One Year Review

Reflecting on my self-study

It’s been a full year since I started this self-study / learning sabbatical. Time to pause and reflect on how the year has gone. 

My goal has been pretty simple from the beginning: learn as much as I can and get better at engineering. How have I done? I’ve only finished two major projects -- developing a natural composite recipe and making a trunk with leaf-inspired stiffening structure -- and they both only kinda worked. But I’m happy with where I’ve ended up. 

Not having a slam-dunk success just means that I’ve been working on interesting, difficult problems. As for the pace, I’ve done the whole “work furiously just to feel busy” thing before and ended up wasting time finishing pointless tasks very quickly. This pace feels more sustainable and I’ve given myself time to let bad ideas drift away.

I’ve grown most in confidence and creativity. When I was working, I felt that my engineering foundation was a little unsteady. As a result, I wasn’t totally confident in the more complicated analyses that relied on those unsteady fundamentals. I could trust the results because of company processes and procedures, but I felt I was missing something.

So over the last year, I revisited the fundamentals. Through a deeper conceptual understanding, I shored up my foundation. And, as an added benefit, I found myself full of new ideas on how to apply those concepts in other realms.

A big boost in confidence also came from discovering my engineering “style”. Even the idea that there are different engineering styles was a revelation. It’s as if I was taught that classical music is the only kind of music that exists. And if you don’t like classical music, you don’t like music at all. I had a vague sense that I liked music, but classical wasn’t really for me. I’ve finally begun to explore a genre that suits me better.

So, for the rest of the self-study, my approach will shift slightly. My previous projects had intentionally vague goals, which gave me the freedom to explore. My next, and final, project will have a more definite goal, which will allow me to try out a more empirical and experimental engineering style in earnest. If it works, I’m also hoping I can turn this project into a small business and continue to retain ownership over my time and my ideas.

Because of that commercial possibility, I’m not going to post details about the project explicitly. I’ll still share my learnings, but the ideas will be abstracted out a bit more. In fact, the factor of safety post and another recent post were already explorations into this new project. (Ooh, mysterious.)

That’s everything I can think to say about my engineering progress. I’ve also been working on my writing and drawing. I’ve focused on writing more clearly, which has forced me to clarify and simplify my own thoughts. That’s been great, but I still hate writing. I enjoy having written, but not writing.

My drawing has probably improved the most of anything and has also been the most enjoyable part of the year. I’ve always wanted to learn how to draw, but I’ve never stuck with it for very long. Instructional books, at least the ones that I tried and abandoned, tell you not to think too hard and to react to what you see, but I ended up thinking very hard about not thinking (if that makes any sense).

This exercise book I’ve been using, Charles Bargue’s Cours de dessin, has been different. There’s no instruction, so I’m not thinking about anything. I just draw. I’ve been drawing things I never would have dreamt of trying. But there’s no room for doubt. Some dead French guy thinks I should be able to do it, and so I do it. So far he hasn’t been wrong.

All in all, I’m happy with how my year has gone. It remains to be seen if this self-study was a good idea career-wise but personal development-wise, I think it was worth the risk. 

I love when readers get in touch. Leave a comment, reply to this email, email me at, or find me on LinkedIn.

Leave a comment

Drawing exercise #38. If you missed it, here’s why I’m learning to draw.