This Profile was first published in the June 2010 CUAA Newsletter
Seth Greenwald, ME’85
Seth Greenwald (ME’85) is currently employed by the Army Corps of Engineers as a Technical Manager and is responsible for managing the design phase of construction projects at West Point Military Academy and Watervliet Arsenal. Seth serves as the Deputy Director of the Outreach Program for the Westchester, New York chapter of the Project Management Institute (PMI). Seth is the founder and illustrator for the humorous greeting card company, SBG Cards. Seth’s professional credentials include PMP (Project Management Professional) and LEED Green Associate certifications.
The Art of Engineering, by Seth Greenwald
Engineers and artists see the world differently. Engineers, for the most part, are analytical, logical and detail-oriented. Artists are typically visually-focused, intuitive and holistic-minded. Many people see themselves as firmly in one camp or the other. Is it possible to bridge the gap between these opposite ends of the perception spectrum? Absolutely. Here’s the story about my journey from thinking like an engineer to seeing like an artist. And the best part about my journey…it helped me to become a better engineer.
I haven’t always been interested in art. In fact, it was the furthest thing from my mind growing up. As a kid, all I wanted to do was understand how things worked. You guessed it…classic engineering mind. Very analytical, sequential and logical. So it was no surprise to my parents when I told them I wanted to become an engineer.
My father told me of this tuition-free engineering school in New York City called The Cooper Union. It’s ranked consistently in the top 3 schools in the nation. I state this piece of information not to inflate my ego, but as a fact. This school was hard. The students were all top of their high school classes. So I applied, I was accepted, my parents were overjoyed. I was on my way to becoming an engineer.
True to its billing, it was a very tough, competitive school from day one. On that day, the Dean of the Engineering School rounded up all the new students and said, very matter of factly: “look to the left of you, look to the right of you, by the end of your freshman year one of your neighbors will not be with us”. And he was right, approximately a third of the students dropped out or didn’t make the grade. I was touch and go for a while, but had the perseverance to stay in the game.
Fast forward to my junior year. There was a course called “Advanced Fluid Dynamics” which just didn’t agree with me. I studied and studied, but just didn’t get it. I studied harder, but just got more frustrated. My test scores were consistently in the lower third of the class. I was not used to this type of failure. By spring break, I was ready to give up and leave school entirely.
Instead of staying on campus with only my deep despair to keep me company, I went home to my parents’ house to chill out for a few days. I talked to them about my situation. They, being good parents, reminded me of all my earlier victories in life. This raised my confidence level but didn’t help me to understand fluid dynamics. My mind conjured up all sorts of alternative lifestyles that didn’t involve this subject or engineering. But it just wasn’t in my nature to give up. I had a need to succeed.
I’d recently taken an interest in reading books on Eastern philosophy. Believe it or not, I read these books voluntarily as a way to relieve my stress from studying. This approach worked for me, as Eastern philosophy opened my eyes regarding new ways to see the world. I felt liberated, at least while reading the books.
I realized that additional study time did not help me to achieve better tests scores. In fact, there was real evidence that the more I studied the worse my test results became. I concluded that if I studied less that my test scores would go up. I decided to put this hypothesis to the test.
In Zen Buddhism there is a concept which appeals to the anti-engineering side of me. The essence of it is to see the world directly without the obstruction of the verbal crutch otherwise known as language.
Most people rely heavily on comprehending the world with words. Upon seeing a rose, for example, they won’t actually see the rose’s beautiful form, color and shape. What they’ll “see” is what they’ve always seen in the past. The word “rose” will come to mind and conjure up an image of a prototypical rose. In other words, most people don’t actually see what’s in front of them; they only see a memory.
Not everyone sees the way I’m describing. In fact, the artist’s job is contingent on not seeing this way. Their work depends upon seeing the world anew over and over again. I believe anyone can see the world like an artist. But seeing through the looking glass of language and memory is a hard habit to break. I was determined to break my habit.
At this point, you may be wondering why an engineering student wanted to see like an artist. My school was in the middle of the East Village in New York City. When I was going to school there in the mid 1980’s, the area was the epicenter of the art scene in the city and possibly the world. I thought the artists with the multicolored clothes and punk rockers with the spiky hair were real cool. Maybe if I had gone to a college outside of the city, I would have had a different sense of artists.
