Reflections on the Motive Power of Life

In 1824, Sadi Carnot published a paper, titled Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, which is considered the seminal work on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If the First Law spoke of Work, Energy and their transformation, the Second Law spoke of the constraints to that transformation.

There are several statements for the second law, which can all be summarized simply as the impossibility to create an engine that works with 100% efficiency. No matter how perfect the design and material are, only some amount of energy received as input will be converted into work, the rest gets wasted in the process; discarded to a heat sink. Thus, in real world the resulting action will always be lesser than the energy supplied for it, irrespective of the process. And, I want to discuss how universal this law is, but first let’s take a detour.

Successful individuals have always been the subject of keen scrutiny and research. Mankind has invested a lot of effort and resources to understand its greatest achievers and categorize their attributes. The curiosity is the facade to a widespread desire of formulating genius and mastery. A hope that exists despite the collective and historically proven lesson that rules may never fail but they have to be broken for reaching greatness.

There’s one aspect to greatness that stands out, primarily because it is almost always perceived as a fault by us lesser mortals. In an act of self-righteousness we blame the super achievers for a severe lack of balance, questioning their sanity, butting it (with a heart full of self-defeating malice) against our own ability to handle every aspect of our lives with equal attention and poise. But, is this balance responsible for our mediocre life? Let’s see.

The lack of balance in successful people is the direct result of an ability to focus on the task at hand to an extent that everything else drowns out, becomes indistinct chatter. This ability, in turn, comes from the complete disregard for the result. Let me explain. When we set out to do something, we meet failure more often. Success always seems like an elusive dream, within sight but never reachable. Being hard-wired to seek immediate results, every such disappointment comes with a strong urge to give up and follow the beaten path, embrace the mediocracy. Obviously, it is difficult to pursue your dreams with a mind busy seeking social approval and progress. This tendency to fixate on the result, never lets us obsess about our work, giving us a balanced perspective, but a common life. But then, how do the Greats resist the urge to seek gains? Are we the ones prioritizing it incorrectly? And here comes the Second Law to the rescue.

In life, just like in any other thermodynamic system, input exceeds the resulting output. You cannot expect all your effort to turn into fruitful gains, because a large chunk of it, inevitably, gets wasted. Since every action results in a definite loss of your faculty and resources, what you achieve in life is always less than what you invest to get it. So, if the sole motive behind your endeavour is success, or tangible gains, you might as well not take any action at all. Sitting and metabolizing should be your best bet, the path of least dissipation. Unless you discover a non-tangible gain which balances your loss. Unless you realize the joy of doing, the pleasure of finding simple and elegant solutions to complex problems, the revelry of manufacturing immaculate assemblies and precise fits, the beauty of designing intuitive and organic processes, the sheer exhilaration of using graphite to turn a blank piece of paper into an idea which ends up changing the world. Unless the only thing you care about is the task at hand (and not the success you might achieve if you happen to complete it).

2 thoughts on “Reflections on the Motive Power of Life”

  1. The word balance is a very subjective term and is almost an oxymoron… balance is extremely subjective and in the context that it has been used here, we must consider that the ability to push oneself to extremes where one can create or come with extraordinary bits and pieces of knowledge in itself can be considered as part of the natural balance as exists in the universe… So, I feel that the urge to explore and push the boundaries should be encouraged. Also, the result always matters. It is just that the result instead of a material or tangible gain is the sheer joy of living the process of exploration…

    1. Nature is balance. Everything about it is balanced. But even natural processes have failure and successes and extremes of all sorts. The normal photosynthesis process supports billions of life form and might be the major reasons for our survival on earth but it is so water intensive that vegetation in deserts had to evolve the process of “Crassulacean acid metabolism” to survive.

      I do not use lack of balance with a negative connotation here, and I am actually encouraging it. I just pointed out that some people derive so much pleasure out of their work that they ignore not only the other important aspects of their life, but also any trace of recognition or reward from the world around them. They might or might not understand this but, success is arbitrary. Our entire focus should be on the work we are doing, on being better in the field of our pursuit. If success comes, it should be considered as a by-product, as an unexpected, but welcome, outcome. As the famous french writer, Gustave Flaubert, once said: “Success as I see it, is a result, not a goal.”

      This piece is nothing but a thermodynamic proof of Karma Yoga, the eternal lesson Bhagvad Gita gave: Performance of prescribed duties, but without attachment to results, is the appropriate course of action.

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