Informal Education, Soft Skills, and Timeless, Universal Topics You Often Miss at Engineering School

1. Overview

Looking back at the courses I took as part of my formal engineering education, I can’t help but make two observations:

  1. The degree covered surprisingly broad areas of science (physics, chemistry, biology), mathematics, and engineering.
  1. Except for one course on communication, no other course on human sciences was included.

I believe we can safely assume that even today, these two observations will apply to many engineering schools worldwide with a high degree of accuracy.

If you feel that you belong to this category of engineers, trained along similar lines, read on.

My view is that this skewed education heavily favouring hard over human sciences is a recipe for disaster; it will take an engineer the better part of a decade to catch up with some of the most crucial soft skills they need to efficiently and effectively collaborate in a professional environment.

The following section will explain my views concerning the shortcomings of a slim education in social and human sciences.

Next, we focus on soft skills and self-help. After that, I discuss the six fields of human sciences I believe are the most beneficial for informal education.

3. Shortcomings of a Science-Only-Based Approach

An engineering degree that focuses on technical subjects only for five long years (sometimes more if you include higher degrees) invites the following myths:

  1. The uniqueness of the truth: the ideas and concepts that hard sciences describe are usually not debatable; their validity has been proven beyond doubt, and the technology we are accustomed to using every day testifies to that effect. We know that what we know is true because it works, and we can feel it with our senses every time we use our phones or drive our cars. This uniqueness of the truth does not extend to many ideas and concepts that involve an element of human nature. It is pretty common to have various competing theories in social science that deserve merit, attempting to explain a single phenomenon without the ability to rule all but one out. This fluidity does not sit well in an engineer’s mind, and we always find ourselves adopting a version that we like without questioning its uniqueness or universality.
  1. The rationality of human thoughts: we all would like to believe that if a chain of thoughts is rational, we must follow it. It turns out that people, in the overwhelming majority of cases, will follow their hearts rather than their minds. People are often happy to sacrifice material gain (such as money) for intangible ones (such as adhering to beliefs and core values).
  1. The illusion of sound judgment: once you have covered all the hot topics of technology, you feel empowered to understand and solve any problem the world throws your way. You are confident in your judgments because they are based on science and logic. It is fascinating how untrue this turns out to be, as Daniel Kahneman has so marvellously shown in his monumental book, Thinking Fast and Slow, on judgment and decision-making.
  1. The simplicity of the world: We forcibly believe that the world is linear (causes lead to effects), deterministic (the same causes will generate the same effects), and can never surprise us. Suppose you doubt how invalid these assumptions are. In that case, you are invited to read The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomnesstwo fascinating best-sellers by world-renowned trader-turned-author and philosopher Nassim Taleb. Whether tribes, nations, or organizations, human groups are complex systems, and their irrational, dynamic, and non-linear interactions within the group or with their environments exacerbate the world’s complexity.

Dismantling these myths will require some effort, first to acquire the necessary knowledge to challenge them and second to muster the courage to take them down.

Knowledge can be acquired by different means like reading quality works or listening to podcasts from influential people.

However, executing a paradigm shift can be more challenging; for that, you will need enough psychological safety to allow you to transform without losing your identity or compromising your values.

Note, however, that there are cheaper options than the ones we described; you will find them in a bookstore’s self-help section. Sadly, they can do more harm than good. We will elaborate on this idea in the coming paragraph.

4. Self-Help Books

A few thoughts on self-help books in general:

  1. We all tend to acquire and read books that confirm our preconceived notions rather than challenge them, and that’s something we need to be aware of. The best books can induce a paradigm shift in the way we think.