Reading Zen made me understand how to see like an artist. And not only understand intellectually, but actually experience it. Here’s the secret…remove the looking glass of language and the flow of words that exists between you and the world. How do you do this? That’s a topic for another article. The short answer is that I forced myself to see the objects in front of me without resorting to conceptual ideas about them.
So let’s get back to the issue of studying less. For my final exam in Advanced Fluid Dynamics I resolved to change my study habits. No longer would I spend countless hours in the library memorizing formulas. No more would my eyes glaze over while reading the textbooks over and over again.
I vowed to take a different approach to studying. I would study as if I were an artist. I vowed to rely less on words and more on pictures. Less focus on the details, more on seeing the big picture. Less on identifying the pieces, more about looking for patterns.
And last, but very important, I didn’t really care about the results of the test. I resolved to accept whatever grade I received secure in knowing that I had done the best I could. This approach took a lot of pressure off me. It allowed me to focus on understanding the material instead of worrying about getting a good grade. The energy I’d previously wasted on worrying would be channeled into effective studying. In other words, I would trade quantity (length of time spent studying) for quality (effectiveness of studying). I was doing a lot of studying, but not really digging into the subject in depth. My studying approach going forward would be quite different in that I would really dig to get at the underlying concept or principle of the subject.
I was almost there. I’d realized the key to success was “getting it”. This is a very arty thing in that you know when you get something by intuition rather than intellect. It’s more of a feeling than a thought. And feelings are connected to the body. Incredibly, I’d realized that what was missing from my study habits was not in my head, but in my body.
A surface understanding of studying leads us to believe that the key is to memorize formulas. If we go deeper we realize that focusing on formulas without fully getting the underlying concept is a waste of time. And you can’t deeply understand concepts without being connected to your body. You may be asking, what does the body have to do with studying? The body is our connection to the world. This is how we experience things. Advanced fluid dynamics is all about the things of the world…fluid dynamic theory describes the way air and water behaves.
Did you find using the word “behave” to describe an inanimate thing such as water to be a little disconcerting? If so, you understand how I felt initially. Certainly water is not a living entity. But it does behave in a very predictable manner. And that’s the whole idea behind fluid dynamics and, indeed, any engineering subject. All inanimate things appear to “act.” And by understanding their nature you can predict their behavior.
Can you understand an inanimate object’s nature if you don’t understand your own? Highly doubtful. A purely intellectual understanding of anything, living or inanimate, is only half the equation. If you really want to understand the things in this world, you must be connected to this world, in both mind and body.
That’s what seeing like an artist did for me. It allowed me to connect with the world through my body. Once I made this connection, studying became much easier for me. And much more effective.
I bet you want to know how I did on that test? Well believe it or not, I received the second highest grade in the class. And that’s not all. I was the only one in the class to get the first question correct. Why is that a big deal? Here’s why…
The first question was not extremely difficult until I reached the last step. Up until then, the flow of my problem solving was going smoothly. When I reached the point to record my answer, the numbers kept working out to a negative. In this particular type of problem I knew it was physically impossible for a negative answer. The phenomenon a negative answer represented just doesn’t occur in the real world.
I checked and rechecked my approach to the answer, thinking that it was my math that was at fault. No matter what I did, I still got the same negative result. Just as I was about to give up and rip the page from my book, I received an intuition. Instead of assuming that I went wrong somewhere, I assumed the problem was written wrong by the teacher.
This type of thinking for a student is heresy. The teacher is wrong?! It’s just not a reasonable thought. In any case I stuck to my intuition and wrote the following at the bottom of the problem…” though the ‘answer’ appears to be negative this can not happen in reality.”
When my teacher saw my statement, he rechecked his problem. Sure enough, he had written the problem wrong. No other student had the conviction to look at the solution the way I had. The teacher made a special point to show the class my answer. Many students came up to me after class asking how I knew what I knew.
At the time I wasn’t quite sure how I knew. Now, looking back, I see it was simply a matter of my confidence level. By connecting to my body, I have found a new source of confidence. While my head said it just couldn’t be, my body said that’s the way it had to be. It was simply a matter of trusting my body to “feel” the correct answer.
Of course, without logic I could never have reached the right answer. The key for me was to balance my feelings and intuition with my thought process. Sometimes this is expressed as the left brain/right brain paradigm. However you want to think about it, it works. Try it and feel how it works for you.