If you went to college on your path to becoming an engineer/designer/maker you may have learned there are a lot of occupational hazards you were not warned about in that schooling. Even if you didn’t, I bet there were a lot of nasty surprises. Like, what about being cursed? I don’t mean in a profanity way, but more in the black-magic-bad-mojo way. Did anyone warn you of the Engineer’s Curse? More importantly: ARE YOU AFFLICTED?!
Chances are: YES.
What Is the Engineer’s Curse?
Well, due to your professional experience, is there something that is absolutely ruined for you because you know too intimately about the right or proper way it should be done? Is there something you rigorously and repetitively trained your eyes or ears or fingers or whatnot to pick up on during your 9-5? You know, something you, therefore, can’t help but waste time noticing (and commenting vociferously about) outside of work when no one else would give a flying flip about such details?
If so, you, my friend, are cursed.
Let’s See Some Examples
To illustrate this affliction, let me lay bare my own suffering. I give you Exhibit A: me totally distracted in a bar in Chicago by the ceiling instead of the bourbon. This was a tweet from 2014 when I was working fulltime in designing optics for this kind of lighting.
Fast-forward to this year, 2018, nearly 3 years after I quit aforementioned optical engineering job in lighting . . . the curse remains in Exhibit B:
Brandon Fritts, a former printer, was one of the first to chime in when I asked for stories from people suffering from the Engineer’s Curse.
As a printer, I would see packaging misprinted and avoid buying those products–something I still do. Even though I’m not a printer anymore, it still irks the hell out of me.
#triggered the blue is off” — Brandon Fritts, former Printer
It’s OK, Brandon, we understand your pain. How dare they not line up subsequent color printing plates precisely with the first?!
Symptoms Include: Heightened OCD Tendencies
Usually, the Engineer’s Curse regards a highly specific thingamajig. However, some report suffering from overall amped-up Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) tendencies in a general way.
I can relate to this. One day, my friend with an electrical engineering background, Nicholas Stopher, whom I attended college with, picked me up from the train station. To pick up my baggage, I had to wait in a line down a super narrow hallway leading to a room where all the passengers’ bags were held. It took forever. As each person picked up their bag and turned around to leave, an improvised dancing production ensued. Each waiting person had to first maneuver around the lucky one and then the lucky one’s bag. The holdup had nothing to do with waiting for the bags to be unloaded. They were all already there, waiting for us.
When I finally collected my bag, my friend asked something like, “I’m curious, even though you’re on sabbatical, are your engineering instincts kicking up right now?” I replied with a vitriolic torrent of profanities aimed at the lack of forethought in the design of the space.
He replied, “Ok, yep. It bothered you too, then. I guess it never goes away.”
We’d never studied or worked in train station interior design, and yet, there it was.
Yes, oh yes. I’m not sure if it’s OCD that creates the irritation or the complete lack of competence by someone that creates the OCD. Either way, yeah – those edges not lining up, the inconsistent slot sizes, weld spacing, placard locations… *cringe*” — Josh Mings
I am definitely in the OCD camp with Josh.
Maybe it’s a natural side effect of any occupation, but seeing “finished quality” work (in this case, mass manufactured objects) that is so obviously poorly done is one of my biggest pet peeves. Ultimately, I know these things are out of my control, but one can’t help reverse engineer and think about how they might have done things differently to create a better product.” — Simon Martin
Also, please note: I intend no offense to those who suffer from a truly clinical form of OCD. That really, really sucks, and I get it — not the same league. If you are suffering from tendencies that interfere with your normal day-to-day life, please do consult a professional.
Hahaha . . . what cure? This is a curse, not a bacterial infection from some indiscriminate Spring Break encounter.
If it helps, though, reports tell us sometimes you can wear down your specific perfectionism with time. If you’re lucky.
I worked in vehicle acoustics. In every vehicle I heard every bump, squeak, rattle, grown, moan and grind. Took a few years out of auto industry for it to start going away.” — Seth Shepard, then: Development Engineer, now: Senior Design and Manufacturing Engineer
An Additional Caution — Premature Forms of the Curse Exist
Although I started this article in rant-form aimed at the lack of warning before entering the working world, sometimes effects set in even before graduation. If you go to a university that mandates co-operative internships, you might already be toast. Many of the people polled graduated from my alma mater, Kettering University (formerly GMI), which gives students a lot of real-world experience. Some respondents reported the beginnings of their curse stem from their co-op/internship.
