The Secret Graduate Engineer: Get comfortable being uncomfortable

In the first of a series of blogs, our Secret Graduate Engineer lifts the lid on entering the workplace with a reminder that your career will often – and quite necessarily – take you from your comfort zone.

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As a rule, discomfort is a state most of us seek to avoid throughout our lives. Given the choice between a bed of nails and a feather down pillow I know which I’d choose. So perhaps it’s strange that the first thing I write as a graduate engineer is a piece on the upsides of being just that little bit uncomfortable.

I recently walked out of university, aerospace engineering degree in hand, into a firm as a graduate employee. Like many others, it’s a fairly large company that nobody outside the aero sector will have heard of, working in the supply chain of the three or four companies that everyone will know. The exact route I took here is a story for another article but the experience once I arrived would, I suspect, be familiar to many others who’ve been the newbie. At first there’s the reassuringly mundane paperwork of payroll, followed by the half dozen signatures to verify your understanding of light switches and trip hazards that comes with any job. Soon, though, you’re at a workstation trying hard to absorb the torrent of information provided by colleagues, and the puns suggesting that aero grads “can’t just wing it”.

Only by repeatedly butting against something new does one actually begin to understand the scope of their job

In my case it took less than an hour before my mentors’ parting words “If you don’t know, ask” came into use. Over the course of my first month I’ve grown to know the feeling of confusion that falls as I confront a novel task, trying to apply the knowledge gathered while studying without yet being familiar with the procedures that crucially serve as the framework to use such knowledge. Slowly, tasks have become familiar. I’ve come to stop expecting a tap on the shoulder from a supervisor asking what on earth am I doing here. Yet that slight feeling of discomfort continues, peaking every time I confront something novel and leaving me wondering what that long foray into higher education was for when I so regularly feel unsure.

Eventually the penny dropped: that only by repeatedly butting against something new does one actually begin to understand the scope of their job. This is why we go through the process of apprenticeships or degrees. To get accustomed to the idea that you will be required to do something you’ve never attempted before and you’ll need the input and experience of others to succeed. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned it’s that swimming in uncertain waters is not just the business of a graduate, it’s the business of an engineer. And you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

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