The Demise of My Engineering Career: From Inception to Burnout

by FI Fighter on March 14, 2014

in Career

When I was in high school, I was a bum… Well, pretty much in their eyes (teachers, guidance counselors, peers, etc.), since I had a 2.0 GPA (C average), wasn’t enrolled in many AP classes, and cared more about lifting weights and spending time with the girlfriend than I did about applying to a prestigious university. For whatever reason, I just could never take high school seriously. Even at a young age, I kind of just knew that I didn’t have the personality type to simply exist and take orders from other people. It’s kind of sad, but in many ways, that’s what the high school experience is all about.

How I Got Started

Conformity.

Follow the path of straight and narrow. Learn how to acquire tunnel vision so that you learn to accept the FACT that there is only one right answer in life. You must go to college. You must earn that four year degree (and take on a mountain of student loan debt). And you must get a white collar job afterwards so that you can work the next 40 years of your life paying down a mortgage. Of course, the house you eventually get to buy will have a white picket fence, so don’t worry, you’ll have it made! What more could you possibly want out of life?

I was young and naive. Although I was resistant to just taking marching orders from someone else, I can’t say that I knew any better myself. After high school graduation, I found myself lost and confused. I saw my more successful peers venturing off to college and enjoying the dorm life experience. I didn’t have any plans or aspirations. I was going to community college and taking math classes that most everyone else finished during sophomore year of high school.

It was kind of a depressing experience, at first. In a way, it kind of felt like I was hitting the reset button on life and starting over. I could even hear the chatter floating around from others about how I was this “loser” who would never amount to anything in life. People like to talk… for whatever reason. As I’ve learned in life, there are those who can only lift themselves up by putting you down…

I’ll admit, things got to me. During that first semester of community college, I sometimes found myself alone and depressed. However, I never let things get to me too much, and I even made a commitment to better my situation. Again, because I was young and naive, the only “right” solution I could think of at the time was to go to university like everyone else. I was determined to play catch up and graduate on time (4 years) with a degree.

Since I convinced myself that I needed a white collar job, I picked engineering. I figured, I like computers (seriously? Who doesn’t these days…), and my impression was that the profession paid pretty good. Sure, why not? Engineering it was…

The “Learning” Years

With some hard work and luck I was able to transfer to a prestigious 4 year university (top 3 in the nation in most undergraduate engineering disciplines). I think I transferred in with a 3.7 GPA or so. Yay, I was now on the “right” path and doing what the guidance counselors’ told me I needed to do with my life. 🙂

I arrived at university with high hopes and much aspirations. I was determined to do extremely well in engineering… and I very much wanted to push myself to the limits… You know, learn as much as I possibly could.

I attacked my classes with a fury… but it wasn’t before long that I realized that university wasn’t all that it was hyped up to be.

Again, I just couldn’t fit in to the environment. I didn’t like being told what to do and what to learn. I found the problem sets in engineering far too abstract and I couldn’t connect the dots from theory to applied science… which is what engineering is supposed to be all about.

I carried on… One of the best things about being young is that you never really get tired. So, I kept at it, working from dust till dawn, grinding my way through with only the help of Monster energy drinks. While a lot of my peers were out partying on Friday nights, I often found myself in the engineering laboratory…

The work wasn’t easy. I would often become frustrated because I felt like the professors weren’t assigning problem sets to help us become better engineers, but rather just to give us a hard time. They wanted to teach us how to struggle… even if it meant none of the stuff we were learning would ever be used in real life engineering.

Most of the problems I worked on in college involved solving for a variable. It was basically like playing a game of dimensional analysis… isolating and re-writing equations to solve for x. It didn’t matter what x was… you just knew for any given problem, there was ONLY one right answer (which is completely counter to real life)… Again, the path of straight and narrow.

This is somehow supposed to make me a better engineer?!?“, I often wondered. How, exactly? I’m not even being assigned homework to build anything (something real, not just on paper)… The lab work wasn’t any better… I got to replace some shims on an internal combustion engine during my senior year… How exciting! 😉

It wasn’t easy, but I got through the program. I graduated university with an engineering degree in four years, just like I promised myself I would.

The Working Years

I started working in high-tech just shortly after college graduation. Just like with how I started university, I went in with guns blazing, full of enthusiasm and hunger.

Now that I’ve paid my dues, I will FINALLY get to be an engineer,” I thought. You know, I’ll be able to build things and solve real-world problems that make the world a better place. The fun stuff they never taught you in school…

Sadly (AGAIN!), it didn’t take long for me to become disheartened and jaded. After only 3 years or so on the job, I was starting to burn out and lose interest.

