February 12, 2021 marked my five-year anniversary of starting the job of a lifetime, working as an electrical engineer for Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to fly around the world.
In the weeks leading up to joining the project in February 2016, I remember being asked one question a lot — “aren’t you afraid?” The first time I heard that, I realized that I never really thought about it, but wondered if this was something I should have been thinking about.
I knew that I was going to be the only American on the ground crew, and that meant I would probably have to communicate in a different language and learn a new work culture; I knew that the problems would be challenging and there would be no “status quo” to follow; and I also knew that I only graduated with my degree in electrical engineering less than a year before taking on this new job, so my knowledge was fairly limited.
There were so many things that I could have been afraid of, but I looked at them as just part of the package — if I wanted this job assignment, then I was not going to let any of my fears hold me back. There will always be unknowns in any situation, so we need to evaluate if the fear of not doing something outweighs the fears of actually doing it.
When I was studying at Virginia Tech, I was always scared that I was going to fail a class or not be able to finish a programming assignment, and I spent so many hours nervously worrying about these things. But guess what? I always found a way to pull through.
As I progressed through my degree, instead of constantly worrying, I developed a plan of action to increase my chances of success. When I struggled in a class, I found a tutor who could help me master the material. When I was nervous about an upcoming programming assignment, I made sure to start early and take advantage of resources like office hours to keep me on track.
By the time I graduated from college, I successfully completed hundreds of things that I never thought I could do, and I did not realize it at the time, but I had become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Every time I completed one of these tasks, it reaffirmed the idea that I could get through any situation if I worked hard, used all my resources, and asked for help when I needed it.
Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is not a novel topic. It is one of those ideas that sounds great in theory but is not so simple to achieve. If I had to share my number one piece of advice for becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, it would be to accept that you will not know everything and, therefore, expect those situations to be the norm.
I could get as many degrees, take as many trainings, or complete as many hours of research as I want, but even with more knowledge, I will still encounter problems that I have never been exposed to. As an engineer, you rarely solve the exact same problem twice because there is always something a little different, even when the problems look similar.
Once you accept that you cannot know everything, you experience a shift in mindset. Afterwards, when you encounter a new problem, instead of getting caught up in the fact that you do not know what the answer is, you focus your energy on the process needed to uncover the answer. Developing your go-to problem-solving methodology takes time, but it keeps you calm and makes you more comfortable when you are faced with a new challenge.
Developing your go-to problem solving methodology is a topic I’ll explore in greater detail in a future column, but as a sneak peak, I recommend understanding the reasoning behind decisions or processes instead of just going through the motions to get an output quickly!
By the time I joined the Solar Impulse project, I only had four years of college, three internships, nine months of professional experience under my belt, and very little experience working on international teams. I did not let those facts consume me, because I had been in ambiguous situations before, although on a much smaller scale.
The answer to the question we started with is: No, I was not afraid to take on my role with Solar Impulse. I was fine knowing that I would not have the answers to every problem, because I was confident in my ability to put together a plan of action and use my problem-solving methodology to successfully complete any challenge thrown at me.
Now that you have reached the end, you might be thinking “ok well how does this apply to me?” Solar Impulse was a very unique project but questioning your ability to perform at a task can happen on a daily basis. If you approach the unknown with the attitude that you can never know or control all of the variables, and adjust accordingly, you’ll find that element of fear disappears and the sky’s the limit!
Paige Kassalen loves to put her creativity to use by solving problems in emerging technical fields, and has been an IEEE member since 2012. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 2015, Kassalen began her career with Covestro LLC. in 2015, and soon became the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in Glamour, Fast Company and the Huffington Post.
After Solar Impulse, Kassalen helped Covestro develop its strategy for materials for the future of mobility, and shared her work at conferences around the United States. In 2020, Kassalen received a Master of Information Systems Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and now applies her problem-solving skills to the finance industry, where she works with teams to develop big data strategies and implement innovative technologies.