All posts by Jeff Shelton

Episode 16 — Critical Thinking

Is it possible to accurately perceive the world around us? Are engineers any more or less rational than the general public? Chris and Jeff discuss these issues with Jeff Ellis on this episode of The Engineering Commons.

  • It’s challenging to accurately perceive reality from within the confines of the human mind.
  • One approach to overcoming such limitations is called critical thinking.
  • Our guest for this episode is Jeff Ellis, who writes about critical thinking on his website, The Thinker Blog.
  • Critical thinking has been defined by Tim Van Gelder as “the art of being right.” This means adjusting one’s opinion willingly to the most defensible and rational viewpoint.
  • Jeff Ellis is an aerospace engineer who currently works at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. He became interested in critical thinking as a means for avoiding and mitigating project failures.
  • Our guest believes that critical thinking is “the most important skill a person can have.”
  • Overestimating one’s own abilities is a common cause for turning away valuable advice and information.
  • The principle of reciprocity states that we should respect the reasonableness and the goodwill of those with whom we disagree.
  • Critical thinking requires that we attempt to overcome the limitations of our human nature.
  • We have emotional attachments to our opinions, which makes it difficult for us to shift our viewpoint.
  • Common human biases include the confirmation bias and hindsight bias, as well as political biases.
  • There are many cognitive biases that are part of the human condition.
  • We still don’t know if some brains are pre-wired for engineering, or if engineering education develops what we recognize as stereotypical engineering attitudes.
  • Chris really likes the blog post titled Critical Thinking for Engineers.
  • Young engineers tend to transition too quickly from problem definition to solution generation, since creating things is the “fun” part of engineering.
  • Along a similar vein, young engineers can become too enamored with their first solution.
  • Some people take advice about critical thinking well, while others are offended that their opinion is being challenged.
  • Jeff Ellis wishes critical thinking skills were taught in college, as opposed to being left for workplace training. He also feels that the nation’s top liberal arts schools produce excellent critical thinkers.
  • Real world complexity means that there is rarely a single clear “textbook” answer. Thus, rational evaluation is needed.
  • Dealing with “alpha-geeks” can be a challenge, as Jeff Ellis outlined in his post, Castles and Tents.
  • Being able to handle disagreement in a congenial manner is an important skill when working in a team environment.
  • Civility is an important component of critical thinking.
  • Resources for learning more about critical thinking can be found at
  • Jeff Ellis has the handle @twiticalthinker on Twitter, and an email address of jeffellis1

Thanks to Mary Harrsch for the photo of Rodin’s bronze, titled “The Thinker.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

Episode 15 — Talent

Are engineers born or made? In this episode, Chris and Jeff discuss how engineers acquire their talents.

  • A top-notch engineer is skilled in both the theoretical and practical realms. So how are these talents acquired?
  • Exposure to engineering operations seems to be an important component in creating an outstanding engineer.
  • In this episode, we reference Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code.
  • Mr. Coyle suggests that world-class skills can be acquired through substantial deep-practice, continued passion, and knowledgeable coaching.
  • Practice causes additional insulation, called myelin, to form around neural pathways, allowing neural signals to pass more quickly and with greater strength.
  • Deep practice consists of focused concentration and repetition of a particular skill that is not yet refined. Such sessions are said to be mentally and physically exhausting.
  • Several books reference 10,000 hours of deep practice being required to become a first-class practitioner. This “rule” is based on a paper titled, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson.
  • Repeated practice is difficult for engineers, as they are often asked to carry out new tasks that have little in common with prior assignments.
  • Deliberate practice requires problems to be “chunked up” into understandable blocks of content that can be internalized.
  • Processes need to be slowed down, and frequently repeated, for solid learning to occur.
  • Jeri Ellsworth taught herself electronics by trying tons of things, and accepting that failures will occur.
  • People who have to “grind” on a solution often understand the problem better than those who get a solution on the first attempt.
  • Engineers often rely on their own passions to drive educational and career advancement.
  • Typical career paths take engineers away from technical operations just about the time that they reach the 10,000 hour mark.
  • Apprenticeships were often used in the past to convey skills from one generation to the next. Chris makes the case for reviving engineering apprenticeships.
  • Great teachers have outstanding task-specific knowledge.
  • Good instructors are frequently gifted with a strong theory of mind, and can perceive a student’s difficulties.
  • Honest feedback from mentors is needed for improved performance, and must be provided in a timely manner.

Thanks to Bjornmeansbear for the rocket photo, titled “It’s not Rocket Surgery.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

Episode 14 — Superstars

Chris and Jeff talk about how one might go about becoming an engineering “superstar.”

  • Neither Jeff or Chris have been particularly successful at figuring out how to advance their careers in large organizations, so they may not be the best at describing how one moves upward through the corporate structure.
  • A recent episode of This American Life talked about teaching networking skills to schoolkids, suggesting that engineers could also learn the relationship skills needed to move up the organizational ladder.
  • Engineers often find themselves having to take on managerial duties mid-career if they want to see their salary increase.
  • People want comfort and familiarity in their business dealings, so they are attracted to those who make them feel good about themselves and their situation.
  • Many organizations require advancing engineers to complete Six Sigma projects.
  • Organizations are rarely meritocracies, much to the chagrin of technically-oriented engineers.
  • A recent study at Harvard showed that bosses are less stressed out than their employees, mostly because they have more control over their activities.
  • Chris found an article titled “How to be a Star Engineer.” For those with access to the archives of IEEE Spectrum, the article is on pages 51–58 of volume 36, issue 10, from October, 1999. The text of this article is currently floating around online as a PDF file.
  • The book associated with this article is How to Be a Star at Work: 9 Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed, by Robert E. Kelley.
  • Strategy 1: Blazing Trails — Demonstrate initiative, by seeking out new responsibilities, undertaking extra efforts for the benefit of others, and filling the gaps between job descriptions.
  • According to the Peter Principle, employees tend to rise to their highest level of incompetence.
  • Strategy 2: Knowing Who Knows — Build a professional network that provides access to needed support at crucial times.
  • Chris has found that having curiosity and providing value are useful in building relationships.
  • Strategy 3: Proactive Self-Management — Honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses, then work to improve your value to the organization.
  • Strategy 4: Getting the Big Picture — Seek an understanding of the perspectives and values of other groups and functions within the organization.
  • Strategy 5: The Right Kind of Followership — Be a follower that makes your manager successful, rather than one who simply follows orders.
  • Strategy 6: Teamwork as Joint Ownership of a Project — Look to improve the structures that support and enhance group dynamics, in addition to being a “team player.”
  • Seth Godin has written a book called The Dip, which proposes that superstars have the ability to quickly escape dead ends, while knowing when to stick with important projects.
  • Strategy 7: Small-L Leadership — Approach leadership as a strategy for influencing others to unite on a substantial task, rather than issuing commands from above.
  • Jeff likes the book Managing Leadership by Jim Stroup, which makes the argument that leadership emanates from the organization, rather than from senior management.
  • Strategy 8: Street Smarts — Having political and social savvy is quite beneficial in moving upward through an organization.
  • Strategy 9: Show and Tell — Getting noticed, for good reasons, is important for moving up in a company. Getting noticed in a manner that promotes a common theme about your talents is even better.
  • There are good reasons to stay at a company for a decade or more. Even hard-charging, well-respected CEOs have trouble transferring their skills to new organizations.

Thanks to Elisabeth Audrey for the photo titled “Don’t Worry.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson