Your Money or Your Life

Sept. 4, 2003
Engineers face that question all the time. And sometimes, like Jack Benny, they seem to be thinking about what answer to give. What am I talking about? Honor versus income.

"All bad precedents begin as justifiable measures." --Julius Caesar

"Your money or your life!" shouted the mugger at Jack Benny, in a long-ago radio routine. Benny is silent.

"Didn't you hear me?" shouts the frantic mugger. "Yes!" replies Benny. "I'm thinking!"

Engineers face that question all the time. And sometimes, like Jack Benny, they seem to be thinking about what answer to give.

What am I talking about? Honor versus income.

There's a wonderful line in an otherwise gratuitously coarse movie, Rob Roy. Title-role actor Liam Neeson speaks it to his young son, who asks him, "What is honor?" His father says, "It's a gift a man gives himself."

Honor is closely tied to integrity--which means "to be all of a piece." Integrity means being who you say you are, whether anyone is watching or not. It means your word is your bond. It means keeping your commitments when the mood you were in when you made them is long past.

Honor is a function of character. Our character is the only thing that we acquire here that we take with us when we leave.

Character is the sum of our habits. And habits are formed by consistently made decisions.

Life is a schoo--and its motto is, "You'll do it 'til you do it right!" And you don't know when the next test will be administered.

Example: Your company is going through a tough time. And according to the news and your friends, it's not the only company in trouble. Rumors of coming layoffs increase.

Then it starts to happen. Two of your colleagues, people with more seniority than you, get pink slips. You are worried. What about the mortgage payment, the orthodontist?

Your boss come to you and asks you to come into his office. You fear the worst.

But at the meeting, he doesn't fire you or lay you off. Instead, he says, "You know that cheap design you rejected in the last project-team meeting? Management wants us to go ahead with it. Please have preliminary estimates to me by Monday."

You are flooded with relief. Your job is safe--at least for a while longer. You return to your desk and start on the estimates immediately.

But as you get into the details, it all comes back to you. This is the design you rejected because you knew it would be unsafe! You gather your notes, intending to go speak to your boss and remind him of the facts.

Then you stop. Your boss hasn't forgotten; that's why he made such a point of invoking management's dictum. If you go and make waves now, they just might let someone else do it--and let you go.

Rationalizations form quickly. "I don't need to worry; the manufacturing guys will never let it out the door. Besides, my boss has all the information; it's his responsibility, not mine. My first duty is to my family; this is the wrong time to make waves."

If this were a scene in a movie, you'd know exactly what was going on. You'd know just what the test was, and what the guy is supposed to do.

But it's not a movie; it's your life. What will you do?

Here's another example. Your boss makes a mistake. As a result, he gets in trouble with his management. He implies to them that the mistake was your fault. When you hear about it, you ask him why he blamed you. He invents a reason to defend his "lapse of memory."

You want to go to his management and point out that the problem was not caused by you. But then your boss will probably be angry at you--and you might endanger your job. On the other hand, if you just let it go, you will be allowing management to believe the wrong thing about you, which will boomerang to your damage in the future, and you're sending a message to your boss that he can malign you with impunity.

These are pivotal moments. Your money or your life! Will you do what is honorable, regardless of the risk to your income? Or will you choose apparent safety? Will you choose "peace in our time," as Neville Chamberlain called his cowardly appeasement of Hitler?

Rabbi Nachman said, "The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the main thing is not to fear." Honor is the width of that bridge--and there are no guardrails. Staying on the bridge requires constant decisions based on continual awareness. No one can make you stay on or fall off. And no one can keep you from falling off, either.

"He who steals my purse, steals trash. But he who steals my good name, steals all that I have," said Shakespeare's Falstaff.

And consider Thomas Paine's caution: "Character is much easier kept than recovered."

is an author, consultant, and public speaker. He consults to Fortune 500 companies, high-tech startups, and government agencies on CAE issues. He is the founder of the League for Engineering Automation Productivity (LEAP) and has been an Autodesk Distinguished Fellow and the Bentley Engineering Laureate. A long-time Computer-Aided Engineering columnist, in the CAD/CAM Monthly e-mail newsletter, Dr. Orr will continue with his reflections on all aspects of engineering. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his Web site:

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