Tag Archives: Engineering Judgment

Low-hanging Fruit

Don’t be content with only the low-hanging fruit. Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Anna Hunter

Why work to get an apple when there are ones within reach from the ground? I remember a management meeting years ago when we discussed “low-hanging fruit”. In that case it was simple adjustments that could be made to improve our efficiency. We wanted to find all the helpful changes that could be made with little to no expense before looking to spend a lot of money on some new piece of equipment. Sometimes, though, we are tempted to garner some quick success and stop there. In engineering, with the pressure of deadlines, we often prefer the simplified, summarized version of knowledge to more in-depth comprehension – even though this tends to work against the development of engineering judgement that is critical to our profession. We like the quick “cookbook” solution that just says “do steps A, B, and C in order to safely design a building”, rather than the more time-intensive study required to understand why those steps work and, just as importantly, in what cases they don’t work. Engineering judgement requires a sufficiently deep understanding of a subject to recognize, for instance, when  analysis methods are invalid, when data has been extrapolated beyond what the evidence can support, or when typical assumptions no longer apply. But that requires study.

My previous employer’s situation was a case of prioritizing appropriately in trying to harvest quick and easy benefits first, before investing heavily to harvest more. The second situation, however, is potentially dangerous when the remaining harvest – the deeper understanding – is never pursued. And that is what I want to focus on today. It’s easy to look at a bunch of picked-over low branches and say there’s nothing left to glean from that tree, and ignore the much larger harvest waiting out of reach. Too often, we have the same preference for the quick and easy when it comes to spiritual knowledge. We read a passage in the Bible, and not seeing any obvious, easily-reached truth, we are content to move on, leaving deeper truths untouched. Yet this is nothing new. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that he could only speak to them as “infants in Christ”, giving them “milk to drink, not solid food; for {they} were not yet able to receive it.” [1Cor 3:1-3] He reminded them at the end of that letter that while it was good to be childlike in their innocence, they should not be childish in their thinking, but rather mature [1Cor 14:20]. The author of Hebrews was even more direct with his readers: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” [Heb 5:12-14] Just like a child must grow up and go from drinking milk, to eating mashed-up food, to eating solid food, we must press on in our knowledge of God, stretching and always reaching higher. We may be called to be content in many areas of life, but a shallow, superficial knowledge of God is not one of them!

Maybe you’ve tried studying the Bible and gotten bogged down in difficult passages. You do alright reading through the Gospel of John, but struggle with something like Deuteronomy. Let me encourage you to continue picking those low-hanging fruits in John, but don’t give up on the harder-to-reach fruits. I think of it this way: there were subjects in school that I enjoyed, and others I didn’t, but enjoyment or ease of comprehension weren’t always indicative of the importance of the subject (and I would dare say that what God puts in writing is as important as it gets). For example, for me, high school geometry was a blast – obviously practical, very logical in its formation of axioms and proofs, and very concrete in its application of them. That was low-hanging fruit to me that has also benefited me throughout my entire engineering career. Calculus, on the other hand, was definitely not a favorite subject for me. More abstract than most of my other math classes, and only more so with each succeeding semester of it, that subject stretched me nearly to the breaking point. Now, my day-to-day use of math in structural engineering (aside from the huge amount of complex math my computer does for me) is primarily basic arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. But many of the nice quick formulas that only require basic algebra to solve, are derived using calculus. And as much as I struggled through my Calc classes, I’m glad I learned it, because it does undergird much of engineering, and allows me to solve problems that would be difficult, at best, any other way. In fact, as I’ve read research papers on new analysis methods, I’ve often wished I’d learned calculus better than I did. Similarly, as I read more of the New Testament, I grow to appreciate more of the Old Testament that Jesus and His disciples quoted from so much. Some fruit takes more work to get to, but settling for a minimal knowledge only hurts in the end.

Jesus calls us to be followers, not fans. The apostle John records one time when Jesus gave the crowds some harder truths to chew on in order to separate the fans from the followers: “Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, ‘This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?’ … As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” [Jn 6:60,66] Don’t be content with a grade school understanding of God’s Word when He’s called us to commit to following Him unreservedly [Matt 16:24], and to share what we’ve learned with others [Matt 28:19-20]. But you can’t pass on what you haven’t learned yourself. So don’t be content with only a shallow knowledge of the Word of God – John 3:16 is great, but there is so much more to the Bible than just that! In fact, the Bible is one tree where every higher branch yields more fruit than the previous one, if only we’re willing to seek it out. If there’s one thing I can leave you with, it’s to never stop studying the Bible, for it truly is “words of eternal life” [Jn 6:68].