Corporate Life

Corporate engineering is NOT what they advertise on TV! Not everything is fun and games, like how they try and present it to you when you are in college and attending one of those career fairs. Yes, there are some cool projects, and yes you do get to solve some real-world engineering problems. Yes, people even do work in “teams”, but there is very little collaboration between engineers working in different departments. Honestly, most people are way too busy trying to cover their own asses to have any spare time to figure out what it is you do exactly.

If you work in a large company, it’s even worse. Almost everything is a black box. The especially large companies intentionally structure things this way so that intellectual property (IP) doesn’t leak out the door… At least not the “full picture”. As an engineer, you’re simply a very small cog in an otherwise very, very, very large machine… One that can probably keep on operating even without your contributions present.

At my last company, I was in the Applications Group. Yet somehow, I was able to go through my ENTIRE tenure there without ever meeting a single Product Engineer, Design Engineer, Test Engineer, Reliability Engineer, Manufacturing Engineer, etc. in person. Other members who were absolutely essential to the team… The project team was just way too big and spread out across the globe. Some teamwork, huh?

You do yours, and I’ll do mine… That’s just the way it is at many places. Next, someone else a lot smarter (and more senior) will come along and stitch the two pieces together so that we can ship out the product to the field. Once the customer gets a hold of samples, they can nitpick and scrutinize whatever the hell they want. If they don’t like it, or want to change something, you do it! It doesn’t matter if the feature request is illogical, useless, or a waste of time… You ALWAYS do what the customer wants.

Corporate Politics

Which brings me the game of corporate politics. Ahhh yes, corporate politics… How can I forget about that? At my last company, I introduced a sophisticated software program that helped engineers maximize their productivity (efficiency). It basically was a tool that could help them automate 50% of their daily work… I labored night and day for months trying to write that piece of software. Not to get paid more, but because I was still young and had a true passion for engineering. When I finally introduced my creation to the team, I expected them to receive it with open arms. Who wouldn’t want to use a tool that makes your life easier, right?

Boy, how wrong was I to assume that… My presentation demo was met with scorn, and many were quick to dismiss my ideas. My super intelligent ex-boss didn’t have an opinion, one way or another, so needed to take a poll from everyone else to tell him what he should think… One senior engineer even pulled me aside and angrily shouted, “just what the hell are you trying to do here? You trying to put us out of work, bro? If people start using that tool, they aren’t going to need to keep so many of us around…

Not surprisingly, the tool never caught on. Maybe one or two other guys ended up making use of it, but most of the other team members wanted nothing to do with it.

After that incident, yeah, you could say I was starting to get pretty turned off with “engineering”. Innovation wasn’t something to aspire for. No, just like will high school and college, again everyone wanted me to simply conform. Keep doing the way things have always been done, and don’t ask any questions along the way. Just accept things the way they are!

Another time, all the engineers in my group were required to go in to work on a Saturday because the senior director for one of the big smartphone companies was in town. My old boss told us, “there’s a 99% chance that the senior director won’t visit our lab. In case he does, I need you to all be there and pretend like you’re working on something important.

Sounds like something out of a Dilbert comic strip, doesn’t it? So, just how did he entice us to work on a sunny day on the weekend? “If you guys come in, you can order pizza,” he expertly negotiated. Wow! He reasoned with us as though we were small children… Of course, we all knew that if we didn’t show up for work, we would immediately end up on his s*it list. 🙁

Is It Worth It?

For all that hard work I was putting in, I was “rewarded” with a 2% raise come performance review season. I didn’t take it personal, though. But I was learning how the corporate game is played. The reality was I didn’t belong in the “good ol’ boys” club. I’m not the type to kiss ass, which is what you need to do to move up the corporate ladder. As I found out first hand, good luck trying to do it on merit alone! Oh, and in case you were wondering, that former co-worker who gave me a hard time has since been promoted, and is a rising star in that company…

Can’t Run the Race…

There’s no time to celebrate and enjoy your successes. And that’s seriously one of the most frustrating aspects of corporate engineering. Your entire team can labor for months trying to release a product. Everyone can work 12 hour days, even. But in the end, once the product hits the market, you only get 5 minutes of “glory” before it’s back to the grind! So, go out with the team and have a cheap meal on the company (how thoughtful of them). Just be warned, once you get back from lunch, it’s time to flip the script and move on to the next project…

It never ends! No matter how many products you release in a year… or how much revenue you and your team generate for the company… they will always try and milk you for more! Corporate drones don’t get rewarded for their hard work. The bulk of the perks (bonuses, RSUs, stock options, etc.) are only given to senior management and sales. The hard-working engineer gets shafted again… Seriously, what’s the incentive to work harder?!? So that the sales team can play another round of golf for “exceeding expectations” again next quarter? So that the directors and VPs can wine and dine more frequently at the fancy steakhouse down the street?

