Iterations

Solutions and re-solutions for education

Engineering a Happy Life

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on February 12, 2011

How can engineering an airplane set the stage for a happy marriage and family life? Engineers get lots of practice balancing both separateness and togetherness in their work. Let’s explore how this skill can help meet our core needs for autonomy and a sense of belonging in work, life, and love.

All of us strive throughout our lives for a sense of autonomy and to feel like we belong. As toddlers able to move around without help, we rushed away from mother to explore our world. As parents and other caregivers encouraged us to explore the world and to satisfy our own needs when we were able, we developed a sense of being able to manage on our own – autonomy.  We reveled in our ability to take on our big, new world until our developing brains allowed us to realize that we are small and we need others to help us. Around two years old, our brains finally allowed us to know one of the major conflicts of life: we like doing things on our own AND we need others to help us. So what did we do? We practiced coming to terms with these opposing needs as best we could. Our parents called this stage our “terrible twos,” when nothing they did seemed to satisfy us. We wanted to be picked up (belong to mother) only to want down again (be autonomous). We wanted help, and we didn’t want help in all sorts of ways that challenged the adults around us.

All of us began to figure out how to belong AND be autonomous as children, and we continue to do it throughout our lives. Can I do this on my own? Who will help me if I need it? We solve and re-solve this puzzle in everyday circumstances and at turning points in our lives. In particular, each time we face a choice that stretches our abilities or changes our relationships, we relive this dilemma. If we’ve solved this conflict for ourselves successfully enough times before, we will know ourselves well enough to be able to weigh our options and choose with confidence.

Life gives each of us many chances to meet our unique needs for belonging and autonomy. A career in engineering gives one many chances to meet these needs with others in a fun, fascinating, and structured way. Engineers work in groups with others who have different expertise within the engineering profession. They all are focused on the object they are designing. Most engineering groups develop a collective identity tied to that object – the Project XYZ group – and each member feels a sense of belonging within it. Each member makes a unique contribution and is autonomous in that regard.  The group develops many different models of its design together. The first common model is created and agreed upon through discussion and some rough sketches. Then, the structural designers translate the initial discussions and sketches into three dimensional computer models. Each member of the team takes that model and makes a different computer model that analyzes and optimizes the design for performance features within the member’s expertise – for example, strength, thermodynamics, or aerodynamics. Along the way, each person exchanges information with every other person on the team. The group comes together again and uses the new information each team member brings to negotiate a better design. Notice in the picture below that each member talks with each other member, then adds to the designed object.


They separate again to analyze the new design. This cycle of designing together, then separately, then together happens until the design does what it’s supposed to do and everyone on the team approves it. Then the group might disband and each person moves on to another project and group. So the design process incorporates autonomy and belonging. All team members must manage both of these for themselves in order to be successful in creating the designed object. And each engineer might work on many projects in her career, so she gets plenty of practice dealing with autonomy and belonging with different groups.

I met my husband when we were both engineers designing an airplane. As two members of a group of engineers designing this plane, we were both fascinated by all the complex challenges involved in designing it. We were focused first on the designed object, the airplane. At the time, I was a co-op student still in engineering school, so this was my first professional experience on a project. He was assigned to be my mentor. We spent months at work together discussing and developing models and blueprints with others in our group. Not only did our group work together to solve design problems, but we socialized together, too. Our group formed a softball team and played in the company league. Our group went out for dinner after work. My future husband and I built trust and respect as we worked on that airplane together. Once I went back to engineering school and we didn’t see each other at work anymore, we began seeing each other socially. Our social relationship was easy because we already knew we collaborated well together, had temperaments that balanced each other, and held similar values. Friendship and trust grew into love, and we were married less than two years later. That was 30 years ago.

Our experiences as engineers helped us build our happy, peaceful family. We learned early in our relationship how to encourage and honor our separate, autonomous selves within the warm and loving togetherness of marriage. We brought two sons into our family and helped them find their autonomy and sense of belonging both within and outside of our family. As they leave our home and make their own families, we are redefining autonomy and belonging for our growing family. All of us continue to collaborate in redesigning our lives to meet our basic human needs for autonomy and belonging. After all, it’s what we engineers (and these engineers’ children) are trained to do.

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One Response to “Engineering a Happy Life”

  1. Minecraft said

    It’s interesting to see this point of view. I can’t say fore sure if I agree or not, but it is something I will think about now.

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