SINGULARITY OF PURPOSE AND THE MISSION TO MARS

How to find the things that should get all our attention

Photo credit: Wavegraphix

It’s hard to define, but we know it when we see it. Singularity of purpose. It’s in the eyes of those people who are hell-bent on exactly one thing.

One. Thing.

Making the perfect steak. Running the perfect mile. It’s not important what they’re focused on. The objective is clear: nothing else matters in the pursuit, and everything else is noise.

Like almost everyone on the planet, I’ve had to examine what I do with my time lately. The optionality of the past has been replaced by the singularity of the now. In mathematical terms, we’ve reduced the variables to just a handful, and the operations we can perform on those variables have diminished alarmingly. Whereas Saturday night somehow felt different from Tuesday night, in the new reality the parameters are the same: same variables, same constants, same damn equation. While we are slowly opening up the world, we also know that tomorrow will, very likely, mirror today. Things won’t be much different.

The idea of a single purpose, a thread that can tie together the meaninglessness, really has some major appeal.

Think about the Mars mission. The engineers in the control room were positively stoked when the rover touched the planet. Jumping up and down. Laughing. Crying. It was more fun to watch the engineers celebrate than it was to stare at that little vehicle slowly spinning its way towards the surface of the planet. Why? Because we were witnessing singularity of purpose. An effort that each and every engineer in that room held dear; the number one, single reason they had to get up in the morning, for a goodly number of years. Just thinking about it, living vicariously through them, even for a few seconds, was exhilarating.

I was part of an earlier, unsuccessful Mars mission, in the ’90s. While our leadership had a lot of explaining to do to the government funding board when it was clear we’d lost the spacecraft, we still felt, after three years of single-minded purpose, that the effort was worthwhile. And it wasn’t just that “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” thing. It was the knowledge that we were lucky enough to be doing something singular, and we were devoted to paying attention to it all the time, every waking moment. We worked twenty-four-hour shifts when the launch date came near. We had to launch when Mars was closest to Earth. Missing that deadline meant a wait of two more years and the likely loss of funding at the end.

We were truly, honestly focused on doing One Thing.

It didn’t matter if the spacecraft got there (well, I was a junior member of the team; it probably mattered very, very much to the top echelon). For us, though — my friends, my drinking buddies, my colleagues — it was all about the launch. Launch. Launch. Launch. We ate it, we breathed it. We spoke of nothing else. Our partners pretty much gave up on us. Which brings me to the dark side of singularity of purpose.

If optionality brings many opportunities to fail, singularity brings with it something even more ruinous: the lure of perfection.

If anything goes wrong in the pursuit of singularity, those who pray to this shrine will stop at nothing to sit in judgment of anyone and anything they believe got in their way. Steak overdone? You distracted me. Not meeting the running goal? You got in my way. Even fun things can get tiresome when singularity wins the day. The bright side of the human equation is that we tend towards reason, eventually, and singularity rarely sticks around forever. There’s always another, more interesting thing to focus on. New technology, new love interest, new job.

But when the singularity is there, even if it doesn’t last longer than just one barbeque season, it’s an amazing feeling.

We should always be on the lookout for it.

Because singularity is, paradoxically, something we can share with others. We can applaud it from the sidelines, we can encourage someone to go after it, or we can take the plunge ourselves. The excitement that we create around singularity is, itself, a singularity. A series of intertwining, interactive accomplishments.

Congratulate yourselves for reaching beyond the year mark in the pandemic. You did get something done. You became the new, singular, and fantastic, you.

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