Do engineers think differently? For the most part, most engineers do think differently. This becomes more clear with elite engineers.
But, this way of thinking is not limited to only engineers. I wrote about how you too can think like an engineer to become more successful.
If you do the type of work engineers do over and over again, you’ll soon also start to think a certain way. Then, mix the work with a deep passion and your way of thinking will take off.
So, let’s go over the 6 main ways how engineers think differently. We’ll then see how this way of thinking crosses over to everyday life.
#1 Analytical thinking
If you do a lot of math, you start to think a certain way. You break problems down into many simple parts. Because in math, you can’t skip steps when solving problems.
Also, you think rationally, as 1 + 1 always equals 2. Thus, math trains your mind to use logic.
Further, you look at all sides of problems before trying to solve them. As math problems, a lot of the times are puzzles disguised in numbers and equations.
Without this detailed approach, engineering mistakes happen. A design may look good on the surface, but a hidden small error could lead to failure.
Thus, analytical thinking supports safer designs.
Keep in mind, since almost all types of engineers use a lot of math, this way of thinking is common among engineers.
Important Note: this is one reason why engineers love data. The more data you have at your fingertips, the better you can analyze problems.
Also, the fewer assumptions you’ll make. It’s always best to avoid assumptions in design work.
Real-world example: doctor’s recommendation versus an engineer’s way of thinking
Everyday activity: you’re a diabetic. Your doctor gives you a USDA recommended diet to help you with your diabetes.
Thinking like an engineer: you question your doctor’s recommendation. You realize the USDA dietary guide includes eating a lot of carbs.
You’re not an idiot as a long-time diabetic. You know carbs increase your blood sugar.
So, this diet would require you to deliver more insulin to counter the high carbs.
Here’s when you start thinking analytically. You track your carb intake followed by your insulin intake on the new diet. You use your normal insulin to carb ratio to administer insulin.
But, you soon realize something. As your carb intake increases, your insulin to carb ratio doesn’t perfectly scale.
You analyze the half-life and efficacy of your insulin. Then, you review your diet again. Things still don’t add up.
What the heck?! What’s with the diet?! The diet is only negatively affecting your health.
The more carbs you intake, the more out of range your blood sugar post-meal is.
A light bulb then goes off in your head! You realize too many variables now exist in your diet because of the high carb intake.
- Different carbs have different glycemic indexes
- Fats mixed with carbs change the absorption rate of the carbs
- It’s more difficult to count your carbs – store-bought food is not overly accurate with the carb count
In short, you dismiss your doctor’s diet through rational thinking. Then you lower your carb intake.
#2 Creative thinking
Thinking creatively is the cornerstone of engineering designs. If you can’t think outside the box, you’ll forever be stuck on a problem.
That’s why engineers naturally question everything. It’s a door to learn more about the world.
Some of the types of questions I ask include:
- Why is the design set up this way?
- How can I simplify the design?
- How does it work?
In my mind, I always have an idea brewing. Sometimes I even zone out in the middle of doing something. I start to think about how I can solve a problem in a better way.
So, the wheels are always spinning in an engineer’s mind. You’re always trying to process every data point from all your senses:
Real-world example: returning a broken appliance versus fixing it yourself
Everyday activity: you buy an appliance and it doesn’t assemble together well. You’ve followed the directions perfectly too.
Out of frustration, you decide to return the appliance. Because if it doesn’t work now, it’ll never work.
Thinking like an engineer: you don’t return the product. You find the fault in the design yourself.
Then, you brainstorm how to fix the problem. You do this by analyzing the design piece by piece.
Not only do you fix the appliance, but you improve the design. It now works even better than it originally should have.
As cliche as it sounds, you view every problem as a nail. And, you’re the hammer.
#3 Thinking economically without a loss in quality
Engineers always want to find the most economical way to get something done. There’s always a cheaper and better way, without compromising quality.
Whether you work for yourself or as an employee, the cost to do something is a critical part of every design.
Your boss or client always wants the work done at the cheapest possible price. No exceptions!
Because if you throw enough money at a problem, you’ll certainly figure out a solution. But at what cost?
