Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Hypothetical Versus Reality

A father and his son are in the den one night. The son asks his father if he could explain the difference between the hypothetical and reality. The father thinks for a minute. The best place to start is with your mother. Go upstairs and ask her if she would sleep with a complete stranger for $1,000,000. The son does as instructed and goes upstairs and discusses the issue with his mother. He comes back down and informs his father that she would indeed sleep with a stranger for $1,000,000. Good the father says, go ask your sister the same question. He does and gets the very same answer – yes, she would sleep with a stranger for $1,000,000. Finally, the son demands, what does this have to do with the concept of the hypothetical versus reality? First off, the father informed his son, we have shown that the net worth of the household has just hypothetically increased by $2,000,000. The son agreed – what about reality? The father looked at this son – the reality is we just found out we have two hookers in the house.

Life is a constant struggle and movement from the hypothetical to reality. It starts at the moment of birth with the understanding that anything and everything is hypothetically possible. Over a lifetime, the hypothetical gives way to reality. The seven-year old just starting to play baseball enjoys the hypothetical opportunity to play in the major leagues. For the vast majority, the reality of ability, interest, and circumstance changes one’s outlook from 100% hypothetical to 100% reality. Nothing is more hypothetical than birth and nothing is more real than death. What you end up with is a gradual movement from one to the other.

Engineering follows the same path, from the theory of the hypothetical to the reality of the practical. The first semester of engineering coursework is 100% hypothetical – mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, etc. – the hypothetical foundations of engineering. Gradually the coursework moves from the hypothetical to reality. The development of a practicing engineer parallels the same path – less hypothetical and more reality. Over a 60-year career, we should probably think more about this imbalance – where more reality is needed earlier and more hypothetical is needed later. This would especially be true in industries and fields with rapidly changing technology – where retraining and constant introduction of the hypothetical, theory, and new knowledge are critical drivers of success. Changing demographics may also dictate the need for additional “theory training” as the date with 100% reality gets pushed farther into the future.

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