In my freshman engineering seminar, there was one phrase forever drilled into my head: “Engineers Solve Problems (ESP™).”
ESP was the one thing that brought all the disciplines together – from six sigma-ing industrial engineers to code monkey computer engineers (engineers can be super cliquey).
So how can you be like an engineer? You guessed it – by solving problems. Why would you want to? Oh, man, because engineering is cool? No? Okay, how about saving money, time, and sanity? Yeah, I thought so.
Step 1: Destroy Mental Barriers
“But everyone solves problems,” I hear you groan, “What makes engineers special?”
Nothing. Expect for the fact that we’ve been told again and again that ESP, therefore every problem has a possible solution. Even wearing a lab coat can make people do better at basic, attention-related tasks – imagine four whole years of being told you can solve all the problems. Having the right mindset is huge.
Now, engineers are not immune to mental barriers. Fergus and I put off replacing the air filter in our car for weeks, and that was only half due to the cold weather. The important thing is to start questioning and to be aware of your own mental blocks. Build yourself up and trust that you can figure it out. Re-engineer your mental models.
Step 2: Be Lazy
Why derive an equation from first principles when someone’s already done it? That is, someone else has probably already had the exact same problem and documented it on the internet, most likely complete with video or step-by-step instructions. Engineers are smart and nerdy, but we’re not martyrs. On that note, I’m going to call this step done.
Step 3: Ask for Help
But not too often. Who’s the subject matter expert? Surely you’ve got some friends or family members with the appropriate skills. If you’re stuck and/or very confused, ask someone. Especially when I was just getting started with coding, it was hard to google the solution, since I didn’t know the right keywords. Even a novice can usually help you out with finding the right search phrase, or for letting you know if you’re on the right track.
Make sure to do your research and try to find a solution on your own first. Use others’ time sparingly, as you might really need them later, and it’s simply good practice to be self-sufficient.
It’s a Trap!
Two different ones, actually. You see, if you never ask for help, you’ll spend time doing unnecessary work. You could write your own code library when the same one already exists, open source. Hours or days could be spent making a solution, only to realize someone already made a much better one.
On the other side, if you ask for help at the drop of a hat, you’ll never actually learn anything. Beyond annoying soon-to-be-ex-friends, this could also lead to wasted time and effort on your part – it could actually be less effort long-term to learn how to do it yourself. Every time you delegate work, there’s some amount of transaction cost. No one can read your mind, so you have to spend time explaining the problem. Plus, the first solution is probably not what you were looking for, meaning time-sucking rework is needed.
Step 4: Think of at Least Two Solutions
If there were two things I took away from college, they would be “Engineers Solve Problems” and this: always think of at least two solutions to a problem. That way, you won’t use the worst solution. If you already borrowed a foolproof idea in Step 2, you can skip this step. OR, you can come up with an evil mastermind plan just for funsies (Oh! It should definitely include a secret passageway! Do it!).
So much of our time is spent doing what is expected of us. Think of the “American Dream” with the white picket fence and 2 1/2 kids – or how many people buy a new car every 3-5 years “just because.” If we really think through situations, even just at the surface level, we won’t make the absolute worst decision. A huge part of how we save money is by questioning basic ideas like the dream of home ownership and eschewing what many see as a necessity to have one car per adult.
The traditional solution would have been for us to buy as much home as we could afford and trade in our 2000 Camry for a Prius. We very much prefer our solution of renting for 0.2% of the purchase price of a typical single-family home in the area and driving our teenaged Camry into the ground. By the way, be sure to check out our investment property calculator if you’re in the market for a multifamily!
Step 5: Just Do It!
Another thing I struggled with when learning to code was learning to make mistakes. I didn’t want to waste time and effort on something I wasn’t sure would work. This is the biggest mental trap. The thing is, you’re very rarely (if ever) wasting time, as long as you’ve already cycled through Steps 1-4. You’re constantly learning, and you can’t discount the importance of that.
Everyday Engineering Quick Fixes
The two biggest benefits of this mindset are:
- Saving Money
- Maintaining sanity & saving time in the long run
This one is pretty straightforward — why get thai tea or bubble tea at a shop for $5 when you can make your own at a tenth of the cost (if that)? And think of the money on car maintenance you could potentially save by having a DIY/engineering mindset.
