Raw thoughts from Alex Dong

Work life balance when you work involves other's life

Think it’s hard to keep a balanced life? Check this one out. The ex NASA Space Shuttle Flight Director wrote how he looked back on 2002 when he seems to live a balanced life but end up costing people’s life. Certainly not directly but …

Looking back on it; the job and all my extracurricular activities, it’s a wonder I had time to sleep.  I guarantee I wasn’t bored.

But this walk down memory lane is not about trying to impress you; no doubt you have had similarly active times in your own life.  The point is that we started to miss critical safety issues in 2001 and 2002.  In early 2003 we paid the price for that inattention.

So I ask you; in a high reliability organization, one which is engaged in risky, highly complex activities with cutting edge technology; how much time does any individual need to devote to making the activity successful and safe?

Nothing on my list of activities was a bad thing; without a doubt I was making a difference to my family and in my community.  Some life moments are inescapable; death of a beloved family member is one of those.  No matter how far in advance you see it coming, you can never be ready for that.

The old saying “all work and no play makes jack a dull boy” also bears elements of truth.  Time for recreation and reflection is necessary to do ones best.

But in spite of all of that rationalization, a decade later, the regret over not playing a more important role, one that would have prevented the Columbia tragedy, lays like a pall over my memories of those days.

He grew even bitter admitting that

When you are in a High Reliability Organization, you have to pay attention.  The more extreme the risk, the more difficult the environment, the more complex the technology, the more attention you must pay.  But life intrudes.  As the song says, there are planes to catch and bills to pay, and too there are little children to play with.  You cannot work all the time, and if the balance gets too far either way, a price will be exacted.  Once upon a time I wrote:  “pay attention, do good work, have no regrets”.  True, but far too simplistic.

In 2002 I thought we were paying the right level of attention to the shuttle.  I thought I was paying the right level of attention to the shuttle.  I was a Flight Director.  I was also a husband and a father and active in my community.  I thought I could do it all.

I was wrong.

So work was a 60 hour a week job; it was always on my mind.  There were a thousand details to plan and decide and brief to management.  Even then I recognized that there were a million details in the shuttle business that I couldn’t participate in; there just wasn’t enough time or energy for any one person to do it all.  The folks in the shuttle program office, Ron Dittemore, Linda Ham, and the rest, they had a tough job.  Tougher than you know.  Tougher than I knew at the time.  Everybody played their part, everybody was highly motivated, everybody wanted the shuttle to succeed, and yet, within months, we were all to fail.

Why?  Listen and learn.  Maybe you will avoid failure.  But don’t count on it.