Engineering Tips and Tricks

“successful family dinner = happy guests and circuit diagrams left on my coffee table. happy father’s day to my favorite engineer!”–My sister’s Facebook post following our Father’s Day dinner last night

Among the many characteristics one must possess to be a successful engineer—intelligence, creativity, resourcefulness—one common trait stands out among the rest: passion. I am talking about the engineers that love talking about their work with anyone who will listen. These are the people that I want to work with (and hire) because they take their work home with them.

In this context, I am defining passion as an unwavering obsession with problem solving. At the core of my argument is that very little separates most engineers in terms of innate talent. Yes, some people go to Caltech while others struggle through the bloated lecture halls of large state schools, but fundamentally, we are all comparably intelligent. This is essentially a Nature versus Nurture argument. In my estimation, Nurture (i.e. hard work and passion for the job) always trumps Nature (i.e. innate intelligence and creativity) in the sciences. I am reminded of a quotation from one of my professors in grad school, “The PHD does not tell the world how smart you are, it simply tells everyone that you have a stomach for pain.” Grimly, I must agree. To first order, we are all created equally, successful science boils down to sleepless nights and lots of elbow grease.

Passionate problem solving is equal parts motivation and ownership of a problem. Problem solving without direction is a meaningless exercise.  To generate any kind of enthusiasm, we should have a darn good reason why spending time, money and energy of a problem is a good investment (for more, see my first Tips and Tricks Episode 1 ).  Usually, the motivation is the easiest part because there are lots of good reasons to solve problems (e.g. it might make you rich, you might cure cancer, you might solve the world’s energy crisis, etc).

The difference between motivated problem solving and passionate problem solving is that the engineer assumes a sense of ownership of the problem. The most successful engineers and scientists carry their problems around with them like a sack of bricks. Solving the most difficult problems requires a significant amount of mental energy. I believe that it is therefore unreasonable to think that real breakthroughs can be timed between the hours of 8 AM and 5 PM, Monday through Friday (excluding holidays). Our brains don’t solve problems linearly, anyway. In fact, problem solving and creative thought is incredibly nonlinear. Good problem solving often occurs in the most inauspicious places: the shower, the coffee shop, the car, my sister’s house. If we (my father and I) confined our problem solving exclusively to the halls of Marki Microwave, I doubt we’d have a viable business. Our passion for our craft and our unrelenting drive to push our technology, at home and at work, keeps our business vibrant and full of creative ideas.

So take your work home. Eat it. Drink it. Sleep it. Your spouse might complain a little, but your customers won’t. In fact, your own children might even love you more for it. Happy Father’s Day, pop.

6 Responses to Engineering Tips and Tricks

  1. Michael says:

    “So take your work home. Eat it. Drink it. Sleep it. Your spouse might complain a little, but your customers won’t. In fact, your own children might even love you more for it…”
    …And after many years of sacrificing our wives and children’s needs by placing a priority on our customer’s needs, neither of which may be around anymore, we may very well find that the truly important people in our lives, (our wives and children) have now set their priorities such that there is little or no time for us…
    …Balance is the key my friend….
    You said “The most successful engineers and scientists carry their problems around with them like a sack of bricks”
    …The measurement of success as an engineer or scientist should be based on a combination of many factors including: personal character, love for and time spent with family, serving others in our community, as well as our professional accomplishments.

  2. John says:

    I find your comments tiring. I like to go home at night and switch off, not having to think about work.

  3. Robin says:

    I’ve worked in engineering companies my whole life and it is true that having some passion for your work really makes the difference. I guess that’s the difference between considering it your career versus considering it just “work”. I feel fortunate that I chose a career that I have passion for and keeps me employed. Very nice article.

  4. Ashton says:

    The point of the article seems to be that passion for your work is important part of making the difference in your career. If you are still thinking through problems after hours it shows a commitment to the work. There is something to be said about work life balance, but that kind of misses the point of this article.
    All passionate individuals operate in such ways, artists, musicians etc… the best ones never stop thinking about their craft.

  5. Chris's sister says:

    Passion and workaholism are not the same thing. Circuits doodled on diner napkins at Saturday breakfast were the norm in our family because when there’s real passion for one’s work, the wheels never really stop spinning (though they might be doing it in the background). Who doesn’t have great thoughts in the shower, on a long run, or while painting the living room? Despite those spinning wheels, our father was and still is the consummate family man, and I cannot remember a single important event he did not attend, including family dinner nightly. That’s the difference between passion and workaholism. To me, those doodles represent who my dad is, and I love him for it. As a gynecologist, I still have no idea what they mean, but I can only hope that I still have such passion for my profession after so many years.

  6. Andy says:

    I certainly agree with the basic idea here that passions for your work cannot be contained in the halls of an office or in the confines of a “9 to 5” day. Unlike other commenters here, I don’t read this as the author’s attempt to create workers with no interest outside of work. Rather, I think of my own work and the number of times I have called my own voicemail at 11:00 PM with an idea for the next day or sketched ideas and notes when inspiration hits during a TV show.
    If you love solving problems, you can’t leave them behind: they become a challenge that you carry around. That doesn’t mean you miss little Sally’s dance recital because you have no off switch. I think it means that you might have a breakthrough at that recital and turn your program into a whiteboard.
    I think we would all be quite amused if we knew how many of the science and solutions we encounter every day came to be because someone ran dripping out of the shower to find a pen and paper! Or perhaps hit in the head with an apple…

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