The input signal

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Below is the simplest version of what is known as a block diagram for a closed-loop control system.  It is used in engineering fields to conceptualize a system that we want to control.  Bear with me, there are insights about life to be derived from looking at the world through the eyes of an engineer… hard to believe, I know!


So, let’s examine the diagram while considering a real engineering system so we can gain a thorough understanding of how it works.  How about the heating system for your home?  For your home heating system, the “Input Signal” is the temperature you have selected on your thermostat.  This is the temperature you are asking the system to hold in your house. The “Controller” is the decision making logic in the system.  It decides when to change the things we have control over.  In this case, we can only control whether your furnace is on or off.  The “Process” includes all the thermal dynamics of your house including the heat input provided by your furnace.  The “Output” is the actual temperature in your house.  Your thermostat displays both the input and the output and, if your system is working well, they will be the same.  The “Feedback” is simply the output sent back and compared to the input to measure how far off we are.  So you can see that the controller receives an error signal telling it how far the output is from what is desired.  A good control system will generate an output that tracks quickly and accurately with the input even when it changes.  There, you just completed Control Systems 201.

We humans operate in much the same way as we navigate our lives. Our input signal is the version of ourselves that we aspire to.  Our controller is our decision making, and our process includes all the actions we take and how they interact with the world around us. We are constantly monitoring a thousand feedback signals to determine how we’re doing, and making adjustments in response.

One could dig deep into each one of these block diagram components and come up with a long list of ways we get fouled up in our lives.  It might be a great tool for psychoanalysis, or it might make you crazy J

I’d like to put the focus on our input signal, our idea about the person we should be or the person we want to be.  This would be the gold standard.  This is the image of what we are striving for. Where do we come up with this?  I suspect we sift through all the characters that we’ve encountered in the real world and in stories and we select the ones that we admire the most.  From that group we find a few that we feel we can actually identify with and we create a kind of nebulous mental combination of them which we hold up to be our ultimate goal.

I think we are making a huge mistake.  It turns out that, no matter how hard we try to look for one, there is no real input signal to be found. Everything that poses as an input signal is a compromise, a collection of stories that have already been told.  These stories are a safe place where we can hide from the door that stands wide open before us.

This is why people will always be a different sort of thing than machines.  For people there is no input signal, because there is no specific model for a desired output. There is nothing we can point to and say, “This is what we are aiming for”. Each person comes along as the first and last of his kind and finds his identity in the abandonment of any preconceived ideas. It is in letting go and loosening our grip on control that we find our true selves.  I’m not suggesting a low standard.  I am suggesting the highest standard possible unfettered by expectations and the same old stories.  We can stop trying to track with the old idea and let it go. “Whoever loses their life for me will find it” as the famous passage goes. We are flying blind just like all the great ones who went before us.  There is guidance to be found, yes, but we’re going to need to have faith.

If you choose this kind of life, whatever happens will not have been done before.