During the journey to earn my degree in Mechanical Engineering there were many times I questioned what it was that I was accomplishing. I knew in the bottom of my heart that, though I was capable of achieving it, the technical side of things was not what I was really passionate about. It was interesting, but I just couldn’t see where or how I would use it. This disconnect is rooted deep in our education system (especially the theoretical avenues) which serves to educate students on specific skills rather than real world application.
Students often feel like they are cast into the working world with little experience and nothing but complex equations floating around in their head when more useful skills such as networking and personal management might have been useful.
What I want to share is something my granddad taught me while I was questioning my devotion to the engineering program and the post-secondary institution I was a part of.
I’ll never forget what he said when I expressed my concern and struggle to find meaning in the content I was learning.
He said, “Michael, you need to remember that university professors do not teach. They expose you to knowledge, and it is up to you to decide what to do with it.”
That comment really stuck with me and from that point on my perspective shifted. I had reframed my view of what I was learning and realized that it was not about the specific content that I was studying – because that could always be recalled from any number of sources – it was the transferable skills which I was developing as a result of studying. That was the real lesson.
Primarily, the ability to apply critical thinking while defining and solving problems. To take it even further, I was learning how to learn.
Engineering, like many other disciplines, is a way of thinking. A paradigm through which the world is viewed and assessed. The beauty is that this perspective can be applied to almost any problem. It’s a framework, a general approach often referred to as First Principles, and which serves as a logical progression from definition to execution to application.
Though this framework is often reserved for the physical constraints of this world, at its core, it is simply a way of problem solving. With this in mind I have decided to approach the conceptual challenge of success from an engineering perspective in an attempt to help others logically define, execute, and apply the necessary steps towards their version of triumph.
But first, let’s define the framework.
Enter: The Engineering Process
As any Engineer will tell you, the questions encountered on a final exam often take the form of longwinded, situational word problems which can easily take up three quarters of a page just to set the scene and deliver the requirement. It’s not uncommon to budget one hour on a single question, and some final exams have only three very challenging problems.
Regardless of the problem, there is a specific set of steps anyone trained in this style of thinking takes before they refer to their equation sheet or attempts a solution.
1. Understand the problem. Plain and simple, what is the desired result?
2. Collect your known variables WHICH APPLY to the desired outcome. Sometimes information was included in our problem definition so as to reinforce the importance of sifting through the details and knowing what you’re looking for.
3. What are your unknowns? For example there could be three main unknown variables which are necessary to solve the problem. The challenge is that each of those variables requires you to solve for two further unknown values.
This concludes the problem definition and at this point the challenge should become clear. The importance of this step is to identify an attainable path towards your end goal.
Following the problem definition is the execution phase. This is where your once unknown variables are solved for and illuminated thus becoming known.
4. Develop your equation. This is where you put the pieces together. Having collected your major unknown variables you can create relationships between them and the final goal. The diagram below is a visual representation of those relationships.
5. Big picture view. With challenging problems involving numerous stepping stones it’s easy lose your way which is why it’s important to step back and look at the big picture to ensure you are heading in the right direction. If it all looks good, carry on. If not, correct course as necessary.
6. Solve for your final Solution. With your highest level unknown variables now known, the last step is to create your final equation. This is often a very relieving situation to be in. Unless of course the end result doesn’t make sense. This leads us to the last phase of the process.
7. Apply your solution. Once you have your final result it’s time to make sense of it. It does little good to just end up with a result and call it quits. You need to remember WHY you wanted that result. How does it apply to the situational problem? What does it mean? How will it be used? Where does it lead?
Now that you’ve seen the framework let’s go through an example relating to personal goals. By using this process we will carefully dissect the problem and work towards achieving the goal.
Say you’ve spent the last few years working as an accountant but you’ve always had a burning passion for graphic design. You played it safe for all of these years and got a good job while you practiced your art at nights and on weekends. You made good money as an accountant but something was missing: that burning passion that made you excited for Monday morning knowing you’d be spending your precious time on something you loved.
Now imagine that you have decided that you have the skills to go at it alone. You’re confident that you can make this work and that the freelance lifestyle is what you want. A friend of yours knows someone in the graphic design field and you have a few books on design which you’ve read numerous times. Also, you have a comfortable amount of savings.
Understand the Problem
What is the desired result? The ideal result is to be self-employed, practicing graphic design, and making as much money or more than you were before. That is the ideal outcome and ultimate goal.
Why do you want this to be the end goal? Maybe it’s a sense of freedom and adventure. Maybe it’s to spend your days doing something you enjoy. Whatever it is, really get down to the reason WHY you’re doing it and write it down so you can refer back to it when times get tough.
What do you have? Collect this first and know what resources you’re working with.
· Previous work done on the weekends for the last couple years
· Comfortable savings in the bank
· Design guides and some learning resources
· Friend of a friend in graphic design field
· Knowledge of accounting and financials as it pertains to business
Research and brainstorm the major areas which need to be addressed. There will likely be more that pop up as you make progress, but make sure you get the core elements down and you can add to it as you go along.
Here are some major pillars. Please note: I’m not a graphic designer myself; this is simply an example.
· Competitive skills
· Finance and Operations
o Pricing structure/payment plan
Develop Your Equation
The diagram below outlines a rudimentary map of the known and unknown variables. There will likely be other obstacles which stand in the way, but it provides a solid foundation from which to get started.
Big Picture View
As you trek along your journey there will likely be setbacks and trials of will. This is to be expected. Remember those reasons you wrote down which outlined WHY you want this goal so much? This is where they come in handy.
Has your vision changed? It’s okay if it has. Are you still doing it for the right reasons? I hope so.
During this point of reflection it’s also beneficial to look back and notice the progress you’ve made. Keeping a list of important milestones (another great piece of advice from my granddad) can be a great way to help you through tough times.
Now, in engineering we have calculators and computers which assist us in the “work” stage of this process. Unfortunately (fortunately?) computers can’t do our dirty work for us. This is the stage where hard work, focus, and an unrelenting drive to succeed come into play.
There is no short cut, it’s simply hard work. But with a properly defined map, most of the high-level thinking has been completed and you can rest assure that what you’re working on is helping to achieve your final goal.
Apply Your Solution
So you’ve landed your first paying client. Congratulations, you’re finally a professional freelance graphic designer. Now is the time to reflect on where you want this new found goal to take you. Let this win be the momentum you need to work harder and smarter.
Continue to ask yourself why you are doing what you’re doing and learn to view your goals from a different perspective. Is there something you could do better or differently to make more of an impact?
I hope you found this framework helpful for defining, executing, and applying your goals. We all have dreams and we only have one life. You need to remember that you are capable of amazing things and having a well-defined plan serves to amplify your effectiveness.
I’ll leave you with one question in hopes that you decide to take action and realize your potential.
If you were going to die tomorrow would you have lived your dream?