I often tell people that I have “engineer brain.” It has a lot to do with how I was brought up in my first couple of jobs, and it’s largely served me well. But it’s also a weakness, sometimes, and I’m coming to understand exactly how toxic it can be when it’s misapplied.
My first real job was as an aircraft mechanic for Naval Aviation Depot Norfolk, doing overhaul work on F-14 Tomcats and A-6 Intruders. My trade was responsible for the entire airframe, excepting only the engines. We had to know how the entire system fit together to make all those millions of parts into a fighting jet.
Later jobs had me doing things like network architecture, where you kind of have to know the entire system in order to build anything at all.
It’s like a civil engineer who’s building a bridge: you can’t design half of the thing. You have to do the whole thing, or none of it. It’s a system, and it all has to fit together perfectly to work.
But a lot of things in life aren’t like that. Take software applications. You could sit back and design the entire thing, with every feature it’ll ever need, making sure they all fit together perfectly.
- This will take forever.
- You will be proven wrong.
The “engineer” brain just doesn’t work in situations like that, and in fact can make things pretty terrible. There’s no need to try and understand “the entire system” because (a) it isn’t a system and (b) nobody can understand all of it.
Instead, I’ve had to learn to be comfortable designing and shipping a “minimally viable product.” That is, something where I do not know what the entire thing will someday look like, and instead am only worried about the minimal thing that people will still use. After they’ve used it for a bit, I’ll know more about what needs to come next, and the application will evolve as needed. Yes, I’ll be doing some wasted work now and again. Yes, it’ll sometimes be harder to add new features, because I have to slightly re-engineer existing ones so that its all fits. But that’s fine.
You can apply “don’t think like an engineer all the time” to a lot of things. Take your life, for example. You can’t know the entire shape of it, and it’s useless to try. You can have a direction you’re headed, although even that may change over time. But with that direction in mind, you simply evolve your life in ways that seem to align to that direction. You’re a bit reactive, sure, but sometimes, that’s okay.
Start by getting a destination in mind, not a complete feature set. Then drive toward that destination bit by bit. You might not get there, but you’re more likely to get somewhere great.