Diamonds and Graphite

[Edit: Math]

It’s a time of nontrivial pressure here at my work, as we arrive at the end of one Fiscal Year and on the precipice of another. Like a calendar New Year this invites all sorts of process of evaluation and review and planning, meaning that if you are a front-line manager you are currently juggling the evaluation of your individual team members (both career wise and performance wise, which I would argue are two different things), the evaluation of the team as a whole (did we do the things we said we were going to do and if not why not), the planning for what the team will do in the coming period (as informed by previous), and the budgeting for that plan (which… is a bit more constrained everywhere). Every year we “kid” ourselves that come the new Fiscal Year things will Calm Down because we will have Sorted Out Last Year and we have a Plan For Next Year; and in some cases, that’s legit. In others, it is an invitation to self-delusion.

One analogy I hear a lot is how you can’t make a diamond without pressure. Sure – that is principally correct, if you want those carbons matrixed such that they create a 10 on the hardness scale and you can use them to be effective tools to cut other things (e.g., industrial diamonds) or inspire awe and avarice (e.g., diamond adornment) then rock on: apply your pressure to that carbon. It’s expensive, but the end product is useful, and sometimes pretty.

You know what else is made of pure carbon? Graphite. The stuff in your pencils (whether they be Dixon Ticonderoga or mechanical pencils) is graphite, and it’s *elementally the same* as diamond, it’s just configured differently. If a diamond is matrixed carbon, graphite are cellular sheets of carbon. (You can see diagrammatic and explanatory differences here). While graphite requires pressure too (about 75k lbs/square inch to form), Diamonds require tenfold more pressure.

Diamonds and graphite are measured differently — even the goth diamonds (industrial diamonds) are priced in carats (about 0.20 oz) and graphite is priced in ton (one ton =2000 pounds, 1 pound =16 ounces, so the differential there is 32k). Industrial diamonds can be priced as low as 12 cents per carat (I’m using industrial diamonds here because they produce work, vs other diamonds are for “art”). Graphite is running about $2281 per ton. In terms of value, graphite is then about $1.10 per pound and industrial diamonds are about $1.92, so the price difference is about a fifth of the pressure difference.

You get what you pay for. But what do you want?

You wouldn’t, for example, use an industrial diamond to sort out your notes, to sketch things, to use as a heat sink for your laptop, for use in a battery, to reinforce plastic or to deflect radar; you wouldn’t use graphite to grind or cut things. The pressure exerted produces a fundamentally different material and you use the material differently. The markets are also different: the Industrial Diamond market is projected to be $2.5bn by 2028, Graphite is headed to $25.7bn in the same year.

Which is a link-and-fact-ridden way to say that if you are valuing the pressure for the pressure’s sake then you are not valuing anything at all. You can hone a clump of carbon into a very, very specific tool with very, very specific use cases in a narrow-ish market (again, unless you’re doing it for “art”), or you can use about a tenth of the pressure and get a fundamentally broader application from your toolset.

If the metaphor hasn’t hit you with a carbon-fiber baseball bat yet, here we go: reveling in the volume of pressure applied to personnel for the value that “people work well under pressure” and “you can really see the value people provide when they are under pressure” is a detrimental and flawed approach. If what you want to do is hone that particular person into that particular niche, understand that you are developing a very, very hard matrix in that human that will allow it to go and cut things and grind things but at the expense of its ability to buffer things, to connect things, and to elucidate things. Or if you are asking the human to do both of those things then you will get neither well.

Sure, people are not elements (well technically people are elements, collections of them, but whatever). People have the ability to compartmentalize, to have sentience, to make decisions, and to make choices. Some of us were hardened and pressured and then had things written in our reviews like “bodies in the wake”; it takes a lot of hard work on the person upon whom pressure was applied to de-matrix their carbons and get to those nice flowy sheets (Years. It takes years, trust me).

We should not spend all of our efforts trying to create batches of diamonds alone, and we should identify and appreciate the need for graphite.

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