Thursday, October 13, 2011

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

My first job upon graduating from college was with Caltex Petroleum, an international oil company. After a year with them in New York City, getting to know the company, and seeing where best I might fit into their structure, I was off to Cape Town South Africa. Apparently their conclusion was my best fit was as far as possible from corporate headquarters.

A year or two later the corporate office sent a veteran engineer to the various refineries around the world to talk to the young engineers. He entitled his presentation - “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”.

Said old engineer told us about his career, about his fight with alcoholism, and about the things that made his life worth living. I suppose it is a bit trite to say he lived for his job, but, that was his message - with the caveat that his job gave him the chance to work on difficult problems, and to find solutions to these problems. He described his solving problems as his “eureka moments”. His greatest satisfaction came from moments when the light came on - all the disparate facts would come together and he would “see” the answer to the problem.

Now, as an old engineer myself, I can understand his point of view. And, as an old engineer, I am telling young engineers that this is a large part of what has made my career so special - the chance to dig into difficult problems, to gather facts, to draw ideas together, and, ultimately, to see the real issues, and to then find the solution.

While I was paid for the work I put in as an engineer, sometimes it seemed like I should be paying them - given the satisfaction I derived from solving interesting and challenging problems. Right - I didn’t actually ever suggest they shouldn’t pay me, but you get the point.

There is an old saying - “Curiosity killed the cat”. But, this is only half of the saying - the other half is “Satisfaction brought it back”. In my world today, there are many times when it would be easiest to let the “professional” solve a problem, like when I have a problem with one of the newer cars we drive. But, each time I dig in, find the issues, use the internet if needed to help me understand what is going on, and then solve the problem. Each time I feel a massive sense of satisfaction.

And with this I can finally show how this rather disjointed posting ties into previous concepts - Taking the time to dig into a problem while believing that you can in fact solve it (the “do something” part) brings satisfaction, and ultimately happiness.

Most of you are not engineers - but every day you face problems that demand solutions - my message - take the time, learn a bit more about the problem, research it, and see if you can’t solve the problem yourself. It might well amaze you how many problems you can resolve, and, I assure you, the satisfaction makes the effort so worthwhile.

Now I am the old engineer talking about “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”.

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