Friction, Traction, and Drag

On our way to any destination, what helps and hinders our progress?

I am currently halfway through reading The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas by Loran Nordgren and David Schonthal, which I recommend. It describes “the four Frictions” that keep us from adopting new ideas or behaviors: Inertia, Effort, Emotion, and Reactance. How fascinating and helpful! It makes sense to think of friction as something that hinders motion and progress, something to be overcome. We consider kinetic energy wasted when friction converts it to heat, and experience real consequences of equipment failure, injury, and stagnation from the burn of chafing contact in motion.

Then again, when is friction desirable? Imagine hiking, mountain climbing, or attempting to traverse any path with the surface covered in a sheet of smooth ice or a thick oil slick. Either we get nowhere, or somewhere we don’t want ‘way too fast. Even for Olympic speed skaters, blade contact with the most pristine ice track still requires some friction–an ideal amount–to gain enough purchase to push against and maintain control.

I submit that in movement of any kind–physical, political, behavioral, emotional, etc–we need optimal friction. Stability requires friction; we depend on it for orientation, to know where we start. Optimal friction coefficient over an ideal surface area provides traction–enough resistance to push against, the stability to launch forward with power. Tire treads, soccer cleats, chalk on a pool cue–we know how to modify objects for maximal traction and performance.

How can we modify our mindsets similarly? What does it cost us to make everything too easy, to remove all friction on the path to achievement? For three years I have exercised in my basement, doing things I know, challenging myself minimally. I have gained strength and maintained confidence in my movements, and also stagnated in my fitness. Joining a fitness community pushes me; I get to reassess my assumptions of capacity and limits. It introduces healthy friction. The tribe here gives me something to test against, strengthening through challenge, elevating my achievement. Additionally, I feel positive peer pressure to eat healthier, a perennial stuggle for me. Communing with folks who care for their bodies with whole foods increases the psychological discomfort (friction?) I feel from eating junk–even when I’m not with them–and voila, my nutrition patterns are changing for the better.

What is the relationship between friction, traction, and drag?

Friction can help or hinder. Traction requries an optimal quantity and distribution of friction for both stability and mobility–I think of it as a kind of potential energy. We understand the concept of traction easily from common vernacular, but what about ‘drag’, other than as late 20th Century social slang? I love the internet, where you can Google, “What is drag in physics” and get it directly from NASA:

“Drag is a mechanical force. It is generated by the interaction and contact of a solid body with a fluid (liquid or gas). It is not generated by a force field, in the sense of a gravitational field or an electromagnetic field, where one object can affect another object without being in physical contact. For drag to be generated, the solid body must be in contact with the fluid. If there is no fluid, there is no drag. Drag is generated by the difference in velocity between the solid object and the fluid. There must be motion between the object and the fluid. If there is no motion, there is no drag. It makes no difference whether the object moves through a static fluid or whether the fluid moves past a static solid object.”

So drag is the resistance of the milieu to movement of an object. It is the cultural current against which innovation swims upstream, a result of the inherent viscosity of any given system. I think of it as another form of friction, but one that only hinders.

If I’m trying to change, to move something, what are the sources of negative friction, positive traction, and drag? Of these, which are modifiable and not? Where and how can I gain a foothold or grip, to push or pull myself onward? Where do I need to apply some lubricant and relieve or release a counterproductive grind? How does the environment need to change, or how can I change my orientation within it, so I may glide more easily toward my goal?

“Drag is generated by the difference in velocity between the solid object and the fluid.” Hmmm. So if I claim my role as change agent, then I must decide how much drag I’m willing and able to tolerate, how much I can afford in cost of fuel for thrust, and what velocity of change will satisfy me. I have to think that my vector matters, also. Head on opposition to a strong and established current, versus a hard left diversion, versus introducing a small fork or bumper in the terrain… I can consider all of these and more, depending on my goals and the ambient conditions.

OH this is such a fun thought experiment! Framing my goals, plans, and actions in terms of friction, traction, and drag allows me to step back from my own tunnel vision, to see a complex adaptive system perhaps more concretely and objectively, even dispassionately. Whether it’s my own personal health habits or the professional culture of medicine, this analogy feels helpful. I wonder how it will continue to manifest hereafter?

2 thoughts on “Friction, Traction, and Drag

  1. “OH this is such a fun thought experiment!” Cathy, whether you are baking bread, interacting with your patients or family, learning or teaching, it strikes me that you are almost always having fun. So commendable and inspirational.

    Liked by 1 person

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