Creativity is the Crux

I’ve thought a lot recently about what motivates me as an engineer.

Is it “Coming Face to Face with a Technical Challenge”?

Is it “Learning a New Programming Language in Record Time”?

Is it “Completing an Impossible Project on Schedule”?

Well, tackling those tasks can be powerful motivators, but there’s something more fundamental at work.

The deep down forcing function for facilitating freedom of thought is the chance to be creative. I suppose one could find a parallel in the artistic field, where painters, musicians and graphic artists find their reward in expressing their creativity in concrete ways. Maybe that’s the same thing happening in me. Am I more of an artist than an engineer?

No, I consider myself a craftsman. To me a craftsman takes basic ingredients and creates something that the ordinary person does not see in the basic ingredients. This could be wood or stone or metal. A craftsman uses tools as a means to an end: modifying the raw material to realize his creative vision. He does not move to new tools just for the excitement of using new tools. He usually sticks with the old tools because he knows those work. The feel of the handles, the edge of the blade or brush… And the materials? Start with something unadulterated.

Many engineers get caught up in the latest compilers or languages or CAD programs. Doing this, they may spend more time working around the new elements in the tools than in working on the basic elements of the raw materials.

The craftsman also gets his thrill from the first creation of something new. He carves a giant bear from a redwood trunk. He paints on metal and fuses it in the furnace. He builds a beautiful bowl on the potter’s wheel, taller and taller than ever before. The second giant bear? Not so exciting.

And then there is the explorer in me.

Whenever I travel, when I get to an intersection, I look down the unused road, and wonder, “Where does that go?” I wander down the aisle in the airport terminal, saying to myself, “I’d like to board that plane or that plane or that plane…”

I’ve imagined the mindset of an explorer as one in which, when he reaches the mountaintop and can see the sea in the distance, he says to himself, “Now that I’ve found the path to the destination, let me go and find a new path.” There is no need to cut through the jungle to the shore once one has proven that it can be done coming up to the mountain. There is no need to follow the river to the sea, when one knows that eventually it flows there. Someone else can “finish the task.”

In many ways, this seems eminently equitable to me. Many people have no interest in doing the exploring. Many people have no motivation to be creative craftsman. Happy to follow the explorer’s lead, or complete all the repetitive details on the blown glass chandelier, they are productive, careful and determined. They can go home feeling fulfilled.

For me, after I got the prototype software working and fit unlimited program size onto the PDP-11, I sat down ecstatic. After I completed the Visual Basic program to create pixel-based on-screen messages through the first video processor the company had ever made, I smiled and smiled. After I wrestled with schematics for days, I wrote the new idea into the invention proposal and sent it in to the patent office, confident it would fly.

Bring it on!