Finding the fulcrum: a chartered engineer’s guide to finding a solution mindset
28 March 2017
‘Trying harder’ has its place, but we must not have this as our default mode. Instead, we need to work smarter to meet the ever-increasing demand for faster, cheaper and better engineering solutions. Blending Eastern wisdom with Western science offers us the opportunity to do just, that writes Kieran O’Connor, engineer and author of The Little Book of Big Leverage.
Integrating more of the Eastern mindset offers us an advantage: incrementally, we can move from a problem mindset to a solution mindset.
“You will only be remembered for two things: the problems you solve and the ones you create” – Mike Murdock. The quote may seem a touch sombre, but it does contain a truth. Problems can work for us or against us; there is a duality about them that is often only separated by the thinnest of margins.
If there were no problems, there would be no need for engineers. Engineers transform problems into solutions. When I worked as part of an onshore support team for a new floating oil platform in Norway, I worked with an engineering manager called Mike. He had a phrase that would be used whenever he needed to let the team know something serious was threatening the 100,000-barrels-a-day quota (at the time that equated to around $14 million).
His instruction was short and sweet: “Go and unfeck it.”
My role on the floating oil platform was my toughest assignment to date and perhaps one of the most enjoyable, as it taught me the most about how to manage my mind under pressure.
It was quite a test (or maybe testimony) for me to operate in this kind of high-performance environment, especially as I’d come very close to a meltdown (a very close relation to breakdown) ten years earlier. I went through a period of complete exhaustion; I felt that my batteries were so flat that all the sleep in the world would not recharge them. There was one upside to that time though: I learned what Einstein meant when he made the following famous comment: “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created the problem.”
I already had the advantage of studying martial arts from the age of 12, so I had some ideas from a different perspective around mechanics and energetics. However, I was still applying Eastern wisdom through a Western mindset. I was still trying to force solutions rather than open the space for them.
The ‘elusive obvious’
This near-meltdown experience gave me the initiative to work with the mechanics of the human mind. Bit by bit, day by day, I worked at chipping away at the habits – the deeply engrained habitual ways of thinking and behaving – that were not serving me.
It was blending the precision within my role as a chartered design engineer with the fluidity of the martial arts that created the ability to shift my mindset from focusing on the complexity of problems to focusing instead on the simple solutions.
It is a subtle contrast at the thinking level, but very effective in terms of results. The kinds of solutions that emerge seem so obvious that one wonders why they were so elusive in the first place. Of course, I still experience ‘problems’ like everyone else. However, there are fewer and fewer of them and they are more and more fleeting.
My first published book, The Little Book of Big Leverage, is a compilation of principles, concepts, stories and experiences that offer a way to apply leverage to your own thinking. By leveraging your own thinking at a fundamental level a shift happens that naturally improves your quality of life.
Life gets better when every day we do more of what works for us and less of what does not. This is obvious—but it is so obvious that we miss it, making it what I call an ‘elusive obvious’.
Ask yourself the following two questions (you could contextualise by directing them towards your present engineering role):
- Can you name something you do regularly in your life that works for you?
- Do you have an example of something that does not work so well for you?
What I was to discover is that people tend to be better at answering question number two and have included professionals such as doctors, psychologists, teachers and of course fellow engineers.
Einstein said that insanity was doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result. Does this mean we are all mildly insane? Well, I would not use that word myself, I am more inclined to think many of us are confused and running around on autopilot much of the time.
Learning how to learn
When I worked on those two questions, I found that I was gradually opening my mind to a simpler way of thinking. I did not want to avoid life and its challenges; instead, I sought to be able to flow more between the different parts of my life (work, home, socialising etc) and feel that I was in the same zone that I experienced when practicing martial arts.
I eventually came to understand that there is a ‘psychological sweet spot’. It is like that feeling people get when playing sport, such as golf or tennis in which there can be a feeling of effortless mastery.
Let us get into the science of problems and tap into the world of hypnosis. For most people, the word hypnosis conjures a variety of images, some from therapeutic and some from an entertainment perspective.
At its core, hypnosis is a practice that facilitates the alignment of the conscious and the subconscious mind. This is very useful, as the conscious mind defines our desires, while the subconscious mind defines our current habits and behaviours. So, when your conscious desires and subconscious habits are in alignment, you do not experience problems, you only see solutions.
As an engineer, your role will be to transform problems to practical solutions. Therefore, at its most fundamental level, it could be argued that your role as an engineer is to align things.
Think of a problem that is currently a source of resistance to you. I can offer you a wager that the ‘problem’ is either seen in your mind as too small to bother with or too big to tackle. The reason why is simple. Your subconscious mind, whose influence heavily outweighs the conscious mind, is focused more on keeping you safe than it is on your success or happiness.
Does this mean that you will never be able to make lasting changes or have what you want? Not at all, leverage is a dynamic that operates at the most basic level of the mind and when you understand its nature, you release the resistance that stands between you and what you truly desire.
For example, I struggled initially with the idea of writing a book. Nobody in my family had done this and I’d ask myself, “Why would anyone want to read what I wrote?” I decided to take little steps towards becoming an author and gradually tap into my path of least resistance. Applying the principles and concepts within the book helped me release my resistance to the actual process of writing the book!
It was tricky, as my nature wanted me to push, force and struggle through the writing process. My family background is all about hard work. I am of Irish decent and come from a long line of farmers who would rather dig a field by hand than use a tractor. This is a stubborn mindset and it has taken time to gradually release it.
Reverse engineering as leverage
I am fascinated by the benefits of integrating Eastern thinking with the Western mindset. The East found a way into the worldwide economy by being very good at making things quicker and cheaper but, at least initially, products labelled ‘Made in Taiwan’ were associated with low quality.
However, the Eastern mindset is very good at improving things; taking things apart and then putting them back together, gaining a valuable insight into a product’s inner workings. Car technology and electronics in general from the East improved so much in terms of reliability that the West had to sit up and respond.
I learned how to strip down and rebuild a car engine in my days as an apprentice electrical technician. During my first year of foundation training in general engineering, I was hesitant to work on cars, as I wanted to become an electrical engineer and not a mechanical engineer.
The instructor pointed out that if I wanted to be an engineer, it would be a good idea to know how an engine worked. The task proved to be one of my most valuable learnings about the fulcrum point that exists between knowledge and experience. Knowing the theory and then stripping and re-building the car engine was quite a different thing altogether.
There are many Eastern ideas that blend beautifully with the Western science and engineering mindset. I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to seek their path of least resistance when developing and shaping their engineering skills throughout their career.
Leverage, alignment and flow are there to be tapped into if you want to be a well-rounded professional who is equipped to meet the challenges and opportunities offered by an increasingly fast-moving world.
Kieran O’Connor is a chartered member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and provides a design consultancy service from his base in central Scotland. O’Connor combines his work as a chartered design engineer with his new role of author, trainer and speaker. His focus is on helping people achieve happier, easier lives by naturally releasing their underlying resistance.
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