Sanity and Time
The less obvious benefit is time and sanity.
Clothing and tailoring are my favorite examples. You see, I’m a woman. If you’re a woman, you know exactly what I’m about to say. No pockets, thin fabric, tight-fitting styles – even if you are a fit model for your favorite brand, you probably still have issues when shopping. Clothes that actually fit and make me feel good have a huge impact on my sanity and wellbeing.
Let’s take the “women’s pants have no pockets” issue. Most of these pants actually do have pockets – all you have to do is unleash them (#freethepockets). One seam ripper, one minute, and you have pockets again. Pants too long? Learning how to hem pants is actually really easy, with dozens of tutorials available online. Even small or large-chested problems can be solved relatively easily with a simple needle and thread, without even the need of a sewing machine. It’s going to be hard at first, I’m not going to lie, but it gets really simple after a couple practice runs. It’s hard in the way that putting on new wipers took approximately twenty minutes for Fergus and me, but it took the guy at the auto parts store ten seconds. Practice, people.
The dress above was something like $11-$13 on sale, bought online. Waist? Perfect. Skirt? Swooshy as heck, just like I like them. The chest region? Crazy big on me, and the straps were far too long. I did a little bit of research and ended up just hacking my way through it. Now the dress fits me really well, if slightly tight now on the arm holes.
Now, I’ve had a dress with a similar design and problem tailored by a professional tailor. It looks slightly more professional, but it has the same issue with the arm holes. And you know what? It’s also not that neat-looking on the inside of the strap seam. My hacky tailoring was pretty much the same as a professional tailor, it saved me roughly $40, plus I could do multiple try-ons along the way to ensure an awesome fit. That dress I got from the tailor? I still had to alter it after the fact, no joke.
Step 6: Admit Defeat
Not always, mind you, but when appropriate.
Exhibit A: Re-Soling Failure
I have this pair of shoes that I love – comfortable, at least somewhat stylish, and easy to slip on and off. The only problem is that the outsole wears through so quickly, and they can’t be re-soled (I even asked the manufacturer directly to confirm). These aren’t cheap shoes, either. They’re a whopping $90 retail, and even on discount can be $70 or so. Coming up with a DIY sole repair solution can’t be too difficult, right?
Turns out there’s a reason cobbling is a profession, and another reason that a professional shoe repair store told me there was nothing they could do with my preciouses.
See, I took that as a challenge and tried to beef up the outsole where the rubber was wearing super thin. After all, the majority of the shoe was just fine and still super comfy. So I took some Plastidip I got at the hardware store and put a few layers on, judiciously spreading out the solution and drying each layer.
It worked well until it didn’t. The rubber kept peeling off the shoe, as there wasn’t really anything to bond the two materials together. Technically speaking, I could probably glue the new rubber with the old rubber to make it last just a bit longer…but in the end, it’s just not worth it. And Plastidip dries out easily and is expensive, y’all.
Exhibit B: Spotted Car
Now, there are some times where you suffer a minor defeat for your own damned good. See, as our car is a rebellious teenager, quite a few rust spots started peeking through. We found out that instead of paying someone half of what the car’s worth, we could fend off rust ourselves with some sandpaper, and a few cans of spray paint at the auto parts store (primer, base, and clear coat).
Now, sectioning off each spot of the car with paper just sounded like a lot of work and tape! Since we were dealing with small spots, we could surely cut some corners and do without. So, that’s what we did…and the small spots quickly turned into very large spots.
One of the perks of having an old car is that you can make the occasional mistake and learn something. We’re not going to make the same painting mistake again, car-related or otherwise. Now, a smarter version of our past-selves would have asked a knowledgeable friend, “Hey, do we really need to section off the rust spots with paper and tape?” in the first place.
Everyone can be a bad-ass problem solver, as long as you train and condition yourself, and especially if you get a little help from your friends, and it’s very important to be flexible and learn to admit defeat or refactor solutions as needed.
So what do y’all think – How do you problem solve? What awesome solutions have you come up with lately? Let us know in the comments!