Phase Change

Society has a tendency to make us feel like we’re stagnant in a world that’s constantly moving forward — to make us feel like those dreams we’ve been working on might just be as out-of-reach as everyone said because, well, what do you have to show for the work you’ve already put in? Sometimes it feels like you’re treading water or like you’re building this thing with sand, and every so often, right when you take the plastic, castle-shaped cup off the top of your creation, a wave rushes in and leaves you with a sloppy pile of what-could-have-been. And, maybe it’s not so dramatic as all your effort being swept away, but rather this feeling of, “What was all that for? Why did I do all that work for nothing?”

When I was in school, I learned about states of matter — you know, solids, liquids, gas (plasma if you’re crazy) — and  we were taught about what it takes to get from one to the other. We looked at graphs of what happens to the temperature of different things when you start adding energy (or heat) to them. And, contrary to what your instinct might tell you, there was no such thing as a straight line. It wasn’t just this nice, gradual change from solid to liquid to gas. In fact, most of the phase diagrams ended up looking like a small set of stairs, starting with a diagonal line going upward but then leveling out at certain points into a completely horizontal line — and the pattern continued like that from solid to liquid to gas. Let me illustrate.

Let’s say you have a solid like butter, and all you want to do is melt it down to a liquid. So, you put it on the stove, turn on the heat, and wait. You’ll notice it doesn’t change instantly. Even as the amount of energy put into that butter is rising because it’s being heated on the stove, it doesn’t look (at least initially) like it’s changing into a liquid or getting any hotter. Then, if I’m putting energy into something and its temperature isn’t rising, what’s that energy even doing? Is it even worth it? Side note: If you were proactive and looked up an example of a phase diagram, you’ll be able to visualize what I’m about to say a little better, and if you read this and want to look one up now, I’ll wait. 

Sweet. Welcome back. On your diagram, you’ll notice those flat parts that I mentioned earlier. Well, those are what’s happening when it looks like nothing is happening to your butter. Just straight, sideways lines — not up and not down. So, what’s that energy doing if it’s not going into raising that butter’s temperature? It’s breaking all those atomic bonds that have to be broken to make the jump from something boring like a solid into something hella-sweet like a liquid. Energy is like currency, and you can only pay for one thing at a time, and maybe it’s not going toward something so noticeable as that rise in temperature, but it is working toward something.

Well, I think that’s the most elaborate metaphor I’ve ever used in one of these things, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t illustrate the point. Careers can force us to live these moments of life like chapters in a book for so long that we find ourselves looking ahead to see how many pages are left. But, we still have to read to the end. We have to go through eras where it seems like we’re working and working (and working) but nothing is happening because we’re building momentum. We’re breaking the bonds that held us in place, so that we can become something different — and it’s never obvious that it’s happening. You just have to know that it is.