'Engineer's Block' Is a Real Thing

SWE Member Suzie Olsen discusses 'engineer's block' and how to move past it when you're feeling stuck.
'Engineer's Block' Is a Real Thing

'Engineer's Block' Is a Real Thing was contributed by SWE member Suzie Olsen.

I was recently watching a TedTalk by author Elizabeth Gilbert, and she was talking about the fear of genius that authors and other art professions have.  She joked that her dad, a chemical engineer of 40 years, never got asked the same questions that authors do: “if he was afraid to be a chemical engineer, you know? That chemical-engineering block, John, how's it going?" And although a funny moment is a serious talk about creative genius, it did make me pause—I do in fact think that engineers can struggle in their work; that indeed engineer’s block is real.

I do in fact think that engineers can struggle in their work; that indeed engineer's block is real.

I think one of the misconceptions society easily makes about engineering is that it’s not creative.  However, engineering organizations (such as the Society of Women Engineers) and the engineers in them have been working hard to dispel the idea that engineering is not creative.  Engineering requires problem solving, and part of problem solving is being creative.  Solutions to the world’s problems require innovative, out of the box thinking – AKA creativity.

But sometimes when you’re in the thick of solving a big problem in your engineering work ('putting out a fire' as so many of us engineers refer to it), you get stuck in finding a fix or solution to the problem.  Hence, you get engineering block.  Now the process to becoming unstuck in engineering may be more well-defined than the process to becoming unstuck in writing—perform root cause analysis, analyze data, brainstorm solutions to the problem based on the root cause, perform cost-benefit analysis of solutions to determine best solution, and finally implement best solution—and despite having a process to help us with problem solving and creativity, engineers can become stuck. We become blocked.

Despite having a process to help us with problem solving and creativity, engineers can become stuck. We become blocked.

So, what can we do when we become blocked?  We can try our engineering processes, but if that’s not working, then what?  How can we tap into our creativity to finish the narrative we engineers are telling with our solutions, services or products?  In her TedTalk, Elizabeth Gilbert advises authors and other artists on how to fight against the fear of genius by instead of internalizing the genius, letting the genius be its own entity.  So, when all goes well in writing (or all goes wrong), you are only partially responsible and the genius (separate from you) takes the rest of the credit.  She advises you to show up every day to your job (writing, dancing, and so on), and hope that the genius shows up too.

And while I genuinely believe that thought (your genius is a separate entity) is wonderful, I'm not sure it works to tell your boss, "Although I showed up for work today, my genius is out of the office...but as soon as it's back, I'll get you that solution!" That’s just not going to fly with your boss and your company.  Deadlines and deliverables are real in engineering (and sometimes in writing too!), and you can’t just wait for your genius to finally show up at site and punch in.  So, what are some tangible actions that engineers (and really anyone) can take to become unblocked?

  • Step away from the problem, take a break and do something you consider fun. It will cure boredom and stress.
  • Focus on another problem or task at work. Sometimes when working another problem, the solution for the first problem becomes obvious.
  • Dabble in another creative endeavor. Similar to tip #2 above, sometimes when working on another creative endeavor, writing, dancing, knitting, a kindergarten’s 100 Days art project, an idea comes to us.
  • Read anything and everything. From technical papers to personal essays to news to comics.  Like tips #2 and #3 above, ideas are already floating out there from other sources.
  • Set a timer and work on the specific problem for just 10 minutes, 20 minutes, etc. Did you get excited about one small thing in that time?
  • Talk to someone. Ask a co-worker how they’d approach the problem or if they’ve seen something similar in their work. Or if you’re part of an engineering group like SWE, go to their Facebook group (Society of Women Engineers - SWE Group) and ask advice.

SWE and I would love to hear your thoughts on engineer’s block, and tips you use to become unblocked (at work or at home), so please leave us a comment below!  And together let’s gently remind people that engineering is a creative profession and that even the most experienced of engineers get stuck/blocked!

About the Author

Suzie Olsen headshotSuzie Olsen is a systems engineer in Phoenix, AZ. She graduated from Arizona State University with a BS is Electrical Engineering and a MS in Global Technology and Development. With fourteen years in engineering, she currently works on the search and rescue system for the US Coast Guard. She is also the author of Annie Aardvark, Mathematician and creator of the blog STEM Spark. Suzie's spark is to encourage students, especially girls and minorities, to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  She is involved in the Society of Women Engineers Phoenix Section and participates in various STEM outreach events around Phoenix.  She lives with her husband and child, performing STEM experiment after STEM experiment with her child.