Engineering Optimism

It takes a certain kind of optimism to be an engineer.  You start with lofty goals: We can go to the moon/span this here  infinite hellmaw/do the impossible! But as a projects develop, a critical sort of self-reflection begins to take place.  Turns out, the rocket won’t be powered by unicorns, bridges won’t be made of rainbows (not to mention the necessity of defense turrets), and the impossible will at some point rear its ugly head and show you why it wasn’t merely improbable.

How are things improved? We question, we doubt, we challenge. And through our calculated, controlled, constructive pessimism things slowly begin to get better. This process takes on a whole different dynamic when performed in a group. Thus enters the sweet mothers milk of group problem solving, criticism. Now what the average person doesn’t understand about critical thinking is that it’s possible to judge an idea without judging an individual.  This phenomenon is characterized by, “While you may be an idiot, we’re not talking about that now. Your idea, however, does not work in this or many alternate realities.”

The world is far from this ideal.  It’s full of people – what with their social rules, pictures of their progeny, and endless prattling about weekends,  just passed or upcoming. Shit, even actual engineers, both “choo-choo” and otherwise don’t achieve this ideal most of the time.  People invest time and feelings into their thoughts. And they take it personally when you are critical in their presence. And then they make you feel like a bad person.

For a long time I thought, “If I could be less critical/pessimistic/negative I’d get along with people so much better!” And failed miserably. And then felt bad… ad nauseum.

After awhile, I reached the conclusion that my behavior is not the problem – it is both logical and consistent.  My default assumption is: You are a fellow human being with a problem? I care about you, let us challenge, discuss, and repair. So when the other person in the conversation just wanted you to sit there and listen to them complain about a coworker without offering different perspectives and ideas? Of course they would get mad when you don’t do what they want – challenging, criticizing, not being on their side?While it might not be the best time to point this out, by not establishing a clear expectation for the conversation, they are actually the person who failed.  One could argue that I share in that responsibility, but then again… they want my time, attention, sympathy, etc.

I’m perfectly willing to be an appropriate audience if someone wishes to blow off some steam, tell me how things are, inform me of decisions that they’ve made, work through their position out loud in my presence, tell a story, or just plain talk. Maybe I lack some social circuitry that allows the majority of people to determine the rules of the current conversation, but unless I understand what you want, I assume you want my mind and personality, actively engaged in a manner of my choosing.

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One comment on “Engineering Optimism
  1. angryscholar says:

    I suffer from much the same problem, though it sometimes manifests differently. My “cynicism” is often just realism, but people don’t want to hear it. If someone is a darling of your particular social circle, then regardless of the stupid shit they do, you can’t be critical. I have a particular acquaintance who says the most banal, unoriginal, and sometimes offensive shit I’ve ever heard. If I dare to call this person on said shit, they throw a hissy fit and don’t speak to me for three months. But word gets back to me through other people about how this person is talking shit about me. Apparently that’s okay, but not when I do it.

    Sometimes I think the real problem is that we’re smarter than these people, and they know it. They’re threatened by it, so we can’t get away with the same shit that others can. It gets worse the more specialized you get in your field: among colleagues, everyone’s supposed to be an expert, but there are varying degrees of expertise, and people get really self-conscious, territorial and defensive.

    In a weird way, the negative responses we get from these people should actually be kind of affirming. They wouldn’t be bothered by our attitudes if they weren’t somehow threatened by them. And again, they’re threatened because they know we routinely trump them.

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