I received an email from a long lost friend from a time in my career when I was at the top of my game. I had the opportunity to design a certain set of products for which I was very aptly and strangely prepared. Over the course of 3 or 4 years, I was able to single-handedly transform these products from very crude prototypes into a very well-honed and extraordinarily robust and reliable design.
The products were test fixtures for cellular phones. Inside RF shielded boxes, actuators exercised every button and feature of a phone, all the while interfacing with another robot. The fixtures were a unique blend of RF shielding, robotic movements, electrical interfaces, and computer controls. I had some machine design and control experience at the time, but I also had some experience in radar absorbing aerospace technologies, an odd combination but very appropriate for this project.
During this period of time, my design skills changed radically. In the first couple prototypes, I worked from a mental image of what the design was going to look like. There was a point, however, where the design process started to become intuitive.
In the first couple prototypes, I had a vision of what I wanted to build, and I merely executed that mental image. As I progressed, the design process became much more intuitive. At first, I enjoyed seeing and holding the physical representation of my design. As I grew, I began to enjoy watching the design evolve in front of my eyes. I had an intuitive sense about how to construct a certain portion of the design, and as I would work at it, get ideas from other people or other machines, the design would grow and mature on the CAD screen in front of me. In some cases, a flash of discovery would solve a very complex problem. In other cases, the solutions would come after a whole lot of trial and error. In either case, the adrenalin would kick in at every flash and every little success.
During those periods of intense work, I was surrounded by a team of people that comes together maybe once in a career. A team where all the players are looking out for each other, communicating when necessary, each are at the top of their game, and all are truly focused on one goal. Not merely people with the label ‘teammates.’
There was a point where my design skills, my energy level, and my skills were at their apex. The feeling was absolutely incredible, and very addictive. But alas, those times were not meant to last. Keeping up that energy level just cannot happen for a sustained period of time.
For me, there was a subtle change where my work changed from a mechanical and deliberate process to an intuitive and sublime process. I have a hard time putting it into words because the difference is so subtle but so breathtakingly different at the same time.
It was like knowing how to ride a bike, practicing with training wheels for years on end, then being able to ride without them. I had quit thinking about the mechanics and process of creating a new design, and it started to flow from me without me thinking about it. That feeling of exhilaration is one of the most outstanding and memorable feelings I can remember.
My experience is that the level of absolute competence and mastery of a field does not happen to everybody, and only happens to some people and maybe only once or twice in a career. I am just thankful that I was able to get to that point at least once. Maybe I can reach it again, but only when the stars align.