The engineering knack
I've been putting this post off for a long time for several reasons: my previous post was probably the best post I've ever written and ever will write, so I wanted it at the top for a while; I'm not a very creative person, and creativity only comes to me in waves, and I haven't experienced a creative wave since my last post; frankly, I'm a terrible writer; it will be difficult to write this post without making me sound like a jerk who holds nothing but contempt for everyone on Earth.
I finally decided to write this one for several reasons: it's been a freaking month since my last post; my readers will probably still read even if my writing is drab because, frankly, I'm so great; this post is really just an excuse to link to some pictures from high school; sounding like a jerk would make me more like my hero (there's that obligatory link to Wikipedia).
So without further metablogging, today's topic is this magical distinction that makes some people more adept at technical tasks and thinking than others. I personally call this thing "the engineering knack". To be specific, I am using the study that shows some people just naturally "get it", while others, no matter how much education they receive, just slip, as a springboard, as well as many of my own verifiable observations of the world. In my mind, there is precious little discussion on this topic. My goal is mostly to summarize a set of ideas that have been floating around in my head with the hope that someone will see them and make a psychological or creative leap that I'm afraid I'm not capable of making, or at least expressing.
Without going into where the knack comes from, I'd like to focus on some observed effects. First and foremost, I think we can all see that those with the knack tend to be driven to create, learn and explore the world from the ground-up. That's the reason I call it the engineering knack, because it seems to me that such a drive is the very definition of "engineer". Why would anyone become an engineer if he's not passionate about it?
It's strange that only a subset of the human population has the ability to "get" the idea that computers (and indeed all devices) are nothing more than machines that follow their instructions to the letter. People who don't understand this idea right from the start never will (and are hilarious). I can think of no evolutionary advantage or disadvantage for early humans with the knack which would have caused it. Indeed I can't think of any such advantages or disadvantages in today's world. Perhaps this is an argument that developing minds pick up the knack in early childhood and cannot acquire it later. It does seem that those with the knack are simply wired differently from others.
The focus of attention of a passionate engineer is nearly always on the thing he's creating itself, and rarely does it extend outward. Those with the knack make terrible marketers, salesmen and entrepreneurs, since they tend to think that having a well-engineered idea or product is merit enough to become successful. (In all seriousness, having such an idea really ought to be good enough, ideally. Too bad the world is a real place and not just in theory.) So the knack-havers (I really need to think of a better term for that) end up making things like open-source software, pouring years of effort into fantastic products and then giving them away for free. An economist that I know laughs heartily at this idea. It's not that the effort was wasted, it's that people aren't profiting enough from it.
So I would say that "marketing" (at least in this sense) and "engineering" are opposites (or perhaps only orthogonal). Those that are brilliant engineers scoff at the idea of making personal gain from something that should benefit everyone. Those that are brilliant "marketers" probably think that not squeezing every last cent from an idea is insane. (Or something like that — I don't know how to think that way. Frankly I don't really like marketers.) Engineers are terrible at making money, because they don't care. They'd rather be paid to do cool things all day than turn a profit.
Engineers do things just for the shit of it, such as converting a high-school locker into a working slot machine. Once an idea pops into our pointy little heads we generally want to see it to completion. Now I'm sure that's true for most people, but with knack-havers it seems the ideas are more outlandish (read: insane) and the drive to create and learn is stronger (read: obsessive). At least, I hope it's not just me. I admit I am extrapolating from too few data points, so maybe this is just a window into my own insanity. In either case, this entire post was just a thinly veiled excuse to post the images of my high-school locker. Isn't it awesome?
See what I mean about me being a terrible writer? This is why I don't write anything until I'm in my groove, because it makes me look fucking insane.