The Value of Getting Your Hands Dirty
When I was a kid, I was never afraid of working with my hands. If I wanted to make something, I jumped right in. I would try to build everything from an elevator to a tree house, to a surround sound system made from an old stereo. Often my dreams were bigger than my abilities, but I learned along the way. It was this learning by failure that I helped me gain so much from looking back.
As adults we are often afraid to leap without looking. We wait to try something until we have all of the pieces of the puzzle figured out, and the process of putting together those pieces sometimes discourages us from attempting to solve the puzzle at all. It is always smart to be thoughtful in our approach, but we also have to start somewhere. Sometimes starting is the most difficult step of all.
As a young engineer, I found myself to be especially guilty of being afraid to get my hands dirty. In engineering school we are taught very scientific methods of approaching problems, and we are also introduced to highly capable (and highly expensive) engineering computer software that can be used to assist us with design problems. With all of this in the back of our heads, we feel that we can only approach problems from the most refined of angles, and we become afraid to jump in at all without all of the right tools.
We should never underestimate the most basic tools that we have: our hands, our instincts, and our minds. When looking at a complex design problem, don’t be afraid to try to approach it from a simpler angle. Even if you are working on mechanical systems for a jet fighter, it doesn’t hurt to start understanding the problem by tinkering around with materials you may already have on hand. Some of the most amazing innovations have come from the simplest of inspiration.
With our hands we can construct and feel, and with our instincts we can quickly arrive at potential solutions. As an engineer, never forget what drew you to the field in the first place. Don’t be afraid to trust your instincts and fail, it’s the only way those instincts get better.
Finally, as an engineer your strongest tool is not your textbook, your computer, and certainly not your calculator. The best tool you have is your mind. You’re not valuable as an engineer for your ability to interact with technology, anyone can do that. The value you bring to the table comes from your unique abilities and perspective, honed by your schooling, and perfected by experience. When presented with a tough problem, let your mind work. Clear the obstacles between you and understanding the problem. Use your hands, get them dirty, and don’t be afraid of failure. Get out there and be an engineer.
Adam has a Bachelors in Engineering Mechanics from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and works for IPT as the Director of Engineering.