What I have forgotten about mechanical engineering could fill a shelf full of books. I know this because all of my 20+ year old textbooks sit on the shelf in my office mocking me. Well, except for the ones that I had to sell to pay a phone bill. Those were the chemistry ones, and I knew at a very early age there was no way I was going to ever need to understand chemistry. My only mistake was in thinking that I would ever need to understand mechanical engineering to be an engineer.
It’s hard to believe but once upon a time I had an aptitude for mechanics. While high level calculus never came as easy to me as it did to a lot of the savants at Clarkson, I found that I had an innate understanding of forces, and the spatial interaction of objects. This was probably the first clue that I was a visual learner. I needed to “see” something in order to comprehend it. This also explains why chemical and electrical engineering classes were a foreign language to me. I never dealt well with abstractions.
To be honest, mechanical and civil engineering are probably the two easiest engineering disciplines for this reason. Even the calculus that is required to work through problems of structures, and mechanics is much simpler than the stuff that my electrical engineering roommates had to suffer through. My greatest academic achievement was passing Differential Equations in my sophomore year after only attending about 10% of the lectures. The classes were held at 8am, and the instructor may as well have been teaching in Swahili. After 1 month I figured that I had zero chance to learn anything at that hour, so instead I just focused on learning the assignments by rote. I also had a few dorm mates that were whizzes at it, and they coached me through a lot of the rougher parts. Hell, I even got a B in the damn class.
I’d like to say that all the technical knowledge I gained in college was useful to me, but I’d be lying. The fact is I had forgotten most of it as soon as the final exams were over. What I really learned at college was how to be a student. I honed my skills at quickly deducing what the instructor wanted, then focused on learning only the things that would be on the exams. Long cram sessions in the days before a test helped me to memorize the problems that would be most likely to appear. Of course when the exams came, the instructor always found one little twist in each problem to make it just different enough from the assignment that it would trip you up. There was also always one question that was completely extemporaneous to the material covered in class. That question was always the one that separate the A’s from the B’s.
But to get a B, all you needed was to memorize the processes, and formula’s. Engineering teachers will always grade based on your use of the formulas in solving the problem. The actual numerical answer is secondary. The key to test taking was this:
1) Find the outlier question that was being used to separate A and B students, and skip it until the end of the exam.
2) Work through the other problems starting with the easiest, by writing down the formulas you are using to derive the answer. Once you are done, move onto the next. Save the actual mathematical calculations for last.
3) Once you have sketched out the derivations for each problem, circle back to the outlier question, and start writing down the formulas that you think might be needed to solve the problem. If in doubt, pull them out of your ass. Once finished filling in the page with scribbles and scratches, go back and do the math for the other problems.
4) If time allows, check your math
5) If time there is still time at the end, go back to that trick question, close your eyes and think hard. Write down a short note to the instructor saying that you ran out of time, but here is how you would have approached the problem if you had more time. Chances are, he’ll throw you a bone and give you partial credit for the effort.
It took me 2 semesters to figure out this method for test taking, and another 3 years to hone it. By the 2nd semester of my sophomore year I was flirting with an A. I was also living like a monk, and suffering from depression, so when Junior year rolled around, I throttled back my effort to a comfortable “B”, and found a work-life balance that allowed me to kill enough brain cells to have fun, without fear of flunking.
It was a template that I would eventually put to work in my career as well. Do just enough to get ahead, without killing yourself. Focus only on the things that will get your project through to 90% completion, then call it good and move on. There’s an unwritten rule that the last 10% of a project consumes 50% of the time and energy. The mistake most people make is assuming that 100% completion (i.e. perfection) is required. In my experience, I have yet to find a job where it is. Maybe heart surgery, or NASA rocket scientists need perfection, but the rest of us schlubs seldom do.
Finding where the minimum effort yields the maximum return is called “efficiency”. Every system has such an optimal point. The key to getting ahead is being able to find this point, and not getting distracted by seeking the absolute maximum output. I call this the “Ferris Buehler” method of career development, and I have made it my life’s work to coach and mentor others in the finer points of it. As I tell my direct reports, every system has shortcuts, and loopholes. Our job is to find and exploit them. The system exists to prevent less inventive people from using the resources that we are going to steal.
Is this cynical? Maybe, but I prefer to use the word “Pragmatic” instead. All I know is it works. Ask Ferris.