Pinewood derby, friction and angst

A few years ago Ninja spent some time pondering all that is involved in the making of a fast Pinewood Derby car. As part of that process we watched a handy little video that emphasized the physics of the enterprise, discussing potential and kinetic energy, friction, and drag.* We learned that the forces contributing to the car’s speed will be battling other forces that the designer (or the designer’s eager parent) tries hard to minimize.

Since I see analogies most everywhere, you can well imagine that I saw one here. First, let’s contemplate the energy in the system, some involved in forward motion at a certain speed, and some that manifests in heat caused by friction with the racetrack surface.

Now consider a “system” of a family. Maybe there’s a child and a parent that’s trying to get him to do something, like a household chore. A lot of potential energy (call it psychic energy if you will, though not the kind that manifests as ectoplasm) doesn’t get translated into forward motion of any kind. There’s some friction working on the system, and perhaps drag (it certainly feels like it!), so what was meant to be forward motion is instead converted into the psychological equivalent of heat: maybe exasperation or an impressive sulk.

Or perhaps there’s a smaller system, involving just me and my project. Maybe I’m ambivalent about the project, or lacking in confidence. Maybe a lot of the energy originally earmarked to carry me toward speedy completion gets diverted into the production of angst.

Pinewood derby enthusiasts have all kinds of angles to try–attaching special weights to their cars, driving the axles in at just the right angle, setting one wheel high so it doesn’t touch the track and contribute to the friction. They debate the kind of finish that will reduce air resistance, and use little tubes of dry graphite to enhance the spin of their wheels.

Some people get pretty intense about the derby.

While the days of my hands-on involvement with pinewood derby cars are behind me, most of the days ahead of me will be filled with interpersonal relationships and the interplay between forward motion and the friction that’s trying to slow me down. It’s worth my time to develop strategies to try to minimize emotional friction and drag.

I’m guessing that working to identify sources of either friction or drag would be a good first step. Off the top of my head, I’m guessing that perfectionism is a powerful source of drag, as is pride–if I need to make sure that everyone is aware that I’m not wrong at any given moment, you can bet that’s going to slow me down. Concentrating on the many ways that someone else in my system is “doing it wrong” is bound to throw sand in my wheels.

I have a hunch that it’s easier to make a lightning-fast pinewood derby car than to completely eliminate friction and drag in an emotional system. If you’ve got ideas to share on the latter, I’d love to hear them.

Also, where can I get the interpersonal equivalent of those little tubes of graphite?


*If you’d like a refresher on the physics most relevant to a pinewood derby car, I think the one we watched was this one.

[Images: Havoc315 (flickr),]




2 thoughts on “Pinewood derby, friction and angst

  1. Good one, Lori! I think the fathers, not the kids, get too competitive in pinewood derbies. We wanted our son to do his own, with a little guidance or suggestion from Dad, and he came out with one which looked like a kid did it. The other kids’ looked like Dad had done it….
    I like the analogy with family systems.!

    • I hear you on the fathers’ investment in the derby. Perhaps the dads who’re shouldering their sons aside remember there own dads doing the lion’s share on their cars as kids, and they’re unconsciously looking forward to finally having a turn 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s