We Project Our Work Worldviews Onto Others Without Realizing It

A good friend of mine spent decades as a sales manager. Now he manages managers. His compensation has always been based in part on commissions; as a result, he thinks employees are almost entirely motivated by money. Not just his employees, all employees. He’s grown so accustomed to the cutthroat competition of his workplace, he thinks free-market capitalism is the answer to whatever the question is. There’s no public sector, tenure, or labor unions in his work world, so they are economic problems, not solutions.

He’s a conservative. Another good friend, a liberal, is a transportation engineer for the Feds. Since he’s in charge of Washington State’s highways, I like love to complain to him about my daily commute. As an engineer, he believes any problem can be solved if we’re just rational enough. One form that rationality takes is letter writing. He thinks everyone should write letters, like he does, to people in leadership positions because they still influence policy even in this information saturated, digital world in which we live. And he’s absolutely right, the world would be a better place if everyone followed his lead.

But his engineer friends and him don’t seem to appreciate how differently other people think. People like me. I confess that I don’t feel much sense of efficacy at all. If I’m honest, I feel like my worsening commute is done to me, I feel totally defenseless. As evidence of that, I don’t even vote in a lot of local elections. I’m an educated writer, so if I feel that way, how many others are likely to pick up paper, pencil, envelope, and stamp despite our engineer friends’ very well intended rationality.

That sorry state of affairs didn’t stop my friend from sending me an email yesterday titled “Public comments wanted on the draft Washington Transportation Plan”. With this little addendum, “No comments made then no whining allowed.” The bold is him raising his voice which he only does when a local high school football ref makes an iffy call. One more detail to note in the email. “Washington State Department of Transportation seeking input on 20-year plan by Nov. 6.” 20-YEAR PLAN. That’s hilarious.

I’m glad our state’s traffic engineers are thinking in 20 year terms, however, it’s cray cray for them to think non-engineers like yours truly think similarly. In twenty years I want to be napping in my back seat as my car drives me to the Home Course for a quick 18. When I think of transportation infrastructure, hell, when I think of life, the short-term is 1-2 years, the medium-term is 5 years, and the longest term is 10 years.

Note to engineers. Non-engineers think differently. If you want to enlist their help in data gathering and problem-solving, you have to be a lot more savvy in reaching out to them. You’re probably better off delegating it to people rooted in the social sciences and humanities.

This subconscious tendency to generalize from one’s work and then to project one’s work worldview onto others is probably inevitable. As are the associated conflicts and frustrations when others don’t conform to expectations.

I’m sure I generalize from my work and project my work worldview onto others too, I just need to think more about the ways I do that. I will report back in 20 years.

Most Read Posts This Year

  1. The Problem With The Simple Living Movement
  2. Two Types of Self Esteem
  3. School Mission Statements
  4. When Parents Are Too Child-Centered
  5. What Engineers Get Wrong

Each was written prior to 2015. Meaning it’s time to step up my game this year. Thank you as always for stopping by. Most readers were from the United States, with Canada and the United Kingdom close behind. Most groovy of all, readers were from 139 different countries.

My two favorite Christmas gifts this year.

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What Engineers Get Wrong

Mr. Money Mustache, a former engineer and Longmont, Colorado-based blogger, has struck a chord with his retire early gospel. To the tune of about 800,000 separate vistors and 3.5 million page views a month. A large part of his appeal is his directness about people’s tendency to waste money unnecessarily.

I like his thesis that community is far more fulfilling than material pursuits, but dislike the groupthink his followers often display.

His advice is to get a good paying job (easier written than done) and then work for 10-15 years saving half of what you earn. Then, when you have $500k or so saved up, quit work and spend time doing whatever you find most meaningful. For him that’s blogging, carpentry, and spending time with family and friends. $500k is far less than nearly every other retirement “expert” recommends saving. MMM believes everyone can do what his family does, live quite comfortably on about $25k a year.

Their house is paid off and they have one inexpensive car that they rarely use. Instead, they bicycle almost everywhere. His most recent post was titled “Bicycling: The Safest Form of Transportation”. That post has generated over 360 comments, many which consisted of a mathematical back and forth, some challenging his use of statistics, others defending him.

In reply to one commenter, he shouted, “You can’t disagree with the math by listing four pieces of anecdotal evidence!” And then, at the end of the of the same reply added what might be the engineers’ motto, “Calculations and spreadsheets for everything.”

These aren’t just the words of one widely read blogger, they succinctly articulate the central message of a wide range of policy makers that see data analysis as a panacea for nearly all of society’s ills. That belief, “calculations and spreadsheets for everything,” is what informs the emphasis upon STEM education—science, technology, engineering, and math—at the expense of the the humanities, the arts, and foreign languages.

I can’t help but wonder if MMM only interacts with other engineers with the exact same “calculations and spreadsheet” worldview. Mind boggling that someone as smart as him believes that any spreadsheet might make someone less afraid to ride their bike across a major metropolitan area. As if phobias are rational and can simply be argued away with math. If that was true, people wouldn’t see psychologists, they’d see mathematicians. “Let’s see, you’re afraid of flying in airplanes. Take a look at this spreadsheet then.”

Engineers think people are rational. If that were true, people would change their favorite Starbucks order based on their new calorie charts and every investor would always buy low and sell high. A more realistic counter motto is “Subjective emotions for everything”. Few people study calculations and spreadsheets when making friends, love, or decisions about how to get to and from work. They do it based upon a messy, unscientific, imperfect combination of intuition, feel, and emotion.

That’s what engineers get wrong.