Do engineers think differently? Yes, they think very pragmatically and creatively, while remaining optimistic despite all hardships.
This way of thinking isn’t limited to only engineers though. Non-engineers can also think like engineers, to become more successful.
To help you level up your thinking, we’ll go over the 6 ways how engineers think differently. I’ll include how each way of thinking crosses over to everyday life too.
Important Note: these 6 ways of thinking are more pronounced with 10x engineers. These engineers outperform their peers, through their unique thinking abilities.
#1 Analytical thinking
Engineers break problems down into simple parts like they’re solving a hairy equation. This allows you to analyze and solve problems from all angles. Also, you view everything through a rational lens. Because success in math comes from objective truths, where 1 + 1 always equals 2.
Without this detailed analytical approach, engineering mistakes would happen more often. You can’t skirt around the laws of nature, where the framework is mathematics. I’ve even written on engineering failures, which often are avoidable.
Important Note: the more data you have at your fingertips, the better you can analyze problems. Also, the fewer assumptions you’ll make, which prevents over-engineering.
Real-world example: a doctor’s recommendation versus an engineer’s way of thinking
Everyday activity: you’re a type 1 diabetic. Your doctor hands you a USDA-recommended diet, to help you with your diabetes.
Thinking like an engineer: you question your doctor’s recommendation. The USDA dietary guide recommends eating a lot of carbs. Much more than you regularly would.
You still give the diet a shot, but with a side of skepticism. You use your normal insulin-to-carb ratio, to administer insulin on your new diet. Your increased carb intake doesn’t align with your insulin-to-carb ratio though. The more carbs you intake, the more out of range your blood sugar post-meal becomes.
You then analyze the half-life and efficacy of your insulin in search of a solution. You also review the macronutrients of your diet, but the numbers just don’t add up. Even as you perfectly maintain your insulin-to-carb ratio.
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. The following variables are wreaking havoc on your insulin protocol:
- Different carbs have different glycemic indexes
- Fats mixed with different carbs, change the absorption rate of said carbs
- It’s difficult to count carbs, when consumed in high quantities
In short, you dismiss your doctor’s recommended diet through rational thinking.
#2 Creative thinking
Thinking creatively is the design cornerstone of every field of engineering. It allows you to maneuver around the endless unique problems in engineering. Because a cookie-cutter solution won’t cut it when you need to innovate. It’s why I compare creative engineers to Mozart!
In the same vein, engineers magnify their creativity, by asking the following questions:
- Why is the design done this way?
- How can I simplify the design?
- How does it work?
These questions turn the wheels in your head, forcing you to deep dive into subjects. Then the more you learn, the better creative solutions you can come up with. A great example is the creative design and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Real-world example: returning a broken toy versus fixing it yourself
Everyday activity: you buy a collector’s toy and it doesn’t properly assemble. Out of frustration, you return the toy because it’s seemingly flawed.
Thinking like an engineer: you don’t return the toy, instead you aim to fix the design flaw. You brainstorm how to fix the problem by analyzing similar toys. Once you come up with a creative solution, you not only fix the toy, but you make it work better.
#3 Economic way of thinking
Engineers need to always find the most economical solutions to problems. Because companies and customers don’t have limitless budgets. The cost to implement a design is a critical part of every project.
In the end, if you throw enough money at a problem, you’ll certainly figure out a solution. But at what cost?…
Great engineers are able to design simple yet effective solutions, but affordably. Look no further than SpaceX. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy delivers to low Earth orbit for $1,400 per kilogram. This is 700X cheaper than Vanguard, NASA’s first family of rockets. It’s also 4X cheaper than NASA’s Saturn V, which took humans to the Moon in 1969. All the while, SpaceX doesn’t compromise on quality.
Real-world example: hiring out versus finding an in-house solution
Everyday activity: you hire a finance manager because you’re overwhelmed by your figures. You’ve had bad experiences with finance managers causing problems in the past though.
Thinking like an engineer: you want to save money by not hiring out, and to limit headaches. But, you still want to remain efficient given your hectic schedule. So, you write your own finance app.
It takes time to write the app, but once complete, it’s cost-free. Also, you can watch over the figures yourself, without needing to deal with the blunders of others.
#4 Relentless thinking
Engineers are a persistent bunch, who relentlessly search for solutions to problems. And if a problem seems impossible, they’ll view it from a new perspective. Because some problems have more thorns, and without persistence, you’ll never breakthrough.
Not surprisingly, engineers gravitate towards difficult problems. They want a challenge, as they don’t fear a pursuit, which requires persistence. Just look at the challenges of designing and deploying the James Webb telescope. Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate stated:
“This is the first time anyone has ever attempted to put a telescope this large into space.”
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, without the cost ballooning up. So you give up on the project and leave your backyard as a patch of dirt.
Thinking like an engineer: you brainstorm many design options. You search for different ways to install a fountain by doing the following:
- Analyze different fountain options, to fit your backyard
- Figure out options to retrofit your backyard, to fit a fountain
- Research fountain design ideas from existing homes
- Draw up 3D renderings of your backyard with fountain options, to prove the concept
Through your persistence, you get your dream backyard.
#5 Truth-based thinking
An airplane in flight only cares for the laws of physics, and not your biases. This objective truth alone, fuels engineers to be laser-focused on pragmatic thinking. Additionally, engineers block out feelings, which aren’t helpful in problem-solving.
This is how engineers can launch rockets into space, and design jets to take off from aircraft carriers. Even more, the basis of the engineering code of ethics is pragmatic thinking. Because the truth in engineering is found in science.
Real-world example: listening to other people’s input versus searching for the truth
Everyday activity: you throw away a new computer because you think it’s broken. You’ve read on the internet, your computer type goes bad in 2 years because of a faulty part.
Thinking like an engineer: you know every computer is fixable as they’re manmade. So you disregard what people over the internet say, and you do your own research. This allows you to replace the faulty component and several other parts. Your computer then works as well as new.
#6 Pragmatic goal-setting thinking
Both the end goal and intermediate problem-solving details are important. The end goal keeps an engineer focused on the desired solution. While the intermediate details ensure they properly execute the end goal. Both of these thought patterns go hand in hand.
A great example is rocket design. The end goal is to send a rocket into space safely. Sounds simple enough, but the devil’s in the details. Engineers can’t lose sight of designing a light, functioning, and affordable rocket. All the while, not skipping over the fine technical details, which determine if the rocket can launch. I’ve written on the structural design of rockets, which summarizes detailed design considerations.
Real-world example: lost in confusion versus budgeting and saving for your first home
Everyday activity: you need to save $200,000 for a down payment on your first home. The $200,000 seems daunting though, and you don’t know where to start.
Thinking like an engineer: you outline the following plan, to save $200,000:
- Save on rent by moving back in with your parents
- Quit eating out
- Replace your new car with a beat-up car
- Start freelancing on the side of your day job
- Limit recreational spending to $100 per month
- Move your savings into a high-yield savings account
Each of these financial sacrifices will help lead you to buy your first home. In the same vein, if you only focus on savings without an end goal, you may miss the boat on owning a home. Interest rates may double the next year, pricing you out.
“Do engineers think differently?” wrap up
Engineers definitely think differently than most of the population. So much so, engineering projects would suffer without a different way of thinking. Frankly, I wouldn’t fly in an airplane designed by engineers who didn’t think differently.
What’s great though is, everyone can think like an engineer. It just requires practice. Then over time, you’ll become a Swiss army knife in solving problems.
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.