by Roger Reid | May 12, 2017

Zen For Skeptics (and Engineers)

Zen for engineers, stack of stones with a bamboo background

I went to college to become an engineer . . . to learn math, physics, and principles of electrical design.

Black and white stuff. No gray in engineering.

I remember my first introduction to digital computers. I learned to program the Digital PDP-8 and PDP-11 by moving banks of switches into either the on or off position. Ones or zeros. No other choices, no other possibilities. You were either right or wrong.

As a college senior, I belonged to a plucky bunch. Very sure of ourselves, we were confident we would change the world with our highly disciplined, university-trained minds. Maybe you saw us on the way to class. We were easy to recognize . . . a few of us still carried slide rules on our belts. The more affluent sported HP-41C calculators at $500 a crack. If that didn’t give us away, the plaid shirts and high-waisted, scratchy-new blue jeans always did.

Our conversations between classes usually focused on the job market—which company offered the better compensation package and which presented the most opportunity for advancement. We compared the current salary offers from Texas Instruments and Honeywell, and often discussed the latest speculation surrounding Allied Chemical . . . they were hiring, but it was rumored they would contract you out to the Atomic Energy Commission, where you’d likely find yourself working in a facility that reprocessed depleted fuel rods from nuclear submarines. The work sounded interesting, but the job came with the risk of a daily dose of background radiation that could leave your gene pool a ticking time bomb, and your future children’s DNA only an X-ray away from twisting into some obscure reptilian pattern that would leave them scaly, low to the ground, and constantly drooling green lizard spit.

We were about three months away from graduation when the department chairman arranged for a series of guest speakers to address the class. Most were entry and mid-level managers from local offices of companies involved in the engineering industry. At first, we were excited. These were people from the “real world,” and could provide a glimpse into the daily routine of working in a high-tech corporate atmosphere.

The first presentation was boring and monotonous. The next was just as uninspiring. The speakers quickly became repetitive and predictable. It didn’t take long before we realized these guys had been prepped by corporate recruiters, and were there to motivate us into filling out a job application.

One of the last to speak was a senior engineer from Motorola. Based on the previous speakers and their canned sales pitches, I considered using the time to better advantage, which meant spending the hour in the student union looking at the girls. But the class was small, only about twenty of us, and even a single absence was obvious—not something I wanted the department chairman to remember so close to graduation.

I arrived at class expecting to see a clone of what had come before . . . a near retirement-age geek in a pair of crumpled khakis and a too-large white shirt that had never seen the hot side of an iron. I also anticipated the same old rhetoric—the benefits of working for a major player in the industry, a description of the work assignment for an entry-level engineer, and a strong suggestion that new hires were expected to demonstrate their commitment by coming in for half a day on Saturday.

I was wrong.

The Man from Motorola showed up dressed in a dark suit, red tie, and looked like he’d just stepped out of a magazine pictorial on how to dress for success. He was mid-forties, intelligent, articulate, and worked the room like a Vegas showman.

First impressions aside, it was his message I remember most.

Young businessman giving a presentation on living a balanced life

“Use your gut!” he said. “Envision your future and make choices and decisions that feel right. It’s not just about the money or the promotions. It’s the day-to-day satisfaction. It’s getting along with your co-workers. It’s looking forward to coming to work, and being happy with your situation, both now and as you look forward into the future.”

It was like listening to someone from another planet. I’d never thought about my future in that way before. My world was black and white. This guy was talking in Technicolor.

I tried to push it out of my mind. There’s no way he could be right.

As he finished his presentation, the class offered placating smiles and obligatory, light applause. After all, we weren’t rude, just arrogant intellectuals who knew better.

A friend of mine said what most of us were thinking. “If I’d wanted to waste my time listening to some middle-aged optimist spouting trivial hogwash about feelings, I would have audited a class in the liberal arts department.”

I couldn’t argue his point. I mean, come on, this WAS the college of engineering. Hollowed, sanctified ground. And this corporate mouthpiece had just desecrated its reputation with irreverent sacrilege, talking about relationships, contentment, and something he called “long-term psychic benefits.”

