Don’t Push a Rope: Draw a Picture to Understand Problems Better

When I began learning how to become a mechanical engineer, one of the first courses we studied was Statics. This is about the forces on things that don’t move. Think buildings, bridges, the walls of pressurized tanks, the teeth on a gear (relative to the rest of the gear they don’t move – or shouldn’t!) and many other applications. It’s a fundamental concept for many forms of engineering, especially for mechs.

A lesson that was hammered into us, time and again, was the importance of drawing a picture to show which way the forces were pushing or pulling. It’s a big deal if you get tension and compression mixed up. Ropes and cables, for example, only work in tension and if you get it backwards, your calculations will be all wrong. Hence: you can’t “push a rope”. Without a simple sketch, though, it was easy to get mixed up, especially when the problems became more complicated.

As I moved through my career, I returned to this lesson over and over. Diagnosing a piped system failure? Sketch it out and discuss with the trades to see why the water isn’t getting where it should. Process breakdown? Map it out and talk to the various people involved to see where the hangups lay. Need to describe how something works? Draw a picture and create a shared understanding.

Having a drawing – even a rudimentary one – helps bridge gaps in understanding and creates a common way of looking at a situation. You don’t need to be an artist – if you can draw a box and a line, you’re more than halfway there.

If you’d rather pull ropes than push them, start with a sketch – and create real understanding.