How to Survive as a Creative Engineer

Cole Hardman
6 min readJan 26, 2018

A Field Guide for Creative Living in a Systematic World

It can be difficult to adjust to life as an adult with a full-time job if you’re still harboring creative ambitions, especially when your first job doesn’t scratch that creative itch in ways you hoped it would. If you’re one of those crazy engineers with a creative streak that isn’t satisfied by cranking out Excel sheets or debugging code at your day job, you quickly discover that it isn’t easy to juggle your “real” work, your personal projects, and the rest of your life. How do you find the effort you need to work on your next great work of art or maker machine — and then, when you do manage to write a sentence or code a symphonic neural network, who has time for family and friends? Luckily, for the quirky techies like us, there’s a solution to this system of creative equations.

I personally struggled to navigate the transition from a creative college experience to working life as an engineer, and I’m happy to say that, after several years spent searching for a sense of generative balance, I’m satisfied with my creative routine. And, to help others who might be going through a similar struggle, I’ve outlined a few useful tips. Scroll down to check out my guide for surviving as a creative engineer!

Be patient

You may not have the time to write your next novel, build a dancing robot, or paint your next great work of art in one sitting, but masterpieces come in pieces. Try not to be frustrated when you have to push a project to the side in order to get some much needed sleep or to make time for a loved one. The project will still be there when you get back. If, for some reason, it isn’t, then it probably wasn’t worth your time in the first place. Patience is a good indicator of what’s worth your effort.

Leverage your unique skill-set

Congrats! You survived engineering school. But what do you do with all those equations of motion and circuit diagrams (outside of making a spreadsheet your supervisor might or might not ignore)? You make art! Your engineering education has given you a privileged means of speaking to the technologically-infused world we inhabit. It would be a shame to let the ideas you worked so hard to understand go to waist. Instead of making art that is similar to what classically trained or popular artists are making, use your engineering skills to make something that is timely, unique, and imaginative.

Remember how to play

Think that playtime and engineering have nothing to do with each other? The Imagineers at Disney would kindly (but with spectacular fireworks) disagree. If you’re like me, then the idea of using your engineering skills to entertain and delight people of all ages was part of what drew you to engineering in the first place. Now that you have a job (and can finally afford all those expensive toys!) don’t forget how to play. A lot of today’s toys and interactive video games are already half-way or full-way robots that are primed for a bit of tinkering. Just imagine all the things you can do with the new Jedi force bands!

Don’t mix your day job with personal projects

This one is important but not obvious. In fact, it might seem righteous in some ways to rebel against your day job and to sneakily tinker away at a personal projects while your boss isn’t looking. But working on a personal project instead of what you’ve been assigned to do at your job is a double-edged sword — and both edges can cut! Needless to say, pushing your “real” work to the side will eventually lead to stressful situations, but more importantly, you’ll come to resent the assignments you get at work more and more as they take up your what you’ve decided is your personal time. Suddenly, instead of working on your day job, you’re losing valuable project time. And for someone like me, who straddles the line of obsessive compulsive, that can be insanely (and unnecessarily) stress-inducing. Working on personal projects at your day job might do more than get you fired — it could ruin your personal motivation, too.

Give yourself time to do nothing “important”

When you’re working on regular job duties and a personal creative project, it quickly feels like you don’t have enough time in the world to breathe. Everything “important” (read: your job, your project, eating) takes so much time! You simply have to give yourself some time off, though. Make time to sleep in, to watch a movie or TV, to cook pancakes, to read a new book, to spend time with a loved one, or to do absolutely nothing at all. If you don’t, that whole patience thing we just talked about is going to become next to impossible. And you might lose your mind. Not to mention losing all your friends. Please, just be nice to yourself.

Join the maker movement

The maker movement is alive and well! With companies like Digi-Key and Amazon selling essential electronic supplies, with websites like EasyEDA and Tinkercad making it easier to design your basic systems, and with the abundance of cheap development boards and cheapish 3D-printers, it’s never been easier to tackle engineering projects at your own home. There are some great places to pick up project ideas and to talk with other makers online, like Instructables, and some communities even have makerspaces, where you can collaborate with other like-minded makers in person. But before you get started, it’s important to remember that not every maker has to be an entrepreneur, and the movement is just as open to people who want to turn their cars into remote starters as it is to people looking to build the next big app. So get out there, meet new people, and make something fun!

Check the internet

Obviously, if you’re already on Medium, you’ve checked. So that’s good! Because the internet is essential to today’s creative engineers. The fact of the matter is that there aren’t many of us out there, especially outside rare urban spheres, and the internet might be the only way to reach out, stay in touch, and share ideas. There’s also great places to learn new things, and, like I mentioned before, plenty of resources to lean on — from buying parts to investigating new ideas, it’s all there. And if it’s not (aren’t you an engineer?) you can always make your own website!

Get other engineers involved with your creations

This might be the most exciting part of being a creative engineer! Whether you went into your engineering education with solid teaming instincts or if you’ve had them drilled into you over the last four years, most engineers would agree that working with a group of people on challenging projects is one of the most rewarding things a person can do. Oftentimes, though, we’re reluctant to share our creative projects. Something about popular perceptions of art (mostly likely a tad bit too much romanticism) demands that we press on with our creations as lone geniuses. The opposite is true for engineering, where we’ve been taught that genius is naturally collaborative. In this case, I tend to believe the engineers, and sharing the challenges of a creative projects with other engineers (and seeing how excited they might be by your ideas, which you, as a creative engineer, are constantly producing, sometimes maybe in ways beyond your control — but hey, you love yourself as you are, and we love you too) is always a joy. Don’t be selfish! Share your strange ideas and be open to letting other people help you realize them.

Like this? You can read the start of my screenplay in verse, The L657 Dialog, at the link below.

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Cole Hardman

I’m an engineer with a passion for poetry and literary theory.