The Solution?

If that’s not what you had in mind when you signed up to do engineering, you can only imagine the shock I had when I finally learned the ropes and figured out what corporate engineering was really all about… True, probably not every company will be so terrible… but I’ve been around the block enough times to be all too familiar with that song and dance. Big company or small, these type of things happen more times than not, sadly.

But it is what it is. I’m a firm believer in:

If you don’t like your present situation in life, do something to improve it!

My answer? Early FI. If I can achieve financial freedom early in life, then I can then do whatever I want!

  • Don’t want to put up with garbage?
  • Think you deserve better?
  • Want to be able to walk away?

Then make it happen! If following the path of straight and narrow won’t take you to where you want to go, find an alternate route. I don’t want to settle in life… and I don’t want to live in dependence and fear.

Engineering is a wonderful profession. I have all the respect and admiration in the world for those who do it… Especially those who are doing it for the right reasons. Unfortunately, corporate engineering just hasn’t worked out for me. There’s too much bullsh!t involved… and I don’t want to subject myself to it for much longer.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t always bad. My engineering career opened up a lot of doors for me and made a lot of things possible, such as this journey to early FI. However, at this point in my life, I’m simply burned out and am looking forward to doing something else.

It’s almost time for me to move on and start a new chapter. I’m tired. I’m burned out. And I don’t want to play in the lab anymore. I’m very much looking forward to blazing a new trail! 🙂

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Income SurferNo Gravatar March 14, 2014 at 2:59 am

Our high school experiences sound different FI, but our work experiences were exactly the same. Well at least we’re on the way to something more flexible and better.

Oh, and you mean that solving REAL problems in your REAL life involves more than one variable?! Shocking! That may be my chief objection to engineering….there is no creativity in it
-Bryan

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2 FI FighterNo Gravatar March 17, 2014 at 9:00 pm

Bryan,

Yeah, I didn’t do so well in high school, so I’m not surprised our high school experiences were so different 😉

Glad we are on the same path now and working towards something extremely worthwhile.

Sadly, that’s just the way things are taught in school… I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s like that in most engineering classes… I use probably less than 5% of what I learned in college.

Real-world engineering is vastly different from what they teach you in school..

All the best!

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3 The StoicNo Gravatar March 14, 2014 at 4:07 am

Our high school days sound very similar! I spent more time in the gym than the library. 🙂

For whatever reason it seems like our contributions in life come from creating our own story and following our own compass heading even if leads in a different direction than the norm; especially if it leads in that direction. The various institutions that we find ourselves being told we should assimilate to typically do not nurture our passions, but stifle them. I think that is the soul of the early FI movement, to express ourselves in ways that our meaningful to us.

Have a great weekend!

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4 FI FighterNo Gravatar March 17, 2014 at 9:03 pm

Stoic,

I can totally relate to that! I spent more time in the gym than I did working on homework, that’s for sure!

Very well said, my friend. When I am not allowed to express myself creatively, I do feel stifled and marginalized… Work has a way of doing that to you b/c you can’t simply do what you want to do… even if your ideas are good, you’ll always be under the direction of someone else… who doesn’t always know better.

After so many years, work just has completely lost all meaning to me. I’m simply there to collect a paycheck… and that’s not how I want to spend the prime years of my life.

Looking forward to bigger and better things.

All the best!

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5 No Nonsense LandlordNo Gravatar March 14, 2014 at 4:43 am

Life does not always turn out the way you plan, or envision.

Your experiences lead you to this journey. If not for your past, you future could be totally different. If you would have went into politics, social work, or animal science, you may have just continued that path. Or not. Do not underestimate your ability to problem solved based upon your engineering background.

Wen I grew up, in a single parent household, my mother worked almost non-stop in order to provide. We were poor, and had a Coleman cooler for a refrigerator. Buying ice to keep things cold. We lived in Hawaii, on Oahu, and I went to most of my schooling years there. If you know anything about Hawaii sch public schools, they are not good. I could barely speak English, as I had a extremely heavy pigeon English dialect.

I had many friends who would be considered a bit ‘seedy’, by anyone’s standards. We did a few break-ins of cars and homes. Life was a bit dangerous, and that made it fun. Drugs were common. A few of my friends went to jail. I always assumed that I would wind up there too.

Luckily I wound up in a new neighborhood, with different people to be around. Different experiences lead me to where I am at, and now would be considered successful by most measures of success.