Blasphemy.

His every word was second cousin to the kind of psycho-babble that echoed inside the walls of the psychology building.

As most of us shook our pompous, ego-inflated heads, a friend of mine said, “I’ve heard about this undisciplined, flower-child attitude. It’s think it’s called Zen . . . might be some kind of religious cult.” We nodded in agreement, and then headed off to our next class.

I mean, really . . . after four years of mastering some of the most difficult curriculum on campus, we knew we were smart. In fact, we believed our knowledge of math and science to be the superior model of describing and interacting with the world. We wore our education like a protective shroud—our own version of Superman’s cape—made of facts and formulas instead of indestructible fabric.

meeting of engineers sitting around table

But in reality, we’d learned nothing.

We knew calculus, but we didn’t understand life.

Even worse, our education had left us handicapped. We were about to jump headlong into a world of deadlines, demanding bosses, mortgages, and car payments without having the slightest idea of how to evaluate all the choices the future would throw at us.

Graduation came and went, and after a few months, I began to realize my personal Super-cape wasn’t holding up very well. I didn’t want be an engineer. Not a real one, the kind that sat at a desk all day, working on the design for a new digital timer, or drawing schematics to convert banks of electro-magnetic relays into solid state logic boards.

Luckily, my situation was about to change. I’d received an offer from a Fortune Five Hundred company called Cutler-Hammer, a soon to be division of Eaton Corporation. Instead of traditional engineering applicants, they were looking for technically-qualified sales people.

I didn’t hesitate. Although I felt the idea of “selling” had a less-than-honorable ring to it—far below the stature and prestige surrounding a formally-schooled engineer—I bit my tongue, put on my suit and tie, and went to work. I tried to take some comfort in my job title, “Sales Engineer,” but the work had far less to do with technology than it did with motivating someone to buy something.

Over the next few years, I got a real education. Not the kind I’d received in college, but knowledge about myself . . . discovering what mattered to me, and what would make a difference in my life, both in the present and in the future—the very same things the man from Motorola had discussed during his presentation to our graduating class.

As my perspective and priorities began to change, I realized I wanted more control over my time and income. Motivated to try something different, I asked a friend of mine—a general contractor—to teach me the construction business. Six months later, I built my first custom home. After living in it for a few months, I sold it and repeated the process. Although I experienced as many setbacks as successes, it eventually confirmed what I’d always suspected about my initial career choice: I needed to change direction.

I doubt I’ll ever be asked to speak to a graduating class of engineers. I don’t have the credentials. I was never a real engineer.

But if I were asked, I’d do my best to provide something of value. That means I’d leave out the cliché-filled advice and the opinionated comparisons of pursuing an entrepreneurial career versus climbing the corporate ladder. I’d also avoid any reference to my own personal challenges and occasional successes. Today’s students are far smarter than I could ever pretend to be, and suggesting their potential for future success might have some degree of commonality with mine would be doing them the worst kind of disservice.

Instead, I think I’d focus on something the Motorola Man mentioned as he brought his presentation to a close—There are no guarantees in life, only the importance of our decisions. He didn’t say it in those exact words, but it’s what I remember most from his message.

It’s rough, but here’s the gist of what I would say . . .

“There are going to be times ahead when you’ll feel lost and unsure of your direction. And when you look back on some of your decisions, you’ll question the choices you’ve made. You’ll wonder if the other company’s offer was the better option. Or if you should have moved to San Diego, or Denver, or Austin, or waited to get married, or if having the kids so soon eliminated the option to try something different, to start over.

Welcome to the club.

Everyone questions their past. We all think about what our life might have been like if we had taken the other job, married the other girl, or lived in a different part of the world.

