How to avoid self-sabotaging your engineering career

Avoiding certain mindsets can mean professional success in your engineering career.

By Syed Peeran, PE, PhD, CDM Smith, Boston August 18, 2016

A lot of books are available on how to succeed in your life. The collective gist of all them is that you need to work hard and drive yourself to the limit; aim not at 100% but 200% of your job description and expectations; be punctual, polite and dress well; have an open mind; be courteous to your fellow workers; etc.

The truth is, if you do all of the above, you do not need any book to tell you how to succeed; success will come to you anyway. What everyone needs are some pointers on things you should not do, which can cause your career to nosedive. I have observed several brilliant people who rose like NASA’s Saturn rocket in the corporate world only to fizzle out just before they could reach what can be called success.

Success has different meanings for different people. To an engineer, success should mean professional recognition of his or her technical expertise, to rise to the highest possible position in the company, to have a hassle-free and litigation-free career, to have a stable domestic life, and, of course, be financially comfortable.

In addition to the obvious things, such as avoiding drugs, excessive alcohol, and smoking, the following are some of the things you should not do in your career:

  1. Complacency has always been an enemy of progress. After achieving a few goals, it is tempting to sit back and be complacent. This is exactly what you should not do. Your boss may compliment you on a job well done or a project brought to completion to the immense satisfaction of the client. Ignore the compliments. Do not bask in the limelight of appreciation. Every morning when you reach your desk, write down a list of future goals. Think forward.
  2. Do not procrastinate. Some people think that if you procrastinate long enough, the problem goes away. Problems do not go away. Instead, they are sure to come back and haunt you. If you cannot take care of the problem immediately, add it to your to-do list for the next few days. Andrew DuBrin, professor management emeritus at the Saunders College of Business at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of "Your Own Worst Enemy: How to Overcome Career Self-Sabotage," calls procrastination "career suicide in slow motion." People procrastinate due to a fear of failure. Ironically, some people procrastinate due to fear of success, too. By far, the most common reason for procrastination is that there is a part of the project you have not understood well, and you are afraid that your boss or a client will embarrass you by pointing out the weak part of your project. For engineering projects, which are always done in a group, any ambiguity should be cleared by having a group discussion or conversation with the client, and should never be allowed to be the reason for delaying the project.
  3. Do not slide into obsolescence. When told about a new technology, software, or concept, make a mental note to do some research to know more. Your goal should be obtaining the ability to make an intelligent remark the next time a new technology is discussed.
  4. Self-pity is another enemy of progress. It is like a cancer, which eats away all the promise and eventually makes a person useless. Most people have a failure of some kind in their lives, such as a soured personal relationship, a financial upset, loss of a parent or sibling or a loved one, being laid off, etc. If you’ve had a setback in your life, do not try to analyze the causes, for nothing can be gained by your self-analysis and self-condemnation.
  5. Do not be a lone wolf. Discuss your problems with your colleagues as often as you can. You will be amazed at how many times solutions pop out during your discussions. This also increases comradery and friendship.
  6. Keeping fit, physically and mentally, is essential for everyone. No matter what the pressures of work are, do not discontinue your trips to the gym. A healthy body and an alert mind will banish despair and give you the courage to deal with any situation.

Syed M. Peeran is a senior engineer with CDM Smith Inc. He has more than 20 years of experience in the design of electrical distribution systems. He has authored several papers in the transaction of IEEE and two sections in electrical engineering handbooks. He is a member of Consulting-Specifying Engineer’s editorial advisory board.