The Value of Margins – Six lessons From Ladders and Air Traffic Control

Margins.I have come to appreciate the value of margins.  This happened during a season when my husband took too a tumble from a ladder while trimming a tree. Yes, there was a running chainsaw involved.  We are thankful the only damage from the incident was a broken left heel bone.

Nonetheless, crutches in a three-story house, trips to specialists, me becoming his chauffeur, and generally having to pick up the tasks that require two good feet (which is more than one realizes) to keep up with daily life was a challenge for both of us. Many goals and plans had to be put on hold, although we did soldier on in many ways.

We even did some things we might not have done just as a diversion like Tuesdays on the Terrace at our local botanical gardens. We received wonderful aid from our church family so that the lawn stayed mowed until cool weather set in.  We are grateful that the outcome was not worse. Very grateful. Yes, very very grateful.

However, this kind of thing messes with one’s goals, plans, and dreams. It also taps into the reserves or margins one tries so carefully to build into life.  These past few months have demonstrated the value of margins. Especially when life throws you a curveball.

I have not always been good at creating and maintaining margins. I tend to run on the “edge”, a trait common with first-born high-achieving types. As a child, my mother regularly treated bumps, scrapes, and bruises as I tested the margins of daily life. There were even a few trips to the ER for stitches and those good old plaster casts to deal with the aftermath of me falling over or off the edge of something.


What they are, where they are, and their purposes for us as we walk our life’s Stonebridge has been on my mind as I have been more aware of their presence during this experience. Thanks to Micheal Hyatt, my virtual mentor, and his insights on the value of margins in our lives.

I realized that my efforts to build in margins have helped tremendously to transit this season with a bit more ease than had I been working along the edge of life. Margins define our use of time and space every day. They define our physical safety, our mental and emotional energies, and even our relationships with each other and our Creator. They reduce (but not necessarily eliminate) risk. Most of the time we don’t even miss them until they have been eroded.

Margins And Air Traffic

I learned a lot about being intentional about margins in my career as an air traffic controller and continue to use this knowledge today as a private pilot. The physical safety of those in your charge is the first tenant of air traffic control: the Safe, Orderly, Efficient flow of air traffic.

Safe means that the prescribed margins defined by specific separation standards, are maintained at all times. These margins are defined by laws rooted in basic physics, which, no matter how hard we try don’t budge one bit when fooled with or ignored! These margins of safety are there to allow for those pesky unknown or unexpected variables called surprises. The curveballs come when there are a lot of moving parts. It’s a great metaphor for life.

In air traffic, the margins are set so that should there be some erosion or infringement of a particular standard, warning alarms sound, literally. Those involved are pulled off of duty and an investigation is undertaken. It is awkward for the controllers, even embarrassing (if they would admit it) but most of the time the pilots and passengers involved are not even aware of this flurry of margin examination activity.

I wonder how we can implement our own early warning alarm systems at the point when personal margins are first infringed upon, rather than when we find ourselves dealing with a fall from a ladder. We do not want to live in fear, of course, but here are some thoughts:

Physical Safety.

Staying fit, eating right, and getting enough rest go a long way to enable us to be ready to deal with life’s daily physical demands as well as surprises.  My husband, then in his 60s, is in good shape.  He is quite prudent, even when wielding a chainsaw from a ladder, but in this case, the ladder tipped and he lost his balance.

In retrospect there were things, he coulda, woulda, and shoulda have done, to avoid the ladder slipping as it did, but had he been overweight, malnourished, or mentally dull, the outcome and/or recovery would have been much different. (His orthopedist has said all along that he has healed and recovered faster than most, especially for his age group, and with no surgery!).


This is where I personally, must be extra diligent.  I tend to over-commit my time.  It’s that high-achieving thing again.  Interestingly my years in air traffic served to reinforce this tendency.  As you would expect, in that world, one must allocate one’s time and resources to carrying out the mission.

Even during lulls, you were looking at what was coming, planning, and taking care of details so that you were ready “to roll”.  The reality margins were built-in:

  • Specified processes and procedures defined both internal and external interactions.
  • Time on position limited to 2 hours or less.
  • Workloads were monitored, from national all the way to local levels
  • Help (usually) was provided when needed

In my daily life, I now have discretion as to how I use my time including time for my own self-imposed margins.  It’s a work in progress.

Mental and Emotional Wholeness.

Taking care of our physical bodies has a direct correlation to this area, but also things like:

  • practicing gratitude,
  • cultivating joy
  • as well as intellectual integrity

create margin and reserves from which I draw when the unexpected happens.

During my spouse’s recovery time, we often fell into bed exhausted due to the extra time and effort ordinary tasks, like showering and getting dressed took. (Try doing these on one foot and you will get the point!). Even though tired, instead of grumbling (well most of the time), we would list the things we were grateful for.  It was amazing how that simple verbal exercise lifted the load of the day.


Cultivating positive relationships is a good thing at all times, but when the feathers hit the fan, wow.  In air traffic, we trained as a team and know the boundaries of responsibility.  Most of the time there was an order and protocol.  However, when weather, an aircraft emergency, or other system failure occurred that it was all hands on deck.

It was then that all the previous interactions really came into play.  It is amazing how chaos turns into order relatively quickly due to the daily cultivation of those relationships. How much more with our mates, family, friends, neighbors, church family, etc?


I have learned the value of having margins financially, i.e. an emergency fund.  In this case, our medical insurance handled most of the expenses.   Nonetheless having reserves was one less thing to have to think about during this season of recovery.

As it turns out, we did not need to tap into this reserve but knowing it was there was a blessing. I can thank Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace principles that this margin was in place in our home.

Spiritual Health.

As a person of faith, this is actually first on my list.  My relationship with Jesus forms all else.  When I allow natural life, as good as it is, to infringe on (rather than contribute to) the cultivation of my spiritual health, my reserves dwindle rapidly.  This is my early warning signal.  Margins may be in place in all the other areas but when this one depletes, the other suffers.

A Stonebridge when built right, is very sturdy and stable. Having margins as a part of your design is critical. So as you examine the stones that make up your bridge, the gifts, talents, strengths, and weaknesses, take some time to decide what your margins will look like.

The space between the stones provides a cushion allowing for movement and settling so that the bridge retains its integrity in life’s storms.

Which of the five areas do you need to find more margin in your life today? Share in the comment section below.

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