So how do you make the big decisions? How do you handle the “what ifs,” the doubts and fears when you find yourself at one of life’s major crossroads? I believe it comes down to this: You weigh the pros and cons, check your gut, and if it seems to be the right fit, dive in. Don’t procrastinate by over-analyzing or stewing over conjecture and speculation. Otherwise, the opportunity moves on. The door stays open just long enough for the first person to walk through, then it closes, and you’re left waiting for the next one to open. Miss too many open doors and you become less discriminating, more likely to jump at something that’s not the best fit.

There’s no fail-safe method to make the decision process any easier, but there are a few well-tested tools that can help create a clearer picture of what’s at stake. And while some of these may appear to be techniques to factor your options with logic, their real purpose is to keep you honest . . . with yourself. At least you’ll know you did the best you could with the information you had to work with at the time.

There are only five suggestions and they’re simple, but I guarantee they will help.

Be in the moment. That doesn’t mean squatting on the floor, placing your fingertips together and communing with the spiritual essence of a nearby tree. Simply get into the habit of asking, “What’s going on around me? What do I see now that I was missing just seconds ago? How does the chair feel? The floor? The temperature?” This is not about creating a metaphysical experience. This is a process to keep you alert and less prone to internal distractions, especially the one that auto-filters what you see and hear with preconceived or prejudicial beliefs, preventing you from missing out on a small detail that could be critical in your final decision.

Listen carefully and ask questions if you don’t fully understand. A face-to-face conversation is often crucial to making good decisions – especially an important one. But too many times, we walk away asking ourselves, “I wonder what he meant by that? Was he really saying that, or did he mean something else?” Make sure your conversations result in more clarity and not more confusion.

Weigh other people’s advice by what they have to gain or lose from your decision. Everyone—your friends, family, significant other—will offer their two-cents worth. And that’s fine, just don’t live your life based on the priorities of others. You are the one who must live with your decisions. If you choose a path contrary to the wishes of others, explain that you had more information than they did—because you always will—and based on your long-term goals, you made the decision that was most appropriate and right for you.

Put it in perspective. Our usual first response to a negative or threatening situation is to frame it in a worst case scenario. After we learn the facts, we look back and usually realize we over-reacted. The key is to diffuse that first wave of crazy that triggers a release of adrenaline-induced stress that puts you squarely in the ring, ready to fight or fly.

Ask yourself,Is it really that important?”

angry businessman screaming into phone

“YES!” You scream. “It’s damn important! I could lose my job if I don’t finish this report on time or meet my quota for the year.” Or, “I just found out my wife is having an affair with the French waiter at our favorite restaurant and I can’t decide whether to confront her or charge into the restaurant and rip the guy’s head off.”

Granted, these examples may not represent usual day-to-day situations, but they do characterize the same level of stress many of us endure in a typical workday. The truth? Seldom do our daily issues and situations deserve a personal DEFCON 1 response.

A better reaction? Ask yourself what’s the most outlandish response you could make, and what might be the possible outcome. For example, if you really lost your job because your report was a few hours late, what would that do for you? It might set you free to find work that’s a better match for your personality, mindset, and interest. Spend a few minutes to think about it. What would it be like to work for someone else . . . a better boss, more pay, a place where your efforts are appreciated?

It’s best not to take any kind of action on the spur of the moment. Use this process to interrupt the emotional overload and re-frame the situation by considering the alternatives—even the silly or ridiculous. The result can put you in a better mental state for a more rational response. It works even better if you can combine it with a change in environment—try the restroom, the parking lot, the stairwell, anywhere you can find a private five-minute break.

Don’t let the seasons pass. If you’re unhappy in your career, or marriage, or the place where you live, do something about it. Make it a point to periodically re-evaluate your options and choices. Don’t live your life waiting for circumstances to correct poor choices from the past. Mid-course corrections are part of building a satisfying future. Make no mistake, the years do pass, and the magic spring-board of youth quickly turns into the anchor of middle age, leaving many to wonder, is it too late to change?

That’s it. Just five simple suggestions I wish someone had passed along to me forty years ago, just before I entered a classroom and sat down to hear a guy from Motorola speak about choice, values, and living life from a much larger perspective.