My cousin Roy, a mechanical engineer, was working with us on our cabin's outdoor shower last month--sweat plooping down from his graying beard--when he measured and remeasured a length several times and then took a few minutes to stare at the space. He remeasured yet again. If you're a carpenter, you've heard the mantra a million times: "Measure twice, cut once."
Roy said: "Obsessive compulsion. That's what makes a great engineer."
Today, the acronym OCD is about as devalued and trite as any other medical affliction in our pseudo-scientific pop culture lingo, but it's a widespread disorder.
The National Institutes of Health defines it as:
"…an anxiety disorder in which people have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations (obsessions), or behaviors that make them feel driven to do something (compulsions). Often the person carries out the behaviors to get rid of the obsessive thoughts, but this only provides temporary relief. Not performing the obsessive rituals can cause great anxiety."
The NIH lists symptoms including:
- Checking and rechecking actions (such as turning out the lights and locking the door)
- Excessive counting
I had my own bout with OCD more than 20 years ago as a wire-service reporter in Rhode Island. Closing the bureau for the night was a one-man job that required a number of steps to be taken: strip and catalog the wire printer output, make sure the news-story clipboard was ready for the morning editor with that day's tips/follow-ups/important events; turn the heat up or down; close/open the window; leave relevant notes; clean the waste baskets, etc.
For months I would run through the routine then turn off the lights, walk out the door, turn to lock the door and then stare nervously at the door handle, fearing I'd forgotten something crucial.
I'd walk back into the bureau and run through the routine all over. Nine times out of 10, all was in order. But sometimes, I'd perform this Groundhog Day routine two or three times before I could escape from the Statehouse.
Roy's compulsion produced a spectacular structure in a reasonable amount of time; mine was annoying in the extreme. Eventually, and somehow, I got over this.
For engineers, certain aspects of OCD are vital to excelling at your job. Do you agree?
- If so, what are those aspects?
- What's an acceptable level of OCD?
- And how do you know when to stop?