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Industrial Career Advice: Pain Is Instructive

The following tip is from the ISA book by Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas titled 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor Program. This is Tip #3.


I must confess that this is one of my favorite lines because it applies to practically everything from managing your boss, to dealing with co-workers, to raising children. The concept is simple—humans (and most animals) learn to avoid “pain.” (The word “pain” is used here in a very broad sense.) If we burn our fingers, we draw them back quickly. If we fail to get a pay raise for doing poor work, we tend to step up our efforts. If a fly is buzzing in our face, we swat at it. But what do you do if something is bothering you that you CANNOT resolve by your own actions? How do you swat the fly if your hands are tied?



Concept: Everybody encounters problems that are horribly frustrating, especially if we are dependent upon others to resolve them. Perhaps a co-worker is lazy and is not pulling his weight, or your child refuses to clean up his room, or another department keeps promising to execute a task but never gets around to it. The answer to all of these is to understand the fundamental truth—that pain is instructive—and then apply that concept.

Let us be clear and state that this tip is NOT advocating threats or tempting as that may be! The trick is to figure a (non-violent) way of transferring the “pain” you are feeling to the person who can resolve the problem. If that can be accomplished, the other person has much greater incentive to work on the problem and make it go away.

Details: This idea is better explained by example. Consider the following:

  •  You are responsible for making sure all of the time sheets are entered by the entire department every week. Several people routinely fail to enter them on time and require constant badgering on a weekly basis. Rather than fight the battle, simply tell Accounting to not issue any paychecks to people who failed to enter their time sheets. After a check cycle or two, the problem will resolve itself.
  •  Your young child never washes out the sink after brushing his teeth and leaves the mess for you to clean up. Assign the chore of cleaning the bathroom to him so that he has to clean up that mess along with the rest of the bathroom every day. You will suddenly find him making the effort to keep the bathroom much more tidy so he has less work to do.
  • You are on a softball team. Some players go to the batting cage every week before the game and have good batting averages. Others never practice and just show up for the game and bat poorly. You have tried to encourage the weak batters to do a bit of practice, but they refuse to be bothered. Rather than fight them, just list the batting averages sorted best to worst and post them in the dugout before each game. Once the weak guys start getting kidded for being at the bottom of the list, the incentive for moving up will become much greater.
  • Your company laptop has problems, but the IT guy dismisses it as a non-issue and will “get to it when he can.” Rather than argue, just offer to swap your laptop for his, since in his words “the problem is minor.” If HE has to deal with a broken laptop on a daily basis, he will be much more inclined to make time to fix it.


industrial automation, careers, process automation, process industries, manufacturing, instrumentation, process control, control engineering, manufacturing automation

Watch-Outs: Many people’s first reaction is “to go to the boss” when they cannot easily resolve a problem. While this can be effective in the short term, it tends to put people off and causes rifts in relationships down the road. Avoid this if possible.

Avoid the tendency to be vindictive for past slights, and make sure that the link between cause and effect is clear to the person. You want the problem to be the cause of the discomfort … you DON’T want to be the cause.

Exceptions: Just to be clear (again): this tip is NOT advocating workplace violence. As unhappy as you may be with a co-worker, you are not allowed to threaten him or whack him over the head!

Insight: Human relationships and interactions are not generally a strong suit for engineers. Rather than battle a problem, just turn it around so that the person who can resolve the problem is as vexed by it as you are. In a short time, they will WANT to fix it just to make it go away! With a bit of practice, you will find this can be done rather subtly, and people will marvel at your ability to get things done.

Also realize that just as pain can be instructive, “warm fuzzies” can be encouraging. Take the time to compliment those you work with when they do a good job. Everybody likes to get recognized.

Rule of Thumb: One of the more frustrating problems is the kind that can only be fixed by someone else, and they will not do it. In such a case, find a way to have that person feel the same frustration as you, and they will be much more likely to get it resolved.



Hunter Vegas, P.E., holds a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University. His job titles have included instrument engineer, production engineer, instrumentation group leader, principal automation engineer, and unit production manager. In 2001, he joined Avid Solutions, Inc., as an engineering manager and lead project engineer, where he works today. Hunter has executed nearly 2,000 instrumentation and control projects over his career, with budgets ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. He is proficient in field instrumentation sizing and selection, safety interlock design, electrical design, advanced control strategy, and numerous control system hardware and software platforms.



Greg McMillan
Greg McMillan
Gregory K. McMillan, CAP, is a retired Senior Fellow from Solutia/Monsanto where he worked in engineering technology on process control improvement. Greg was also an affiliate professor for Washington University in Saint Louis. Greg is an ISA Fellow and received the ISA Kermit Fischer Environmental Award for pH control in 1991, the Control magazine Engineer of the Year award for the process industry in 1994, was inducted into the Control magazine Process Automation Hall of Fame in 2001, was honored by InTech magazine in 2003 as one of the most influential innovators in automation, and received the ISA Life Achievement Award in 2010. Greg is the author of numerous books on process control, including Advances in Reactor Measurement and Control and Essentials of Modern Measurements and Final Elements in the Process Industry. Greg has been the monthly "Control Talk" columnist for Control magazine since 2002. Presently, Greg is a part time modeling and control consultant in Technology for Process Simulation for Emerson Automation Solutions specializing in the use of the digital twin for exploring new opportunities.

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