So what makes self-help books frustrating? Here are a few reasons I can think of:

  • Unfounded positivity: While there is nothing wrong with having a positive attitude, authors may only use that as a selling point. A positive attitude by itself will not take you far; hard work and luck are necessary ingredients. Quality advice may also be the opposite of positive.
  • Small sample size: self-help books that claim to offer a recipe for success based on the story of a single individual or organization suffers from sample bias. In effect, what worked for that particular person or organization may not necessarily be applicable on a broader scale.
  • Promoting free lunches: we all know deep inside us that there are no free lunches out there. You might occasionally be lucky enough to have a free lunch, but there are no free lunch programs as such. People who claim to have a secret recipe for success and are willing to share with everybody for a low price are probably charlatans.
  • Cheap advice: Quality advice is based on evidence and science. You can evaluate advice by inspecting the bibliography and sources and ensuring it is solid and sufficient. Low-quality advice is easy to find and offer; quality research and original content are harder to come by.

Below is a list of heuristics that I use to avoid falling for low-quality works:

  • Heuristic 1: If the title contains the words Art or Secret, an alarm bell goes ringing in my head. To me, Art signals unrigorous research while Secret implies snake oil. Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule, like the original title The Art of War by Sun Tzu, but I do believe it holds in many cases.
  • Heuristic 2: How-to-guides with passive receipes (i.e. those which contain no hard work or luck), on becoming highly successful, eternally happy, and rapidly wealthy are a definite no-go. I do not believe such methods exists; if they do, everybody would be using them.
  • Heuristic 3: The book’s author is not a researcher, academic, or accomplished professional. Their authority as scholars is not evident or cannot be established, and notable people in the field have not referenced their work.

If self-help books are not the way, where should you look to acquire the necessary soft skills to survive and prosper in a professional environment?

5. Soft Skills

The first time someone mentioned that soft skills are a requirement to be reckoned with was during my 4th year in engineering school.

During a lecture on information theory, the professor stated that people, in general, would rather work with colleagues they liked over those who were competent. That was too bad for us as no course on how to be likable was in the curriculum.

Soft skills fall broadly under two categories: intrapersonal and interpersonal.

Soft Skills Categories
Soft Skills Categories

They can be defined as follows:

The best way to acquire soft skills, from my experience, is as follows:

  1. Step 1: Acknowledge a problem exists when you experience one. Try to look at it with scientific curiosity rather than emotionally.
  1. Step 2: Investigate the scientific literature to understand why that happened and how to fix it. Talk to experienced people who are happy to mentor you.
  1. Step 3: Implement a fix that you are comfortable with and does not compromise your core values and beliefs.

This simple three-step plan is a suggestion only, and you might find yourself requiring a different approach.

In the next section, I will suggest a few topics that helped me immensely. I will recommend some sources that you will hopefully find helpful.

6. Five Timeless and Universal Topics

I firmly believe that comprehending the underlying forces that motivate people, groups, or organizations to perform specific actions or behave in particular ways can provide you with a robust framework for efficiently dealing with them. This framework will heavily contribute to your soft skills.

Many scientists have studied and explored these forces in the past decades, and complete theories have been put forward to explain the phenomena observed.

This section will attempt to list those fields that I find particularly useful for engineers to boost their soft skills.

6.1 Philosophy

Philosophy, in a nutshell, describes the connection between our minds and the world.

The Four Major Branches of Philosophy
The Four Major Branches of Philosophy

It tries to answer fundamental questions such as:

  1. How do we know what’s there? — Metaphysics
  2. How do we know what we know? — Epistemology
  3. How to act? — Ethics
  4. How to reason? — Logic

Let’s say you witness a dispute between several people unfolding as a series of small events marked in space and time, with different players contributing to the act.

Your friend is present on the scene and observes the same story, albeit from a different location; therefore, her version of the story differs slightly from yours.

To make things a bit more interesting, your friend happens to know one of the people involved in the conflict and has some background information that could be considered relevant to what happened today.

Your mind now constructs a narrative using the information collected. A different and possibly conflicting narrative is also built by every other present individual, including your friend.

