Posted by Steve Weinbeer
February 8, 2023
Several months ago, we interviewed a dozen students from the University of Alberta to join us as a co-op student this year. We began each interview with an icebreaker: What inspired you to choose engineering?
It was meant to be a simple question–and yet, it got me thinking about how I would have answered that question as an engineering student. And more interestingly, how that answer has changed over the course of my career.
I remember being excited about engineering school because of how much I love to solve problems. You could say that problem-solving is the bread and butter of engineering. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find an engineer who didn’t pride themselves in their ability to approach problems with an analytical mind; a “professional problem-solver,” if you will.
My approach to solving problems has evolved over time–whether in engineering or in life. I’ve realized that our problems don’t always get easier the more we experience them, and being prepared is only half the battle.
Phil Stut, a well-known psychologist and coach, writes in his book “The Tools,” that we will never be exonerated from three things: uncertainty, pain, and hard work. As it turns out, these things are the keys to unlocking our potential and growth. He claims that if you try to eliminate these three things, we will never grow; the more we focus our efforts on eliminating them, the more stressed we tend to become.
John Wooden, one of the most influential basketball coaches of all time, understood this concept and embraced uncertainty. Even if he had the best basketball players in the world, he knew he couldn’t dictate whether they won the basketball game. Instead of wrestling with the outcome that was completely out of his hands, his strategy was to simply focus on the things he could control.
On the first day of practice, new players would stare in disbelief when he spent time teaching them how to put on their socks and shoes–something they’ve been doing since they could walk. Why? Because this was something in each player’s complete control. Putting socks on the right way reduces blisters, and ultimately, longer playing times. John focused on the process, and not the outcome.
“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” –Albert Einstein.
Biologically, we are wired to move away from pain and discomfort. As a survival instinct, it’s essential. But let’s face it: being chased by a bear in the middle of the forest is no longer an everyday reality for most of us.
We have to shift our mindset to recognize that pain is merely a signal, and although our default reaction to pain is to run and hide, it is often in discomfort that our biggest strides are made.
Pain can arise in many forms. The more subtle forms of pain can manifest in feelings of discomfort and anxiety. In the office, we experience this type of pain frequently, and one of the ways we avoid it is to try to maintain harmony among each other–sometimes, to a fault. We are currently working with a Lean coach who has witnessed many of our internal team meetings and has given us a hard time for not voicing contradicting views. He called it being too “Canadian nice”!
Instead of avoiding the fear of discomfort resulting from vulnerability, we are embracing more candour, boundaries and voicing clear expectations. We are making small steps to improve this by giving the power to yell “ELMO” (Enough! Let’s Move On!) when someone is taking the team into a tangent that would be better suited for a different time.
The world is ever-changing and progressing, making it difficult to keep up. It is easy to think that things get easier with experience and education. While it certainly helps, it isn’t the complete picture.
Angela Duckworth, author of the book “Grit”, explains that effort counts twice–meaning hard work combined with knowledge and experience can help a person achieve more than just knowledge alone. Hard work requires dedication and consistency; it is not enough to simply put in the hours or show up occasionally. It takes resilience and tenacity to make meaningful progress in any area of life or profession.
What happens when you are faced with setbacks? Do you blame others? Are you quick to toss in the towel? As structural engineers, we have unique pressures at the beginning of a project. Commonly, we are expected to do our design before everyone else on the team. We have projects where foundation piles are installed 2 years before the project is fully designed. Ultimately, this leads to last-minute changes and redesign. We are often approached to modify structural designs with short notice. This takes grit and hard work–and we are learning to embrace it. Not for the sake of hard work itself, but because it is a gateway for creating great things.
As engineers, we have been trained to constantly think about how things are done now and how we could do them better. When we combine hard work with experience and knowledge, it enables us to look at a problem from multiple angles and come up with an effective solution.
But back to the question.
What inspired you to choose engineering?
While solving problems is, truthfully, a good description of what my career has been so far, I’ve also learned that it’s just part of the big picture. Sure, I solve problems every day, but why? What is the end goal?
In my case, it’s to design a structure that ultimately makes people’s lives better. And realizing that I do it best when I recognize that uncertainty, pain, or hard work is not only inevitable; it is necessary for progress, growth, and impact.
After all, a hospital is more than just a structure; it brings healing and life to communities. A school is not merely another building; it’s a gateway for the next generation of thinkers, innovators, and world changers.
As for Eng-Spire, we get to be part of that every day.