the orbiter’s trajectory to break alignment and disintegrate in the Martian atmosphere.


When it comes to people, alignment of values, goals, and purpose is also essential. Without these, people will work at cross-purposes, and much energy will be expended while little will get done. With them, the rails are greased, and everything runs smoothly. In a darker vein, the most effective way to create group alignment is a common threat posing clear and present danger. This occurred for Americans during both world wars, but when threats are ambiguous alignment is more difficult. American involvement in Vietnam is a prime example of where military objectives and political ideals were misaligned, resulting in upwards of a million deaths and a major loss in America’s political currency abroad and at home.


At the individual level are ubiquitous quotes about the importance of values alignment and being in integrity, and to be sure, living out of alignment with our values is a direct path to suffering. But how do we avoid misalignment? It’s not that easy. In my personal experience I have found it helps to be crystal clear about my own values, and not just mimicking those around me. I had to think for myself to articulate my moral code. That provided the road, but the road still needed guardrails. The best I have found for that is to create a habit of asking a simple question*: Is the thing I am about to do aligned with my values?


*See my July 2022 blog, It’s Questionable.


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