The following questions become relevant:

  1. Which story best describes what happened today?
  2. How would the conflicts in the different reports be resolved?
  3. Was the additional information available to your friend helpful, or did it bias her views?
  4. Would you label the actions of the people involved as aggression or courage? How do you define aggression and courage?
  5. If your future self were to reflect on the day’s events, would you change your narrative?
  6. Is it possible that your background, education, and social status might affect how your narrative was constructed?

Philosophy aims to resolve the conflicts that arise from obtaining multiple answers to the same questions with a spectrum of solutions. We have realism on one end of the spectrum and idealism on the other.

Realism postulates that reality is independent of the observer; the more information an observer gathers about the story, the more accurate its mental representation is.

On the other hand, idealism states that reality is only present in our minds and is indistinguishable and inseparable from our perception and understanding. It is a purely mental construct.

Depending on which solution you adopt to resolve conflicts of reality will dictate your responses to these conflicts.

An engineer would probably feel more comfortable with an objective reality that does not depend on the observer. Although the special and general theory of relativity allows different observers to experience different realities, transformations can move one observer from one vantage point to another.

In the example cited above, it is unclear whether two people with the same background standing in the exact location and having equal access to information on the actors would have built non-conflicting narratives.

Engineers might wonder what practical applications education in philosophy can have in the workplace and personal life. Here are a few examples that spring to mind:

  1. Critical thinking and reasoning — Philosophy teaches people to think critically, analyze arguments, and make sound judgments. This skill is highly valued in many fields, including law, medicine, and politics.
  2. Communication — Philosophy courses often emphasize the importance of clear, effective communication. This training can be helpful in any profession that involves writing or speaking to others, such as journalism, teaching, or marketing.
  3. Ethics — A background in philosophy can help one develop a solid ethical framework, which can be helpful in fields such as business, law, or government.
  4. Cultural competency — The study of philosophy involves exposure to different cultures, values, and belief systems. This exposure can help one develop a greater understanding and appreciation of diverse perspectives, which can be helpful in fields such as international relations, social work, and non-profit management.

6.2 Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology studies mental processes such as attention, language use, memory, perception, intuition, judgment, and reasoning.

Until recently, human beings were modelled as rational agents whose decisions were solely based on facts, logic, and data. Daniel Kahneman’s monumental work on judgment errors, heuristics, and biases challenged this position and showed how volatile our mental abilities could be. His work with Amos Tversky on prospect theory won him the Nobel prize in 2002.

We make thousands of decisions daily, and we would like to think they are all sound and valid. We rarely stop and think whether something completely irrelevant, such as being hungry at the moment, had anything to do with our decision.

Below is a list of routine mental processes where biases are prone to occur:

  1. Estimating the probability of an event, such as a flood or plane crash: in this case, the likelihood of those disasters depends on how easily we can retrieve memories of similar past events and has less to do with actual statistics.
  1. Evaluating the property of a particular object, like the success of a company: in situations where the question is difficult, we tend to substitute it with an easier one, such as how we feel when we enter the company’s office; if it’s modern and neat, we are more likely to believe it’s successful.
  1. Deciding whether to play a risky gameour decisions, in this case, would rely on several factors, such as the question’s wording or the presence of a sure loss, and less on the expected value of the outcome.

Meeting, interaction, and negotiation outcomes may be heavily influenced by irrelevant environmental factors that we might be oblivious to. Awareness of such influential aspects can make a difference.

6.3 Sociocultural Anthropology

Anthropology studies humans and everything that makes them unique, including their culture, biology, diet, and interactions throughout the past, present, and future.

Four Major Branches of Anthropology
Four Major Branches of Anthropology

There are four major subfields of anthropology: archeology, biological, sociocultural, and linguistic anthropology.

While all these subfields may overlap and converge in some areas, sociocultural anthropology is our primary focus, especially in a market and economy governed by globalization, where the need for more open-mindedness and curiosity is at its fullest.

