An Engineers Fable

A long time ago, my grandfather recognised that like my father, like my grandfather and all my aunts and uncles, I had what he called "an engineers mind". He pulled me away from the crystal radio kit I was building, sat me down and told this story:

In Sydney, our trains are like double-decker buses, but they aren't like that everywhere. In fact most people thought it was impossible, that it couldn't be done. "Something" needed to be done of course - the single-floor trains simply couldn't carry the number of people that wanted to use them.

Everyone in the city had begun to complain about the trains: They were too crowded, too messy, and always late. The mayor was fed up, and gave the head of the rail network two weeks to come up with a solution.

But there were many, MANY problems in the way. The tracks already laid curved too sharply, and would cause the trains to tip over if they were any taller. The platforms were already built, the tunnels already dug. Changing the trains in any way seemed impossible.

But the man in charge of the rail network, while not a great engineer himself, was a great architect and understood the way engineers think. So he gathered together all the engineers in the city, divided them into two teams, and assigned the two brightest engineers as the team leaders.

He called the first team leader into his office, and confided in him: "Listen, the Mayor has this crazy idea - he wants us to start building trains like double-decker buses. I know it's not going to work. You know it's not going to work. But that's not good enough for the mayor. So I want you to take your team, and come back to me in a week with every possible reason that his idea is impossible."

And so, the first team of engineers worked all day, and pondered all night, and came together to write a colossal list - an inch thick at least! - and it contained every reason that you, or I or anyone could think of. The man in charge thanked the first teams leader for his hard work, and gave his team the next week off.

Now, you may be wondering: Where was the second team? What had they been doing the whole week? Well, they'd been waiting excitedly for a problem to solve.

Well, the man in charge called in the second team's leader. "I've called you in for a special task - The trains can't hold enough people. We can't make them longer, we can't add more trains. The only option left is to make trains with two floors, like double-decker buses. I have here a list..." He said, dropping the heavy tome on the desk, "of every problem that we can find with the idea. What I want you and your team to do is go through this list, and find some way around every single problem in it."

The second team took the book of problems, the reasons that the trains were impossible, and worked all day, and pondered night, and one by one they came up with new ideas and new ways to deal with the problems.

In the last hour of the last day, the last problem was solved. The mayor was satisfied with the plans, the trains were designed, and soon were built. The trains were a success! The train carriages were single-floor at each end, so the doors still lined up with the platforms. The mechanical parts of the carriages - the engines and the brakes - were kept in the ends of each carriage, allowing the lower floor to be closer to the ground - and so the trains weren't so tall they tipped over. Every problem had some solution, and everyone was happy.

And so, young engineer - because that is what you are - know this about yourself: When you're faced with a problem, and your mind throws up a hundred reasons why the task is impossible, don't let it depress you. Don't let people take that for pessimism. That is just your mind talking to its first team of engineers. It's a step in the process of creating a solution. Take that team, and force them to come up with every single reason why what you're trying to do can't be done. Because what they're doing is showing you the way forward, the steps to give to the second team and solve.