Do engineers think differently? You bet! They’re practical, creative, and optimistic—even in the face of challenges.
But guess what? This mindset isn’t exclusive to engineers. Anyone can adopt an engineer’s way of thinking and become more successful.
To help you level up your thought process, I’ll share six ways engineers think differently and demonstrate how each approach can be applied to everyday life.
Important Note: These six thinking styles are especially pronounced in 10x engineers—those who outshine their peers with their extraordinary 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 meticulous analytical method, engineering blunders would be far more common. You can’t sidestep the laws of nature, where math sets the rules. I’ve even written about engineering failures, many of which are preventable.
Important Note: The more data you have at your disposal, the better your problem analysis will be. You’ll also make fewer assumptions, reducing the risk of over-engineering.
Real-world example: A doctor’s recommendation versus an engineer’s way of thinking
Everyday activity: You have type 1 diabetes. Your doctor gives you a USDA-recommended diet to help manage your condition.
Thinking like an engineer: You question the doctor’s suggestion. The USDA diet includes a much higher carb intake than you’re used to.
You decide to give the diet a try but remain skeptical. You continue to use your usual insulin-to-carb ratio when administering insulin with your new diet. However, the increased carb consumption doesn’t align with your insulin-to-carb ratio, causing your blood sugar to spike after meals.
To find a solution, you analyze the half-life and efficacy of your insulin and examine the macronutrients in your diet. But something doesn’t add up, even when you maintain the perfect insulin-to-carb ratio.
That’s when it hits you: your diet now has too many variables due to the high carb intake. The following factors are messing with your insulin protocol:
- Different carbs have different glycemic indexes
- Fats combined with various carbs change the absorption rate of those carbs
- Counting carbs is challenging when consumed in large quantities
Ultimately, you ditch the doctor’s recommended diet, thanks to your rational thinking.
#2 Creative thinking
Creative thinking is the backbone of every engineering discipline. It enables you to navigate the countless unique problems in the field, as cookie-cutter solutions won’t cut it when innovation is needed. That’s why I like to compare creative engineers to Mozart!
Similarly, engineers boost their creativity by asking questions like:
- Why is the design done this way?
- How can I simplify the design?
- How does it work?
These questions get your mental gears turning, prompting you to dive deep into topics. The more you learn, the better creative solutions you’ll develop. A fantastic example is the imaginative design and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Real-world example: Returning a broken toy versus fixing it yourself
Everyday activity: You purchase a collector’s toy, but it doesn’t assemble correctly. Frustrated, you return the toy, assuming it’s defective.
Thinking like an engineer: Instead of returning the toy, you set out to fix the design flaw. You brainstorm possible solutions by analyzing similar toys. Once you come up with a creative fix, you not only repair the toy but also improve its functionality.
#3 Cost-effective thinking
Engineers constantly search for the most budget-friendly solutions to problems, because neither companies nor customers have bottomless wallets. The cost of implementing a design is a crucial aspect of every project.
In the end, throwing heaps of money at a problem will eventually lead to a solution. But at what cost?…
Brilliant engineers can create simple yet effective solutions that won’t break the bank. Take SpaceX, for example. Their Falcon Heavy rockets deliver payloads to low Earth orbit for just $1,400 per kilogram. That’s a staggering 700 times cheaper than Vanguard, NASA’s first family of rockets, and 4 times cheaper than NASA’s Saturn V, which took humans to the Moon in 1969. And guess what? SpaceX doesn’t skimp on quality.
Real-world example: Outsourcing versus finding an in-house solution
Everyday activity: You’re swamped by your finances and decide to hire a finance manager. But you’ve had bad experiences with finance managers causing problems in the past.
Thinking like an engineer: You want to save money by not outsourcing, limit headaches, and maintain efficiency despite your busy schedule. So, you write your own finance app.
Sure, writing the app takes time, but once it’s done, it’s free to use. Plus, you can keep an eye on the numbers yourself, avoiding the mistakes of others.
#4 Tenacious thinking
Engineers are a dogged bunch who never stop searching for solutions to problems. And if a problem seems impossible, they’ll tackle it from a fresh angle. Some problems have more prickles, and without persistence, you’ll never make progress.
Unsurprisingly, engineers are drawn to tough problems. They crave a challenge and don’t shy away from a quest that demands tenacity. Just consider the hurdles faced in 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: Abandoning your dream project versus solving the problem
Everyday activity: A particular landscaping design for your backyard seems unattainable. You can’t figure out how to install a fountain in such a tight space without the cost skyrocketing. So you scrap the project and leave your backyard as a patch of dirt.
Thinking like an engineer: You brainstorm various design options and search for alternative ways to install a fountain by doing the following:
- Analyze different fountain options to fit your backyard
- Explore ways to retrofit your backyard to accommodate a fountain
- Research fountain design ideas from existing homes
- Create 3D renderings of your backyard with various fountain options to prove the concept
Through your persistence, you achieve your dream backyard.
#5 Fact-based thinking
A plane in flight is governed by the laws of physics, not your biases. This objective truth drives engineers to be laser-focused on practical thinking. They also set aside emotions that don’t help in problem-solving.
This is how engineers can launch rockets into space and design jets that take off from aircraft carriers. Moreover, the foundation of engineering ethics is practical thinking, because the truth in engineering is rooted in science.
Real-world example: Tuning into others’ opinions versus uncovering the truth
Everyday activity: You’ve stumbled across a post online claiming your computer model is notorious for breaking down after two years due to a defective part. So you toss out your computer because you think it’s kaput.
Thinking like an engineer: You realize that every computer, being a human invention, is fixable. So you brush off the internet naysayers and dive into your own research. Lo and behold, you manage to replace the malfunctioning component and a few other parts. Voila! Your computer’s as good as new.
#6 Pragmatic goal-setting thinking
Striking the perfect balance between the big picture and the nitty-gritty is key. Having a clear ultimate goal keeps engineers laser-focused on the desired outcome, while paying attention to smaller steps ensures flawless execution. These thought patterns are two sides of the same coin.
Take rocket design, for example. The end goal is to launch a rocket safely into space. Sounds straightforward, right? But don’t be fooled—the devil’s in the details. Engineers must keep their eyes on the prize: a lightweight, functional, and cost-effective rocket, without overlooking critical technical aspects that make or break the launch. Check out my piece on the structural design of rockets, where I dive into these intricate considerations.
Real-world example: Drowning in uncertainty versus budgeting and saving for your dream home
Everyday activity: You need to save $200,000 for a down payment on your first home. The amount seems colossal, and you have no idea where to start.
Thinking like an engineer: You devise a master plan to save that $200,000:
- Move back in with your folks to save on rent
- Ditch dining out
- Swap your shiny new ride for a clunker
- Start freelancing alongside your day job
- Cap your fun spending at $100 per month
- Transfer your savings to a high-yield account
Each financial compromise brings you one step closer to your dream home. But if you only focus on saving without a crystal-clear goal, you might end up lost. Interest rates could soar next year, making homeownership a distant dream.
“Do engineers think differently?” wrap up
Engineers absolutely think differently than most folks, and it’s a good thing, too! Engineering projects would flounder without their unique perspectives. Honestly, I wouldn’t set foot on a plane designed by engineers who didn’t think outside the box.
The best part? Anyone can adopt an engineer’s mindset. All it takes is practice, and before you know it, you’ll be a problem-solving powerhouse.
Do you think engineers think differently? Which way of thinking has been your ultimate life hack?
SUBSCRIBE TO ENGINEER CALCS NEWSLETTER
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.