Think of the time that has elapsed since the origin of the chordates as a year of our time, a calendar year divided into months, weeks, days, hours, and minutes. The first true vertebrates appeared on March 23d. The first mammals on September 25th. The primate order evolved on November 27th, the first apes came into being on December 12th but it was not until 8.15 p.m. on December 31rst that modern man (Homo Sapiens) stepped across the threshold. This is a sobering thought for us in our moments of anthropocentric exuberance.

— The Roots of Mankind – John Napier

Sociocultural anthropology tries to understand and explain why people have specific laws, traditions, values, beliefs, attitudes, diets, and costumes.

It’s pretty easy to confuse a specific form or expression of these sociocultural properties with what we believe to be the unique, universal, and natural order. It’s equally easy to demonstrate animosity towards anybody who does not share our beliefs.

Whatever these rules, traditions, and values may be, it is essential to appreciate their role in holding together a group of people; without them, humans cannot organize themselves and collaborate to achieve specific objectives.

Studying human evolution, behaviour, and culture through the ages provides a sense of perspective and shows the modesty of our footprint in the universe.

6.4 Organisational Theory, Organisational Culture, and Complexity Theory

Organisational theory studies groups and their behaviour, while Strategic Choice discusses leadership and how it influences the evolution of an organization.

Theories explaining behavioural patterns through time abound and depend heavily on philosophical concepts such as the role of the individual, the primacy of the group over the individual or vice versa, the definition of organizations (systems seeking equilibrium vs learning organizations, …), and the emergence of a shared reality.

Organisational culture looks at how groups emerge, share assumptions about their internal and external environment, and how deal with integration challenges and outside pressures. Organisational culture manifests itself in how groups respond to internal or external pressure.

Without a rigorous introduction to organisational theory, culture, and strategy, we are tempted to use oversimplified models of organizations. This oversimplification often leads to invalid assumptions, expectations, and forecasts with inevitable clashes.

Personal interests can be confused with group interests. Lines can be blurred, separating boundaries, jurisdictions, and valid from invalid decisions.

6.5 Financial Analysis

Every business decision you or your organization must be predicated on sound financial analysis.

On the individual level, this could be buying a house, investing in the stock market, taking a course, or switching to a new role.

If you manage an organization, you must decide whether to invest in new products, terminate existing ones, expand or shrink your market, hire or remove resources, or open or close offices.

Financial Analysis

These decisions will require evaluating your assets (i.e. future cash flows), the most challenging part of financial analysis. The remaining one, choosing between two or more options, is relatively easy once you have determined the costs/benefits of each option.

As an engineer, I never had any exposure to financial analysis during school or later in my career. Sure, we all know compound interest, but there is much more to financial analysis.

This lack of exposure can be very costly; you miss opportunities or make unfortunate decisions, but the worst part is that you might only find out when it’s already late.

To be precise, financial analysis, cash flow and allocation also help you understand what makes companies tick and why executives make particular decisions that technically may not seem valid (like an early release of an untested product).

I believe that some background in finance can bridge the gap between technical and managerial staff and put both teams on the same path.

7. Final Words

Engineers are not restricted to technical roles, and it often happens that they find themselves out of their depth as they assume more strategic positions with fewer technical duties.

Strategic roles include organising team activities, negotiating with peers, budgeting, sales, strategic or project planning, consulting, and managing stakeholders.

In such situations, multi-disciplinary training and experience will come in handy. It is vital to correctly read and assess people’s positions and intentions and understand how companies operate.

While the division of labour and worker specialization has increased performance and efficiency, senior staff in today’s market must fulfil a multi-faceted role. Engineering training and education are very specialized as they are confined to technical fields only, and this is where informal education and a passion for learning can make a difference.

The five disciplines mentioned earlier are a start and a suggestion only, although I believe they are broad enough to cover the main requirements.

Some people have a natural gift concerning human interaction, while others might need to work on it. I believe a solid background in theory and experience on the ground is perfect for evolving your skills.

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