This is a guest post by Patrick Sweet, P.Eng.
I’ve worked with thousands of engineers throughout the world, and a common theme has emerged throughout that work: engineers want to see progress in their careers.
We want to climb the corporate ladder faster. We want to get more done. We want to be happier and more successful. We want to improve.
I think this is a noble and worthy thing to pursue. The trouble is that most engineers don’t know where to start with respect to their pursuit of progress.
Today, I’m going to talk about why understanding your “Why” is the single most important thing you can do to kick start your path towards being a better you.
1.1 Start with why
When we think of self-improvement, most people ask “How” questions. How can I do that faster? How can I be more effective? How can I get more done?
These are great questions to ask. I’ve asked them all myself. In fact, you should always be asking yourself these questions – there’s nearly always room to become more effective and more efficient in your tasks.
The problem with asking these questions is that they focus on the tactical to the exclusion of the strategic. None of these questions ask “Why”. I believe understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing is the single most important question you can ask with respect to your work. Failure to ask and answer that question can be the single greatest oversight an engineer makes when it comes to work. Those who do have a strong sense of why they are doing their work are more effective and more efficient in everything they do.
Before getting into how best to approach your work and grow in your career, understanding why you’re doing it in the first place is critical. Your why serves as a compass in the messy day-to-day work of an engineer. It’s so easy to get caught up in the minutiae of chasing part numbers, formatting reports, reading emails and attending meetings that you forget what you’re trying to really accomplish in the first place.
Beyond serving to tell you what kind of goals and tasks you should be pursuing in the first place, knowing why you’re doing your work serves two fundamentally important efficiency-related purposes as well: it motivates you and it orients you.
Knowing why you’re doing your work is motivating because it reminds you that all the nonsense you have to go through in the run of a day is actually worth it to someone. The work you do really is important to someone. The chances are that the product you’re designing or the service you’re offering will benefit real people somewhere. That’s part of the beauty of engineering. The work, even the paper pushing, will actually matter to someone. Forgetting this fact makes it easy to get discouraged and overwhelmed by the day-to-day grind that engineering can often be.
The second big benefit to really understanding why you do the work you do is that it orients your decision-making. If you don’t have a clear vision what your work is for, it can be easy to overlook things and make silly decisions. For example, you might spend weeks designing some complex feature in a new software product because you think it could be super useful. If your end users value simplicity over extra features, it’s clear that you’ve forgotten them and the why of your work. You’ve wasted your time – even if the code is brilliant.
This orientation also serves a macro purpose: to help guide you from a career perspective. Knowing why you do what you do can really help you to make smart career decisions and pursue the right kinds of opportunities to foster growth and progress towards an end goal you’re actually excited about.
1.2 My Example of Why
As an example, I used to work in the rail industry. The division I worked in designed automated commuter rail systems. As you might imagine, these systems are incredibly complex. You need to get 100,000 tiny things right to make sure it all works. What you end up with at the end of a project’s design phase is amazing (i.e. trains are pretty badass). But, the process you need to take to get through the design can be very draining. This is why it’s important for me to remember my why.
My why was to help people live better lives. Our products helped people move in the cities they live in so they can live more comfortably and get more done. Beyond that, our products helped keep cars off the road, which is good for the planet. That, to me, was very motivating and helped me to get through some of the daily annoyances of the work.
1.3 What’s Your Why
Please take a minute and use the comments section below to tell us all about your “Why” and how understanding it has helped you in your career. I promise to keep an eye on the comments and I’ll be sure to respond to each one.
About Patrick Sweet
Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA is a product and engineering management consultant, speaker, and the creator of EngineeringAndLeadership.com. He helps engineering teams and OEMs create profitable products, boost productivity, and manage complexity. You can reach Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org or @engileader.
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions in the section below on knowing your “Why”.
To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success