Mentoring and Thinking Outside the Box

In her book The Not So Big House, Sarah Susanka talks about how wrestling in grade school to solve a puzzle (illustrated below) that was given to her by one of her teachers opened the door to the creative thinking that led her to the Not So Big concepts.


I’ll leave it to you to figure out the answer and perhaps open the door to some creative thinking of your own, but a clue is that you need to think outside of the box.

I think the story she tells about solving the puzzle is really interesting because it’s a great example of how we can struggle and not see something for a long time and then, once we see it, discover that its almost impossible not to see it and also discover that the insight is so profound that it opens doors that alter or direct the path of our life.  I also think the story is a great example of mentoring by her teacher who provided the challenge and some clues, but left the problem solving, and thus the real lesson learning to her mentee.

Over the past week or so, I have been spending part of my days helping my family sort through all of the stuff in my Mom’s old house. When I headed off to do that, I was certain that I would find some real gems among all of the things that Mom and Dad collected over the years, and I have.  What I wasn’t expecting was to find this.

Motor Side

In many ways, this little pile of junk is my version of Sarah Susanka’s puzzle.  Its a DC electric motor and it was my 8th grade science project back in 1967.   Here is
a picture of it with the parts labeled.


What was really amazing to me at the time (and is even more amazing to me now as I look at it) is that the motor actually worked.  With two fresh D batteries, it actually could accelerate and spin at about 40-60 rpm as I recall.  It couldn’t handle much load beyond keeping itself going.  But that aside, it got me an A+ and a dumbfounded look from my science teacher when I took my turn in front of the class to demonstrate it and explain how it worked.

I say that my little motor represents my version of Sara Susanka’s puzzle because I think it represents one of the first times I can remember where technically, I learned to think outside of the box, and because it was one of my earliest technical mentoring experiences.

I can’t claim to have conceived of the design of the motor;  it came from a book of electrical experiments that I found at the library and the idea of building a working motor really intrigued me.  My problems were the “research budget” and the fabrication facilities.  I had to be able to fund the project with my savings and allowance, neither of which were in good shape at the time having just purchased a 12 string guitar.  And the only tools around the house were simple hand tools.

I solved the budget problem by scrounging around and finding everything I needed in the trash bin or out in a corner of the garage with the exception of the antenna wire, batteries, and a pair of tin snips that I used to cut up salvaged tin cans. So, after a trip to the hardware, I eagerly set about cutting up tin cans, wrapping wire around things and generally assembling the motor.

But, I thought I was out of luck when it came to making the commutator.  The plan in the book called for a circle of wood approximately 4 inches in diameter with 2 semi-circles of metal laminated to it.   I was able to find a big can and pound it flat and cut the two semi-circular pieces of metal that I needed from it with the tin snips I bought.  But try as I might, could not come up with a way to get a 4 inch circle of wood using the cross cut hand saw that my Dad had, or any of the other hand tools that were lying around.

Discouraged, I headed over to Dr. G.T. Mallick’s house.  “Ted” as he had everyone call him, was a young research physicist for Westinghouse Electric who had befriended me and lived around the corner.  He was always ready to take a minute and help me think through something or even enthusiastically participate with me in the various projects I undertook.  He also had a knack for explaining what seemed to be complex concepts in a
manner that made sense to me.  And, he had a few more tools around than we did, so I was hoping that maybe he had a way to fabricate the elusive 4″ diameter piece of wood that I needed so desperately.

Ted thought my motor project was pretty cool and listened patiently to my dilemma.  But sadly, he did not have much to offer in the way of a tool that would allow me to make my 4″ wooden circle.  What he did offer was this question:

Why does the commutator have to be round?

It didn’t of course;  the answer was obvious as soon as he asked the question.   But, until he asked, I was so absorbed in the instructions from the book and the relationship between circles and rotating motion that it had never occurred to me that the shape of the commutator was irrelevant to some extent as long as it performed the intended function.

Excited by the prospect of being able to complete the motor after all, I headed home and, a couple hours later plus a few tweaks inspired by Ted (who showed up at my house a couple of hours after I left his to see how things turned out) I had my motor up and running and the rest, as they say, is history.

So there you have it, the story of my first adventure in “outside of the box thinking”.  In retrospect, Ted taught me a couple of other lessons that day too, lessons that I was unaware of until many, many years later.  They were lessons about mentoring from someone doing research on things that nobody knew anything about (i.e. real research) offered to someone doing research to understand things Newton and others had already figured out.

Ted shared his passion for science, something he had done in the past and continued to do. I have come to think that sharing your passion is one of the most important things that you can do as a mentor.

Ted guided me to the answer by asking a question.  That allowed me to discover the answer, which meant I owned it and experienced the joy of
discovery.  He could have simply told me the answer, which would have led to the same result in terms of my motor and would likely have resulted in even more hero worship from me.  But Ted relinquished the strokes to help me grow.  That’s maturity which I have come to think is another  characteristic of a good mentor.

Ted followed up, partly out of curiosity and genuine interest in the project and partly because he knew the project was important to me and wanted to be sure I succeeded.

So, if you ever are lucky enough to find yourself in the position to help someone younger or less experienced than you understand something, remember the things that Ted taught me.  Not only will you help someone move forward in their life, you will likely inspire a pleasant memory in years to come and set an example that they can follow to pass on the gift you have given them.

Incidentally, if you find this mentoring idea to be interesting, CSE magazine has been running a series of articles on the subject, starting with the February 2008 issue featuring Amy Smith’s article titled simply Mentoring Engineers.  Since then;

H. Landis Floyd II has written about Keep(ing) Young Electrical Engineer’s Grounded (February 2008)

Ray Grill has written about Ignite(ing) Opportunities to Mentor Fire Protection Engineers (March 2008)

Tim Scrubby has written about Mentoring HVAC Engineers (May 2008)

Forty up and coming young (under 40) engineers were highlighted in the
July 2008 issue; they are undoubtedly the result of good mentoring
and also its future.

And, for what its worth, I will have an article in the magazine next month about mentoring control engineers and technicians; more stories from my past highlighting a few of the many folks that have made a real difference in my life.

David Sellers
Senior Engineer – Facility Dynamics Engineering

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3 Responses to Mentoring and Thinking Outside the Box

  1. The memories this post evokes are incredible. My early science fair
    projects–which were mundane at best, followed by high school
    science and shop classes–which were slightly more
    accomplished–then doing better in labs for college engineering
    courses. But it wasn’t until I found a mentor and was introduced to
    field work, data loggers, and patient instruction, that my love of
    science melded with my career aspirations to become a scientist. I
    wrote about that mentoring experience in Give and Take in February.
    Mentors matter, and often for life.

  2. Dan Blank says:

    Loved this story David!

  3. SK says:

    Thank you for sharing your story for mentors and mentees alike. I have the good fortune to call Ted a Mentor, Father and Grandfather for my kids. He continues to share his gifts unselfishly. Kind regards, SK.

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