Hartley Brody

Overthinking Things

I’ve always been one to shoot from the hip. I go with my gut, and then reevaluate if necessary. After all, smart people change their minds a lot.

But I’ve found it’s also really easy to get stuck overthinking some things. What tie should I wear? Which apartment should I live in? What do I want to do with my life?

Sometimes there are so many options that we’re overwhelmed. Sometimes we get competing feedback from our trusted advisors. We waste so much time thinking about it, that we never pull the trigger. Opportunity passes us by.

Overthinking the decision about generating lift.

I stumbled across an apt analogy the other day that really framed the issue of overthinking things.

A friend of a friend saw my article about the weather balloon I sent to space. He reached out with a few questions and we started a good discussion via email.

At one point, he mentioned that he needed to do a bunch of calculations to figure out the amount of helium he would need in order to generate enough lift to send the balloon into the atmosphere with all of its cargo.

It struck me that I had never even given any thought to those calculations when I sent up my balloon. At the time, I wanted to make the launch happen quickly. My intuition simply said to keep things light, and use as much helium as I could.

If I did that, it would just kinda go upwards. And it did.

But suddenly I panicked that I had missed something. There must have been a bunch of science that I totally skipped over that would help me figure out exactly what I needed. So I dug out my Ideal Gas Law notes from my high school AP Chemistry class, and started coming up with a model for the balloon’s flight.

Okay, let’s see. PV = nRT

P is for pressure and I’m sure we can calculate that based on how tight the balloon is. Not exactly sure how we’d measure that thought. But wait, won’t the pressure on the outside of the balloon change as it rises into thinner air? Hmm, we’ll skip that and come back to it.

V is volume and that should be easy to measure on the ground. Get the diameter of the balloon, then cut it in half and plug it into 4/3 π r 3. I’d have to make sure I keep track of my units.

T is for temperature and I definitely know that’ll be changing from the surface going upwards. Would wind chill factor into this? What about winds that might blow the balloon up or down? Hmm… We’ll come back to this one too.

n is the amount of gas, measured in… moles? Oh boy.

What am I trying to do? Calculate lift? In pounds?

That’s when I stop scratching my head and took a step back. If I really wanted to, I could spend hours diving into this problem and doing a bunch of calculus. But even if I did all that, there would still would be a lot of variables that would be hard to measure and predict at all!

So even if I did all that work to try and come up with an approximation, I’d still wouldn’t learn much more than I already knew – that I need the highest helium:weight ratio in order to maximize success. Even without all the math and consternation, the balloon would still rise if I went with my instincts.

Why overthink it, if I already knew the answer?

One of the greatest ironies of life is that often, the answers we spend so long looking for end up being right in front of our faces the whole time.

Don’t overthink things. Trust you instincts.