Welcome back to the third (and last) part in my “How to eat an Elephant while you drink from the Firehose” series. In this installment, we’ll be talking about “drinking from the firehose.”

To give a little background to this quote, consider the old adage that’s been around for a while: “Learning this is like drinking from a firehose.” Effectively – what’s being said by this quote is that learning a particular topic is the equivalent of having information blasted at you continuously with no real way to absorb content on your own.

It reminds me of a (somewhat) funny story from a number of years ago. Some friends and I were driving in a car in Wyoming, where I was crammed in the back, passenger side, next to two others. Since we were rather too close for comfort in the back, I was forced to lean toward (and out) the window. As we picked up speed along the highway, I noticed a peculiar sensation: every time I stuck my head outside, I actually had a difficult time breathing. Ironic, I thought, that in a location with so much free space and open air, I’m actually having a difficult time breathing when we’re moving too fast.

This is a perfect metaphor for what I’m talking about.

Learning certain topics in Engineering can feel so overwhelmingly complicated (because of the rate at which the content is being thrown at you) that you feel as though you can’t catch your breath.

It’s a very humbling experience, but also incredibly frustrating, as (if you’re anything like me) being able to learn, integrate, and explore complex topics, quickly, is what Engineers should be able to do, right?


Don’t panic. There are two methods you can use to stem the flow and give yourself an advantage for being able to handle what’s coming at you. The first method is to use a sequential process.  Think of it like the figure below:


On the first pass you learn a small portion, followed by another small portion on the next pass, followed by another small portion on the next pass, etc.  until you’ve got the whole thing. The one key to this is you have to remember to ask LOTS of questionsIt’s very similar to reading a technical book – you should use regular intervals to review what you’ve learned. The advantage to this method is that you get into the details quickly, which can save time. The disadvantage is that you can sometimes miss the high-level purpose behind all of it.

The second method is to use an iterative process.  Think of it like the figure below:


In this case, you should get the whole thing first, even if it looks completely fuzzy and very unclear. Then you refine the details and go over it again, and you keep repeating this process until you’ve got everything in clear detail. The advantage to this is that you get to see both the high-level and low-level details, the disadvantage is that it takes time to use this method. Likewise, be sure to understand the high level first before trying to refine the details.

My guess is; most of us will use a variety of styles to drink from the firehose, and maybe you’ve thought of or have your own method. In either case, hopefully this will provide you with some new ways you can learn complex subjects and add a few new skills to your repertoire to help you on your way to becoming a great engineer.

As always, if you like reading my blogs, be sure to check back or Follow The Engineering Mind, and don’t hesitate to comment below if you have questions.  ‘Til next time! 

Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mona_Lisa