Brake pads, especially for disk brakes. Left over from co-oping at Federal-Mogul’s brake pad testing group.” — Rebecca Junell, former Co-operative Intern at Federal-Mogul, now Mechanical Engineer at NASA Plum Brook Station
Bad and confusing signage. Working for the airlines I would see placards that were supposed to instruct passengers to do (or not do) a myriad of things, but they all just looked like nonsense symbols drawn by preschoolers.” — Ashley Q. Swartz, currently Mechanical Engineer in robotics for bio applications, at the time of developing her occupational tic: Intern in Interiors Engineering
Your Support Group
If this sounds like you, please read the additional reports below of the Engineer’s Curse. If nothing else positive comes from this article, know you’re not alone. And if you’d like to add your own stories in the comments, please do–We could use the extra support! Plus, I find these things fascinating to read. Asking this question quickly highlights one of the most important parts of a person’s job and how it’s done correctly!
I’ve worked in forging, aerospace, and interior trim plastics. With that I find disappointment in several areas of manufacturing. Sadly, my car is one of them. The angles of the wood trim on the doors are far different than the dash. This leads to uneven sun fading as the car ages. Most people turn these in on lease or trade for the next model before it is obvious but I buy my cars toward the end of their depreciation. That’s probably why all the features are now failing.” — Alex Dunn, Quality Engineer
“I can’t go to any concert, venue or church without judging the A/V setup. Any sound related issue, no matter how small, is a complete distraction from the experience. I can’t get into an unfamiliar vehicle without poking, prodding and generally nerding out over the interior trim material, quality and fit/finish. I inspect my niece’s and nephew’s plastic toys to see how they were molded and to see if I can find defects. I’m surprised I’m still allowed out in public . . .” — Jeremy Bemis, former Project Engineer/Program Manager in Automotive Acoustic Development and Testing, now Account Manager
“From designing interior trim in cars I see ALL of the gaps, flushness and parallel mismatches . . . it’s a curse” Jenn Grimm, currently Sr. Business Process Engineer
“Just like how Jeremy is with sound at venues, I consciously critique the visual setup. It’s most glaringly obvious with presentations on screens, posters, and monitors . . . brightness, contrast, color coordination, ambient lighting, etc. – most concerning are fails from the pros whose research focus is on these topics. I’m a diagnostic medical physicist so I’m looking at many aspects of image quality for medical imaging… from acquisition to display and interpretation.“ — Simon Murphy, Diagnostic Medical Physicist
“I design interior for automotive. The list is long on what is ruined for me. I’ll do a shortened version. I can’t buy a car that I know its development history. Even if it’s the safest car ever. Tried buying a new car recently. Had to inspect for buzz squeak and rattle because hearing that now, even imperceptible by most is like the loudest nails on a chalk board. I literally rejected a car because its storage under the radio was too small to fit my phone. Most people would just put their phone somewhere else. I couldn’t stand to look at it. And there are so many more things.” — Jessica Witt, Lead Product Engineer-Interior Systems
“Quality control is lacking on the work cafeteria plastic utensils.” — Alvin Wurfel, Mechanical Engineer
“Hmm, from my aerospace, automotive and defense days, if something was wrong or askew, I’m pretty sure I’d be in big trouble by now. For a while I was watching landing gear and wing actuators like a hawk.
In general, I check all fits and finishes. Everything is ruined for me because I’m always checking seam lines, integration gap, etc. Local carnivals I’m mentally disassembling the rides. Fireworks–I’m thinking thru the mortar and ignition and then the chemical coloration and burn rates.
Medical products are the worst because if I’m in a doctor’s office I’m always checking to make sure, if it is my product or a competitor’s, and then I have to force myself not to go over and inspect it for use. The worst of the worst is when it comes to surgical instruments and procedures. It’s been a while but I have sat and argued with surgeons that ‘No, you’re not going to use a general anesthetic, you’re going to use a local, and you’re going to position a mirror so that I can see precisely what you’re doing while you’re doing it.“ — Anonymous, Principal Engineer
Any time a web app promises that my data is deleted, I know it’s bulls*&^$!g me. Deleting data is hard and virtually no one does it completely” — Anonymous, Software Engineeress
Air flow. After having to tackle the task of ensuring adequate air mixing inside the spacecraft (insufficient mixing can lead to literal “bubbles” of stagnant carbon dioxide that would suffocate astronauts if they were to dwell in that part of the cabin too long), every time I go into a building, or even an individual room ina building with ventilation that is highly dependent upon convective flow that would not be possible in the absence of gravity, the thought “astronauts would definitely asphyxiate in here if we were in space” crosses my mind . . . every time.” — Anonymous Spacecraft Engineer at some company that makes spacecrafts
Remember, you may never heal from the Engineer’s Curse, but, hey, at least you’re not alone! Welcome to the group and please share your story in the comments if so inclined.