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Structural Solutions: The Power of Positive Thinking Lasts a Lifetime

Douglas Fitzpatrick on January 31, 2017 - in Articles, Column

Although my daughters have almost finished college, it’s not (yet) difficult to remember when they were young. I was in scouting most of my young life—from Cub Scouts to Webelos to Boy Scouts, until I “aged out” at 18—and having two daughters didn’t allow me to go back into the Boy Scout track.

Girl Scouts wasn’t really an option, because I wanted to be personally involved in their activities. Fortunately, we discovered “Indian Guides” within the local YMCA. It wasn’t scouting in the sense I grew up with, but there were regular meetings, learning and leadership opportunities, and the signature fall and spring “long house” overnight trips—a highlight for all the girls (and parents) that was always well attended.

The overnights typically were held at YMCA summer camp facilities, so there were plenty of activities: obstacle courses, swimming pools, monkey bridges, climbing walls, basketball, hiking trails and the opportunity to interact with wildlife at the nature center.

Most of the activities were things my girls had never done before. Yet with a few simple words of encouragement from dad (and some not-so-subtle peer pressure), they would try everything. Sometimes you had to outline all the safety features (acorns don’t fall too far from the tree), sometimes you just had to let them know it would be OK, and sometimes you had to show them first. But after they got started, it was tough to get them to stop and take a break. The power of positive thinking at its best: simply letting them know they could do it.

But when does that curiosity disappear? Why do we stop trying new things? It seems like the older we get, the less interested we become in branching out and “changing things up.” Is there a secret to bringing back that childhood positive attitude?

How to Talk to Yourself

We encourage kids to try something new by reassuring them with the positives, not the negatives. You can’t get kids to try the climbing wall by telling them how high it is or how thin the rope looks or how the instructor is paying more attention to his Snapchat timeline than their climbing. You can’t get kids to go in the pool by telling them how cold the water is or how deep it is. And you certainly can’t get them to try the blob at the waterfront if you tell them they’ll get thrown high into the air.

Instead, we offer words of encouragement to try something new, something they’ve never done before that will expand their horizons and open new doors. We always tell our kids to “go for it,” and we need to do the same for ourselves.

Look for Solutions, Not Problems

In the last few “Structural Solutions” columns, I wrote about opportunities for engineers to add value to their projects. There are webinars about people doing all types of interesting things with BIM. There are conferences dedicated to how engineers are leveraging technology to make designs and construction more efficient. All of them talk about “adding value.” There are great ideas everywhere.

So what’s keeping you from trying something new? How can you make any (or all!) of those ideas part of the offerings at your firm? The answer: look for solutions, not problems! No engineer gets more work because they’re the wet blank in the room, always pointing out what’s wrong. Captain Obvious knows you can only say it can’t be done so many times before you are done. And no one likes hanging out with Mr. or Mrs. Negative, anyway.

Engineers are problem solvers. We look for ways to fix things. That’s how we’re wired. Our charge as professional engineers is to safeguard the public with our designs. Our minds can do great things; we just have to keep them pointed in the right direction.

So take some of that problem-solving energy and refocus it to think outside the box, try something new, and push the envelope with technology. Problem-solve internal issues in addition to those related to engineering projects.

Sometimes that’s difficult; we’re a skeptical bunch, trained to look for problems. But it can be as simple as asking the proper question: How can I/we add value to projects? Focus on finding a solution to the value-add problem. Ask “how can we solve this” instead of telling yourself “we can’t do it.” You may be surprised how well our problem-solving minds can work to find a solution.

Other firms are tackling the value-add issue, and so can you. Look for ways to leverage what your firm does best and expand on it to add value. Bring that childhood curiosity back into your firm. Gather those around you who say “yes, you can,” and leave the naysayers by the wayside

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About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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