So, it could be, without the engineering, your plan and path would be quite different. You know what you do NOT want to do. That leads you the way to discover new paths in life.

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6 FI FighterNo Gravatar March 17, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Eric,

Thanks for sharing your own personal story. You’re right, our past experiences help shape and mold us… and guide us along the way on our journey…

Had I not done engineering, I’m not sure what I would be doing… or whether or not I would even be on the journey to early FI. Maybe I would have found something that paid less, but was infinitely more rewarding? Maybe I would have found something else that I wanted to do for the next 30-40 years? Who really knows… but sometimes it is fun to think about.

All I know is that I did choose engineering, and it has served its purpose. That journey has run its course, and I’m now ready for something new.

The new path, is what I am chasing after. That’s right, I know for certain now what I no longer want to do!

All the best!

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7 Dave @ The New York BudgetNo Gravatar March 15, 2014 at 5:09 am

How exciting was the moment you realized that there IS another path? For me, it was like the weight of the world lifted from me and I became so motivated to make that happen.

I think that was the biggest hurdle for me originally. Until I by CHANCE stumbled across a few FI blogs, I never knew there was another path, another way of reaching happiness. I thought I was stuck in the straight and narrow because I didn’t have any other option.

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8 FI FighterNo Gravatar March 17, 2014 at 9:10 pm

Dave,

I was pretty stoked when I first read the ERE book in November 2011. A fire was ignited and it’s been burning ever since… I’m probably just as motivated today as I was on the day I first discovered another path was possible.

Yup, definitely agree with you there. It sure did feel like a weight was lifted and there was light at the end of the tunnel. Very, very thankful to have finally found that alternate path.

Good thing that we discovered this earlier in life! I’m so glad I stumbled upon this now…

All the best!

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9 MarvinNo Gravatar March 15, 2014 at 3:24 pm

I love the detail in your story FI, it sounds so similar to mine. I just conformed to the world around me and did what I was told even all the way into my early 20s. You raise great points and I will certainly be teaching these principles to my children.

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10 FI FighterNo Gravatar March 17, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Marvin,

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the story. I also conformed to society for most of my 20’s and didn’t see the early FI light (didn’t even know it was possible) until 27.

I’m just glad I was able to catch on while I was still in my 20’s… I’m looking forward to maximizing my 30’s for sure!

All the best!

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11 MartinNo Gravatar March 16, 2014 at 8:43 pm

Fighter, I wish you get to your dream as quickly as possible. And don’t forget to tell us!
I found funny thing when you mentioned that you weren’t a good student and yet you ended up as an engineer. I had the exact same path. I was a hell to my teachers, horrible in math and yet I love it and ended up as an engineer too. What an irony. But I love my work a lot. Although I love it, I want to quit. The reason is, that I want to work only if I want, not because I must.

Good luck!
Martin

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12 FI FighterNo Gravatar March 17, 2014 at 9:13 pm

Martin,

Thanks! I appreciate the support.

That’s funny that you had such a similar experience. I didn’t get much out of school, to be honest, and to this day, I’m still pretty horrible with math. At least in the real world, they let you use calculators and software programs to do math for you…

I’m in the same boat as you. I love engineering… still… I just hate doing it under the supervision/direction of someone else. If I work efficiently and solve a complicated problem in one hour, why can’t I take the rest of the day off to go hiking?!?

Take care!

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13 ShannenNo Gravatar November 4, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Your article popped up in a search for ‘engineering student burnout’. I didn’t care about high school GPA, but after physics class I wanted to make things. It was enough inspiration to carry me through 3 years of university, but after a *corporate* internship I’m so demotivated, I want to drop out and just get a welding certificate or the like. At least I found some voices that are equally unimpressed. My bf’s attitude is ‘how can you be unhappy making a ton of money and buying what you want?’ Question though, what is this FI you’re all talking about?

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14 BruceNo Gravatar March 31, 2015 at 7:50 am

This rings true with me. I am a Mechanical Engineer working for a US Corp. Job is designing business machinery and I have been stuck on the same project for approaching three years producing endless prototypes for a large US Bank. Every time we supply a different prototype they change their minds and start a new phase of design. It came to a head with a “final” design lasting a mere two months and the build phase had the entire team working 50-60 hour weeks. Only a week or so later, another phase of another design of the same machine is requested. This has almost broken me – I am exhausted, mentally drained and virtually lost my creative spirit.

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15 SavvyFinancialLatinaNo Gravatar July 12, 2015 at 6:04 pm

I feel the same about corporate life. 3 years into it and very disenchanted. It has become about the paycheck every two weeks. Sadness. We’re saving up our money and living frugally so one day I can start something new.

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