Every one of us has a wonderful and mysterious superpower. It can help us solve problems, provide revealing insights, stimulate our creativity and generate ideas. It’s our subconscious mind.
Sometimes we need to wait until our thoughts fade and our brain is quiet before we can hear what it’s whispering to us. Other times, it can’t wait for that. It elbows its way in and loudly takes over before we even know what’s happening.
For many years I made my living as a machinist. In the mid-1980s I hired on at a company in Portland and after a year or two they assigned me to run a computer numerical controlled (CNC) machine. This was a semi-automated machine tool that could follow a set of instructions, similar to a computer program, and drill holes or do other machining operations over and over with great accuracy.
Even CNC machines of the 1980s had impressive features and capabilities, but my new assignment wasn’t one of those. The machine was already at least 10 years old, maybe 15. It read its programs off paper tapes with holes punched in a pattern. When it was new it could only read and follow one instruction at a time. Later it was made into kind of Frankenstein monster as they implanted a brain: a memory unit bolted to the front. That let us load the whole program at once and make edits if we needed to. In a pinch it was even possible to write and enter a whole new program, right there on the factory floor.
It was a quirky old beast but I got along with it and ran it for a couple of years. I was getting restless and ready for something different. I spoke to the foreman, who was always willing to move people around so we could cross train. A few weeks later I began breaking in my replacement and then I reported to my new assignment on the other side of the shop.
One day a few months later, we had a sort of perfect storm. My machine had broken down, so I was doing busy work while the mechanics fixed it. Then some “hot” parts were needed right away from the Frankenstein machine, but the new operator had taken the afternoon off. So the foreman came to get me and sent me over to run the hot job.
Now this was a manufacturing company and most of the parts we made were things we’d made many times before. We had cabinets full of those program tapes, each with notes about how to set the machine up. But as I looked over the paperwork I discovered these hot parts were something special, one-time-only prototypes for some kind of engineering test. There was no program and no set-up notes for me to go on this time. I would need to write the program myself and manually enter it into the brain.
I stepped up to the machine’s cold, dark console and began to feel panic welling up because I realized I had no idea how to run the thing anymore, not a clue. My mind was blank. The switches and buttons meant nothing to me.
But what could I do? Go tell the foreman, “Sorry, I can’t do this job. I don’t remember how”? I could imagine how that would go over. I would be the laughingstock of the machine shop for a long time.
My only option was to figure it out. OK, start by turning it on. Frankenstein’s brain lit up, awaiting my orders. I pulled a notepad and pocket calculator from my toolbox and tried to remember how to write a program. I knew I needed to have a line number for each instruction, so I started by listing those down the page. Then I worked out the trigonometry required, penciling my calculations on the blueprint.
Somewhere in there my subconscious mind kicked in. All these years later I vividly recall the strange sensation that came over me. To call it an out-of-body experience might be a stretch, but not by much. I felt like I was coming out of a trance when I realized my fingers were dancing over the console, flipping switches and twisting dials. I certainly didn’t feel like I was guiding them, they were acting all on their own.
It was more than just remembering my training and experience. It was instinct, a completely involuntary reaction. The line numbers on my notepad filled with instructions and I punched the keys to enter them in the brain. I did a dry run without a part in place to make sure my program worked. Satisfied, I ran the parts and reported back to the foreman when they were finished. They must have been right because I never heard anything different.
By then it was nearly the end of my shift, so I cleaned up my work area and got ready to go home. Nobody was aware of the fleeting terror I’d felt as I stood paralyzed before Frankenstein. Nobody was aware of how my superpower rescued me. Many times since then I’ve marveled at how the subconscious mind can present an idea or a solution to a problem, but nothing has ever equaled how it barged in and saved my bacon that day.
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