ON BEING AN ENGINEER
I consider it a significant honor to have been nominated for Jacksonville’s “Engineer of the Year” and I’ve recently found myself reflecting on why being an Engineer is so important to me.
Quite a few years ago, at a cocktail party, one of my relatives said to me, “Joe, I know you’re an Architect, but I really don’t know what you actually do.” Of course, I corrected him, reminding him that I was a Structural Engineer, not an Architect, and proceeded to describe the kinds of things that I did in my day-to-day profession. After a few minutes, his attention started to drift away. What I do – what we do – as Engineers wasn’t very engaging, at least not in cocktail hour conversation.
I probably could have captivated him and some other people there, with accounts of “famous failures”, like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the hotel hanging walkway collapse.
But, even though what we do everyday doesn’t capture the imagination and attention of our non-technical friends and family, it definitely is fascinating to us, and when we talk about our activities with our colleagues, they don’t drift away after a few minutes.
Why is this? I personally believe that being an engineer is more than a job, more than a profession. It’s a comprehensive way that we approach our life and experience our world. Our identity and personality are shaped by the very innate capabilities that make us successful as Engineers, such as the ability to visualize ideas in three or four dimensions, the ability to recognize and utilize the scientific order that surrounds us and the ability to be intrigued and amazed by the possibilities beyond that which we do comprehend.
My wife chides me (lovingly) at once being distracted by the gears under a lift bridge as we cruised one night on a romantic boat trip. Sometimes, during a symphony, I’ll be thinking about how all those molecules of air transmit such complex vibrations throughout the hall to everybody’s tiny eardrum.
So, when I look at a complicated building and “see” member stresses and failure modes along with the Architectural expression, does it add to or detract from my experience? I’m not really sure but, for me, it’s who I am and how I think. And I am immensely grateful for having this perspective.
I’ve often toyed with a self-analysis type of exercise in which a person would write down 50 or 100 nouns that describe him, words like Human, Floridian, Football Fan, etc. Then he would slowly prioritize and eliminate words until it is distilled down to the most important five. I know, for me, the final group would include, along with Husband and Father, the word Engineer.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.