By Steve Fisher
Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking 17th century work Principia Mathematica is a paradigm shifting classic of physics and mathematics. After more than 300 years it is still the foundation of classical mechanics and accurately explains our physical world at everything but the atomic level (at which quantum mechanics applies).
Newton’s 1st law of motion is the cornerstone of this foundation and on day one of any physics course you are sure to learn it:
Bodies at rest remain at rest and bodies in motion continue in motion, unless acted on by an external force.
For instance, a comet hurtling through space continues at the same speed and in the same direction until the gravitational force of planet, star or other large body changes its course. Or, if Lois Lane is trapped in a car rolling towards a cliff, we’re on the edge of our seats in the theater and hoping Superman will leap in front of the car and push in the other direction.
Bodies in motion continue in motion…
People are like this as well, I think.
All of us are moving through this world in various directions and at various speeds, or we’re stuck in a certain place, and unless some force is applied, we keep on keeping on in that same way.
Rather than talking about the general direction we are moving in our lives though I think it’s much more interesting and instructive to think about our direction in each of various important parts of our lives.
🤓Warning – geekiness ahead🤓
I’m going to geek out for a bit and if this isn’t your thing, I invite you to skip to the end of this section (which I’ve marked), or even the entire written part of this post, and enjoy the photos, the way you might do with an issue of National Geographic or Playboy.
Back to people as bodies in motion or at rest, we can move physically in only three dimensions (forward-backward, left-right, up-down), and time marches on as a fourth dimension of our physical world.
Our progress in our lives though can be thought of as movement in an n-dimensional space. We’re not just moving through our lives, we’re doing so in specific directions and at specific speeds in many different areas – in our relationships, in our careers, in terms of our emotional and mental health and so on. (In mathematics, this space is known as a n-dimensional coordinate space and the state of our lives at any given time is an n-dimensional vector.)
The number of dimensions is n (ie, some number) and not, say, five, because our lives are made up of many parts but how many is an open question, and this of course varies from person to person. For example, most adults have a romantic and sexual dimension to their lives and consider that very important, but in all likelihood the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis do not.
Also, while the number of dimensions in our lives could be considered infinite it’s not very useful to do so. For example, we may be making no progress at all in understanding the spinning top ending of the film Inception. We may be as imperfect as always at the delicate art of dividing the restaurant bill after a dinner with friends. Perhaps we’re making slow but steady progress in acquiring the patience needed to attend to a risotto on the stove (Italians say it needs constant attention like a newborn baby).
If you think of the detail and complexity of most human lives the number of possible dimensions is really unlimited. In practice though that’s not very useful because we can’t focus on an unlimited number of things, and in fact it’s best to not even try. While Christopher Nolan is a fabulous director it may be best to accept that the end of Inception made no sense and move on.
So, as a practical matter it’s best to think of our lives as having a fixed number of important areas and focus on those, but also recognize that the number of important areas varies from person to person – ie, to think of our lives as an n-dimensional space.
😎End of geeky section😎
We can be making excellent progress in some dimensions of our lives and stuck or even sliding backwards in others. For example, on a scale of 1 to 10 we might give ourselves a strong 9 in our professional lives, an 8 in our relationships, but only a 4 in personal development and a 6 in health.
In each important part of our lives we’re heading in a certain direction and at a certain speed, or we’re stuck in place, and that state of affairs generally stays the same unless something is done to change it. Unless some force is applied.
Take the saying “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” for instance. This is an intentional oversimplification and there are a lot of exceptions of course, but as a generalization I think there is some truth to it. We can think of this saying as a restatement of Newton’s 1st law as applied to personal finance. Wealthy people, self made ones at least, are wealthy because they think and act in ways that contribute to the accumulation of wealth (they take intelligent risks, for example). The financial dimension of their life is strong and positive.
The poor, on the other hand, are poor because they think and act in ways that are not helpful financially (they make excessively “safe” choices in their working lives, take on a lot of high interest consumer debt, etc.). Almost none of this is luck.
In this world, we make our own luck.
In fact, “the rich get richer” aphorism can be reworked for almost any area of our lives.
The thin get thinner, the fat get fatter. Their behaviors and internal metabolic processes (and there is a genetic component to this) have them at a healthy equilibrium, steadily gaining weight, etc.
The happy get happier, the sad get sadder.
People with integrity continue to act with honesty, and people who are deceptive keep on deceiving.
And so on and so on. There is really no limit to the insights that Newton’s 1st law can offer for our lives.
In each area of our lives we’re moving in a certain direction and at a certain speed, or completely inert, and we can only change that with the application of some force.
What is that force?
I’ll consider this in my next post, the second of a planned two New Year themed posts on personal change.