on November 25th, 2009

Dear colleagues,

In 1902 CY O’Connor, one of Australia’s greatest engineers, constructed the longest pipeline in the world. It was designed to carry water from Perth to the desperately dry goldfields. During the final stages of its commissioning the project faced some problems. CY O’Connor suffered some vicious criticism before committing suicide – he rode his horse into the surf in Fremantle. Doubts were cast on whether the pipeline would work and there were unfounded rumours that he was receiving kickbacks from contractors. His only fault was that he was a perfectionist and brilliant. The pipeline opened shortly after his death and operated flawlessly. It is still operating as a lifeline to the region a hundred years later.

I am not suggesting that anyone will get this despondent. But let’s face it, we all enjoy ups and have to endure some enormous downs. Inevitably there are times, through an engineering career, when things can get extraordinarily difficult – a natural cycle. What we have to guard against, however, are feelings of being overwhelmed - when the cycle fails to move on and where work responsibility is taken too personally. The fallout includes engineering without rewards and a negative impact on our personal lives too. The likely manifestation at work (and at home) includes; procrastination, isolation, apathy, disinterest and bitterness.

Engineering is particularly tough: We are dealing with real equipment, which has a finite life time, and our designs can have unpredictable results because they take on the natural world. Furthermore, we have to deal with the financial and management types who insist on technical compromise. We often have to limp along “making do” with older or cheaper equipment.

 Some suggestions to avoid self-sabotage:
1. Keep your mind on your goals – engineering career and personal ones.
2. Stay firmly focused on the task at hand and in getting it finished.
3. Stick to your guns (despite the naysayers) if your engineering research indicates that you are right with a design or project.
4. Associate with positive engineers and technicians at all times, whenever possible.  Avoid those who are negative and delight in failure.
5. Celebrate your personal successes and those of your closest colleagues.
6. Build your personal support networks. They will be essential when things are tough.
7. Support your colleagues when they are having a bad run.
8. Persist through the tough engineering times – take one step at a time and keep a cool head when everyone else is losing theirs.
9. Watch out for the hidden impacts on your life and keep yourself healthy and fit.

There is a poem that travels with me wherever I am in the world. I picked it up at some bookshop in London in the early nineties and it still motivates me. An extract:

When things go wrong as they sometimes will
When the road you’re trudging seems all up hill
And you want to smile but you have to sigh
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit
It’s when things seem worse that you mustn’t quit.

Richard Denny

yours in engineering learning


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