I’m not an engineer. I did once take a single postgraduate software engineering class (though most engineers would argue that that isn’t real engineering). But I’ve worked with a lot of engineers in my role as a computer support person for maintenance tracking software, and I respect and enjoy their approach to life’s challenges. It’s not an approach that’s suited for every circumstance, of course. In situations of human emotional intimacy, it may be entirely the wrong approach – or maybe not, if we look at the principles behind it.
So here are the three things I’ve learned from engineering.
1. Assume there is a solution to every problem.
Engineers are great problem-solvers. That’s their natural bent, their default mental attitude. They approach every problem with the unspoken conviction that this problem can be solved, by us, using the resources we have and the techniques we know about.
Sometimes, of course, the problem can’t be solved, or can be solved but not at a reasonable cost, or would require resources or techniques that we don’t have. But that’s not the engineer’s starting point. One tendency I dislike in myself is that I often start out assuming that something can’t be done. A good engineer starts out assuming that something can be done, and then sets out to find out how.
2. Don’t assume you know what the solution is until you understand the problem fully.
I allude to this principle in one of my Seven Steps to a Change Plan videos. We limit ourselves too much if we start out assuming the solution before we’ve fully explored the problem. This is something I catch myself doing with my clients sometimes. It’s why it’s important to have a variety of techniques available and be practiced in not only using them, but also deciding which one to use. But the key thing is: Understand what the real problem is before you set out to solve it, otherwise you’ll solve the wrong problem and the real problem will still be there.
There are plenty of examples of engineers solving the wrong problem, of course. But a really good engineer will explore the “problem space” first before the “solution space”.
3. It costs one-tenth as much to maintain something correctly as it does to fix it when it breaks.
The application of this one to personal relationships is obvious. The time and effort you spend on keeping your relationship healthy on a day-to-day basis is going to be much less than it would cost you to restore it if it broke. Whatever else has happened in my day, I try to make positive contact every day with my wife, even if it’s only a hug or a kiss goodnight. We spend time listening to each other and talking about our concerns, because if we just let things drift, one day one of us will be in for a nasty shock. We’ve both seen it happen to people we know.
Same thing with your own health, of course. You can spend some extra time, effort and maybe money on healthy eating and exercise now, or pay the costs of neglected health later – medical bills, arduous rehab, and restricted activities.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to sell prevention. Factory managers don’t value it, and nor do we as individuals. The future isn’t real to us. The present is real to us, and in the present, we could spend time and effort on routine maintenance, or we could use it for something urgent. And why is it urgent? Could it be because you’ve neglected routine maintenance?
There we are, then: Three things I’ve learned from engineering. I hope you’ve found something to apply to your life.
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