Today is my 50th birthday. So rather than delving into a science or technology topic this week, I ask for you indulgence as I reflect on the first half century of my life. In a bit of a spoiler, let me tell you up front that it’s been a great ride thus far. As I have been approaching this milestone, in the words of David Bryn, I have been asking myself “How did I get here?” In looking back, I find that the answer to that question is inextricably interwoven with my being an engineer, both by profession and predilection.
There are several important characteristics that both attract a person to engineering and also allow him/her to succeed in the field. These characteristics include:
- approaching complex problems by breaking them down into their component parts,
- having an introvert’s comfort with solitude and contemplation,
- possessing a knack for understanding how equipment and systems work and how to fix and improve them,
- seeking continuous improvement rather than the quick fix, and
- relying on data in decision making.
I have tried to evaluate how having these characteristics has impacted my life and, like good engineer, I have organized my reflections into categories.
During my senior year of high school, I was conflicted about whether I wanted to major in chemical engineering or, my other main interest, history. Back in the 1980s, most engineering schools would not allow students to double major. So, while I wanted to become educated in both topics, I could only have formal instruction in one of them. Two key data points suggested that engineering was the preferable choice, at least for me. An engineering education requires the use of specialized and expensive laboratory equipment. In addition, the available data suggested that an engineering degree was likely to result in my getting a higher paying job after college. So I majored in engineering and, in parallel, embarked on a self-study of history that continues to this day. Readers of this column will certainly have noticed my fascination with the intersection of history and science on numerous occasions.
I am a fortunate man. I may not have a Porsche or a house the beach. But I never have to worry if I have enough money to pay the mortgage and my family and I have been able to take some rather special vacations together. Being an engineer has supported this favorable circumstance in three key ways.
First and foremost, engineering is a well-compensated profession. We may not have the opportunity to become spectacularly wealthy like someone working on Wall Street, but month-after-month and year-after-year a pretty solid paycheck comes in every two weeks. Further, my engineering predilections have helped me to become a good steward of those paychecks. For example, for the last 298 consecutive months (24.8 years) I have completed a spreadsheet, one I designed myself, that conducts a thorough review of my family’s income, spending, assets, and debts. These parameters are displayed in graphs to allow for accurate data analysis and to facilitate the development of long-term, continuous improvement plans. My engineering instinct to incorporate safety margins has helped me to be prepared when unexpected financial setbacks inevitably occur. In the aggregate, I am confident that these engineer-esque practices have allowed me to extract more value from my paychecks than would have come from a more free-spirited approach.
I have saved a significant amount of money over the years by building and fixing things. Early in my married life, when my bank balance was rather precarious, I built much of our furniture at very low cost, some of which is still in use over twenty years later. I am also quite adept at fixing things. Every time I replace a burned out switch in a dryer or fix the drainage pump on the dishwasher, I save hundreds of dollars. My accumulated experience as an engineer, be that in chemical plants or laboratories, has given me the confidence and experience to attempt and succeed at this repairs. As an added bonus, I take great satisfaction in fixing things.
I am quite healthy for a 50 year old man. I am in good physical condition, have rarely had issues with controlling my weight, and am almost never sick. Much of this happy circumstance stems from dumb luck such as inheriting good genes from my parents, not being hit by a drunk driver on the road, and the like, but some part, I would argue, flows from my habits and approaches as an engineer.
My engineering career has placed me in Corporate America for the past several decades. So along with bi-monthly paychecks, I have had solid and consistent health insurance for my entire life. I have never been in a situation where I felt sick or wanted preventative care and been forced to consider whether I could afford to go to a doctor. Since is it my birthday, please allow me the following political comment. We need to move away from this system where health insurance is tied to employment. Everyone should be able to afford to go to the doctor when they are ill. The rest of the developed world does it that way and so can and should we.
I also approach food like an engineer. I think about foods based on their component parts and how these parts are utilized by the gastrointestinal system. For example, when I was in college in the 1980s, my biotechnology professor pointed out that the suggestion that eating cholesterol-containing foods would result in having more cholesterol in your blood stream was absurd. There is no pathway through which a molecule of cholesterol can get from your mouth to your bloodstream while remaining intact. Being equipped with a detailed understanding of how the stomach, intestines, and liver actually work has helped me to understand that there is no quick-fix dietary approach and that the slow-and-steady approach of limiting your calorie intake while making sure to include fruits, vegetables, lean meats and fiber is only the way to go. Further, my engineering mindset has allowed me to adhere to this approach the way only a person who would do his/her budget for 298 months in a row can.
A review of my first 50 years needs to include the questions of, “Do I have regrets?” and, if so, “What should I do about them?” I am happy to say my list of regrets only had three lines. (Remember the spoiler from the begining.) So let me share them with you along with my plans to address them.
- Giving up guitar at 18.
I played for many years as I kid and enjoyed it, but for some reason that I can’t remember, I quit when I went to college. I addressed this regret 3 years ago when I started taking lessons again and find that I still love to play. Engineers try not to make the same mistake twice, so I won’t quit again.
- Not Teaching at Bucknell
I had two job offers after completing my Ph.D., an industrial job with ARCO Chemical Company and chemical engineering professor position at Bucknell University. At the time, I decided that I would take the ARCO job, gain some valuable experience, and then return to academia later. It has taken a bit longer than I expected, but this plan is still active. In a few years, I will have finished putting my children through college and the lab and lecture hall are still calling.
- Not Hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT)
There are some activities which are particularly well-suited to an introvert like me. These include doing engineering calculations, practicing guitar, and walking in the forest. Back in my high school/college/grad school days, I often thought about carving out a few months to get out on the AT, but never pulled the trigger. Since then, I have been rather busy raising children and forging ahead on my career. But some time in the next decade or so, I will likely be recalibrating my career, which should provide another chance to hit the trail. In the meantime, I plan to keep my slow-and-steady-wins-the-race approach to diet and exercise so I’ll be ready when the time comes.
The Next 50 Years
It will be 2066 when I turn 100. It’s hard to imagine what the world will be like then. Will the world have fallen into strife as resource limitations arose or will humanity have found a way to sustainably coexist on our little planet? But, for me at least, some things are certain. As 2066 rolls in, I’ll be trying to break down world’s problems into their component parts while eating a sensible diet, lifting weights at the gym, reading history books, and rolling up my sleeves to complete my 898th consecutive monthly budget analysis.
Jeff Danner discussed this week’s column with Aaron Keck on WCHL.
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