The beauty comes in doing a design cheaply and simply. This is both a skill and an art.
Real-world example: hire out versus finding a solution
Everyday activity: you hire someone to organize all your business finances. With all the numbers, you become overwhelmed with managing everything yourself.
Thinking like an engineer: you want to save money by not hiring out. Also, you don’t want to pay a monthly fee for a service app.
Instead, you decide to write your own app. It’ll take time to write the app, but moving forward it’ll be cost-free.
Plus, you can add way more cool features than anything you could ever pay for. A win-win!
Even more, you can later sell your app to others. Profit!
#4 Persistent thinking
Engineers never give up. We always search for solutions.
Generally, if a problem seems impossible, you just need a different perspective on it. Some problems just have more thorns.
Almost every engineer realizes this. So, you remain persistent pushing through obstacle after obstacle.
Not ironically, engineers gravitate towards difficult problems. Because you know light exists at the end of every tunnel. Then, the victory at the end will be even sweeter.
Real-world example: forget about your dream project versus solving the problem
Everyday activity: a certain landscaping design in your backyard seems impossible. You’re not sure how you can install a fountain in such a tight area. Also, without the cost ballooning up.
So, you give up on the project. You decide to leave your backyard as is. A patch of dirt.
Thinking like an engineer: you brainstorm many options. You want to find different ways on how to install a fountain. To do this, you create a plan for yourself:
- Analyze different fountain options for your backyard.
- List all the limitations in your backyard for fitting a fountain.
- Research how to change an existing fountain design. The goal is to work around the limits of your backyard.
Finally, you come up with a solution after many weeks of work. In the end, you get your dream backyard.
#5 Searching for the truth
A plane doesn’t care what type of biases you have. All it cares about are the laws of physics in flight.
For this reason, engineers think very rationally over things. They quickly block out noise and only look at facts. While making math their religion in their design work.
Real-world example: listen to other people’s input versus searching for the truth
Everyday activity: you throw away a new computer. All because you think it’s broken and unfixable.
You read on the internet your computer type can go bad in only 2 years. Because it has a faulty component that makes the computer unusable.
Thinking like an engineer: you know you can fix every computer. Computers are manmade and all machines are repairable.
You disregard what people over the internet have said. Instead, you do your own research on how to solve the problem.
You open the computer and replace the faulty component. Your computer then works as good as new.
#6 Creating goals and not forgetting details
To efficiently solve problems, you can’t forget your end goal. But, you also can’t skip over the details of problems.
Both the goal and details are important!
When an engineer combines these two elements together, amazing things happen. I compare it to a jigsaw puzzle.
The completed puzzle is the end goal, and the individual puzzle pieces are the details. The takeaway is:
- If you forget the end goal, you won’t know what you’re working towards
- If you dismiss the details, you won’t know how to reach your end goal
Real-world example: lost in confusion versus budgeting and saving for your first home
Everyday activity: you want to save for a downpayment for your first home. You need to save $200,000.
But, you have no idea where to start. The end goal of $200,000 is too daunting.
Thinking like an engineer: you have the end goal in mind. So, you outline the following plan to save $200,000:
- Save on rent by moving back in with your parents
- Stop eating out
- Replace your new car with a beat-up car
- Start freelancing on the side of your regular day job
- Limit recreational spending to $100 per month
Each of these financial sacrifices will help lead you to buy your first home.
On the flip side, you can’t only view details either. You need goals to shoot for to improve your life.
The goal of purchasing a home will improve your financial future. In other words, you’re thinking ahead and solving a future problem you’ll one day have.
“Do engineers think differently?” wrap up
Engineers definitely think differently.
Without this unique way of thinking, engineering projects would suffer. I wouldn’t want to fly in an airplane designed by engineers who didn’t think differently.
To get a heavy metal tube filled with people into the sky, you need to think a certain way.
Of course, everyone can think like an engineer. But it requires practice. Then more practice.
In the end, I think it’s one of the best tools to have in life. You become a Swiss army knife in solving problems with this way of thinking.
Do you think engineers think differently? What way of thinking has benefitted you the most in life?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.