Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Finding Your Muse

From Greek mythology - a goddesses of inspiration.

Almost every writer has, at some point, suffered from “writer’s block”.  But what engineers?  We often get “stuck” ...and how come we don’t get a clever name for it?  In fact, our stuck-ed-ness is often pretty significant (dare I say more significant than writer’s block?)

When an engineer gets stuck, many external forces can be at play:  things like the constraints of tight schedules, constraints of other connected systems and even the constraints of the laws of physics.

So how do you break through the block?  Let me offer you a couple of quick ideas for finding your muse...

1. Take a break.  Yeah, I know... you’ve got a schedule. 
If you’ve ever gotten a car stuck, you probably know that spinning your wheels only gets you more stuck.  The same applies to your creative processes.  The time you spend backing up and re-approaching the problem can often result in a faster arrival at the solution. 

Hint: How to take a break with purpose.
What you do on a break is really up to you.   For some people it's exercise.  For others it may be a trip to the coffee machine/shop.  For many people (even famous ones) it's a "power nap".  Regardless of what you do, I'd encourage you with this one principle: if you are going to tune out; tune out with purpose.  Try setting an alarm on your phone or on your watch for a 15 minute break.  This plays a neat trick on your mind.   Typically, when people take a break, all they think about is “how much work that have to get back to” and they worry about not getting back to it in time to finish.  Thus they never really give their mind a break. Knowing that an alarm will bring you back allows you to fully leave.

2. Do a DBR.  Something “different but related”
I always wanted to come up with my own acronym so why not now?  Different-but-related activities can keep you thinking in the right direction, but from a slightly different angle.  A DBR should be something that you look forward to doing – but at the same time stimulates your thinking.

Finding your DBRs:
First you need to identify those things that are related to what you do and then find interesting outlets for those things.  An important note: your DBRs should almost feel like a hobby or a “guilty pleasure” - they should be enjoyable activities with some kind of connection to your work.  Reading a technical journal is not necessarily a DBR (unless you’re a hopeless geek).  On the other hand, playing golf or basketball is probably a stretch in the context of DBR.

Let me use myself as an example: 
I write a lot of software for measurement systems. In addition I’m regularly in front of an audience consulting and teaching.  My DBRs aren’t going to be the same as yours, but for the sake of example, my DBRs are:
  • www.Gizmodo.com  As I’m involved in the development of new technologies, I find that learning about other, cool, new technologies can be very inspiring.  99% of the time these technologies aren’t related to what I’m working on but seeing cool, finished products is inspiring.  PG-13 warning: The writing style is edgy and sometimes contains profanity.
  • www.Ted.com/Talks  I think every rockstar engineer should spend some time listening to TED talks.  These are 15 minute talks on almost every imaginable topic.  Rockstar engineers don’t just learn about the subject matter, but they also can pick up on some great presentation skills.  I’m often more captivated by the latter (i.e. the presentation styles) than the content.
  • www.CodeProject.com  I write software primarily in the C# programming language.  CodeProject provides a constant diet of other clever things that other people are doing in C#.  Their projects aren’t even close to mine, but just seeing their work often gives me a re-charge.
  • Various leadership/effectiveness/communication blogs.  Email me if you’d like to know some of them.

3. Talk it out
Now this one may not apply to everybody.  I’m a very verbal thinker so the process of talking to someone is a huge help for me.  This may not apply to everybody.  But for those of you that aren’t verbal thinkers, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

Guidelines for conversation as inspiration:
  • Remember that conversation is a gift:
    If another person is willing to give you his or her time – treat it with respect.  They are giving you a part of their lives.  Be thankful, act thankful and tell them that you are thankful.
  • Respect the other person’s time and mental state:
    There is a chance that they are in the middle of doing something amazing.  Even if nothing is scheduled on their calendar they may still be “tied up”.  Respect that.
  • Respect the other person’s expertise and interests:
    I don’t talk mathematics with some of my friends.  I don’t talk business strategy with other friends. 
  • Respect their difference of opinion:
    If you are asking a person for help, DO NOT SHOOT DOWN THEIR IDEAS.  There is no place for defensiveness or negativity when you are the one asking for help.

Every one of us will have times where we are stuck and a muse would come in handy.  (Although I’m not sure I’d recognize an “engineer muse” if one walked by.)  So until that happens; take a break, do a DBR or just go find someone to hash it out with. 

Postscript: In case you haven’t guessed, I was stuck this afternoon while writing software and it got me thinking about the whole being stuck thing.  Writing is also a DBR for me.  Instead of writing computer programs in computer language, writing human words in human language is a good break.  So thanks for helping me out today! 

Rock on!