About Me

My photo
Chemical engineer working in the field of bulk chemicals for e.g. plastics and energy, specifically energy efficiency and renewables.

Monday, 1 August 2011


Fear. It is certainly an abstract title for an engineering blog. However in many respects it is inherent in many items of engineering and is a problem that must be overcome. It can dictate how people act and how they respond to critics. However first a personal insight.

There are a few things I am afraid of most of which are somewhat abstract in reference to daily life (i.e. death). However one thing that is coming up is heights; I have a fear of heights. My fear stems from when there is a sheer drop (cliff or steep decline) and no preventive measures in place to keep me from falling off. To counteract this I do a fair bit of hiking when I can have the opportunity.  To be sure I do certainly get afraid when hiking/scrambling 60° gradients. However my first serious hikes were over three years ago in Slovenia and since then, things are definitely getting easier (at the time I was unaware of my fear). To that end I did a u-shaped route around the Galtee mountains when I was back in Ireland recently. I hit four peaks and reached 919m and hit some very steep climbs and walls (I consider the mountains to be relatively easy; a fit person can do the route I choose in 6-8hours; an experienced person can do it in 5).

In that activity, I challenge my fear and eventually I will overcome it or be able to accept it as an additional risk. However in my work I see many other fears which are not easy for people to deal with. As an engineer, I do not really invent anything. Indeed my job is to take inventions and test them on small to large scales. Thus I have no emotional attachment to the product(s) that my group has invented. Essentially I am more like a customer as I do not want a failure to happen while at the clients site and then have to deal with few thousand cubic meters of unused and flammable organics. Thus in the laboratory I am very critical of results and demand a high level of scrutiny and insight into said results.

This can come across very caustic initially with several people but usually once I explain my position (and also that I will be taking all the risk for their failure though I do say it more diplomatically), they come around to my point of view. However some do not and these are the ones who are most attached to the product and essentially the most invested in the product. The problem here is that they cannot see past their fear of failure. They prefer to propagate the myth that a product can do what it cannot or they do not test the product in a stressful enough environment. The hope can have many facets, some or  all of which can apply. 

They might be looking for some else to take responsibility for the failure and believe that deflecting that failure to other people or to process will not reflect badly on them. They might also believe that change is bad and the stand procedures are correct and need not be modified. This can extend to the persons experience and someone can certainly feel undermined when a junior is advocating a more extensive work package, one that was not envisaged. Et Cetera.

This leads to a problem. Ultimately if anyone harbors that attitude, then a poor way of working can develop to be the norm for that person and problems are avoided rather than confronted. When ultimately a failure does happen, that kind of attitude will lead to a bad reaction or dismissal of the failure as either an outlier for example and thus it can be dismissed. 

A fear of failure can be hubris, it can also be a hallmark of bad engineering. What that means for the individual. Not only must one confront their own fears, they must challenge them. That means challenging their own opinions and sometimes, challenging their core belief. One must never be afraid to challenge.

No comments:

Post a Comment