Solve for X

solve for x“Life is an open book exam,” he said, “It’s not about memorizing formulas, but figuring out how to solve problems.”

That approach worked well for me in college, although not all professors had the same attitude. Most engineering classes were tough, and slide rules complicated the precision of many answers, so partial credit was necessary.

I’m not good at memorization. I can learn things and retain them, but sitting down to memorize a formula is pretty much a disaster for me. I could usually structure a problem’s solution, but often couldn’t remember the right formula.

During my bachelor’s program years, calculators were just emerging, but were not allowed during tests. Later, programmable calculators became available, complicating things even more. We could use the school’s computer (and were required to for some classes), but that required punching cards, submitting them to the computer lab, waiting two days then getting your results – often just “program does not run.”

By the time I was working on my master’s, calculators were more affordable and functional, and I got one for Christmas. Learning how to use the device was not easy, but it sure came in handy on repetitive calculations, and added a degree of precision to my answers. It also helped on tests, where speed was essential.

I learned many things in school. Through high school I learned how to study and manage my time to get things done. I learned some things that I was good at and what interested me. Those skills continued to build through college, but my engineering and math classes taught me how to determine and define what problem needed to be solved. In life, we seldom get a problem that says, “solve for x.” We get situations that we need to assess to determine what problem needs to be addressed, then determine how to go about solving it. That was what I got out of college, and what, I believe, has been most useful to me since.

I’m not knocking all the things I studied or learned, and I can usually pull them back up (or look them up) if I need them, now. College helped me to learn how to think; how to organize what I knew; how to make reasonable assumptions; and how to decide what answer needed to be determined. Then it became plug and play.

The other things that I learned in schools were the broad connections among things. The old math word problem we all had in school about the two trains approaching each other was really just another “solve for x” situation. Of more interest to most students was “Why trains? We don’t ride trains.” Cars were more efficient and likely. Today’s kids might do airplanes or light rail or even hyperloops.

Ultimately, I learned the role that trains played in the Industrial Revolution and how those events changed society and civilization. My structural engineering classes focused on the forces exerted on railway bridges, but made me see the effects of storm water, leading me to hydrology, geology and meteorology. I read a cool story about building railways through Africa in the 1800’s, which led to learning some things about the interactions among African peoples and the imperialist Europeans. The Man-eaters of Tsavo gave me a glimpse into life building a railroad among lions and other predators.

Every thing I learned could lead me into another realm of knowledge — whole worlds of new ideas.

Daan Roosegaarde reported that The World Economic Forum, the think tank in Geneva, did an interview with a lot of smart people all around the world, asking, “What are the top 10 skills you and I need to become successful?” Their top ten skills for success in 2020?

  1. Complex problem solving
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People management
  5. Coordinating with others
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Judgement and decision-making
  8. Service orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive flexibility

Nothing there about “solving for x.” My degrees and most of my work has been in the technical arena, but only one of the top ten skills above is technical, number 1. That matches my experience.

It doesn’t matter how good your answer is if you can’t communicate it to others and get them to accept it. You need to understand their perspective, what they know and don’t, and what they hear when you talk. You need to listen to them and work with them, and be able to adjust to changes in the situation, the information or the circumstances.

There is no formula for life. Success requires a broad knowledge of the world, of society and of people. I didn’t get much of that in my engineering classes, but I got a lot of it from my liberal arts studies and reading. Jane Austen is a great source for understanding human emotions. Edgar Rice Burroughs provides a source for nobility, loyalty, honor and bravery. Orson Scott Card shows us how it feels to be alien, non-human and different.

Through our new technologies, the world is open to us. It’s important to know how to “solve for x,” but there’s more than that we need to know. So, read, see movies, have a life, and learn from it all.

Additional Reading:

Daan Roosegaarde, A Smog Vacuum Cleaner and Other Magical City Designs, TedTalks, April 2017

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