When I first got into engineering, I had the chance to meet a lot of different people and see a lot of their differences. Of course, being the inquisitive detective I am, I ask a lot of questions when getting to know people. Annoying? Maybe. But it’s also really insightful when I realize some questions really unite people.
“Who’s your idol?”
This was the question I blurted out in a dorm room half-drunk at 3 am to a friend.
“Elon Musk, of course.”
The answer hadn’t surprised me; there couldn’t be anything more regular than an engineer looking up to a brilliant businessman. But as I started asking this question to more and more people (and started to sober up), I realized that almost everyone gave me a name in this list: Einstein, Tesla, Edison, Bezos, Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, Musk. Again, no surprises here: All scientists, businessmen and/or engineers who made tremendous impacts in their respective fields (and some of them made a sh*t ton of money in the meanwhile).
But the true surprise came to me in an illuminating all-nighter before the finals week of my first semester here. In the caffeine-induced haze of solving linear algebra, I paused for a moment and asked myself the same question. My answer (although dated by a few hundred years compared to all other answers) revealed a true life value to me.
Leonardo Da Vinci?
What’s so interesting about this? Just another brilliant engineer of his time?
No, not just an engineer; but also a painter, architect, draughtsman, scientist, theorist, paleontologist, astronomer, botanist, cartographist-
Okay, that’s enough, before you make me feel like a slacker.
The point of all of these questions and answers became clear to me once I realized what it means to truly be an engineer. No, not having an engineering degree; but having an engineer’s mindset. Engineers are problem-solvers; while most people look at the world and see problems, we look and see more solutions waiting to be figured out. While the general image of engineering students is a math-and-coding-crazed outcast, we are, in truth, in training to become the pillars that keep the world together.
And if we want to have that kind of power, we need a wider vision. We need to be open-minded, multi-faceted, we need to welcome different people and experiences. We need innovation, and innovation needs experience, broad minds and different areas of knowledge to generate ideas from.
Don’t most of us feel like all we should be spending our time studying, solving another calculus exercise, coding another line, drawing another force diagram? We focus on our education to get a better engineering degree, a 4.0 instead of a 3.9. But along the way, we sometimes forget our education to get into the mindset of an engineer. If we want to solve problems, we must be able to see every possible opportunity, from the tip of our noses to the other end of the horizon. Building a wider world view, knowing and connecting with people of all backgrounds, experiencing new hobbies and places…
Sounds like your GPA is under 3.5.
We hear all about how the 1% got to the high places they are in now.
“You know he doesn’t even have a college degree, he quit and started his business.”
“People thought he was an idiot because of his marks, and now his inventions reshaped the world.”
We miss the point sometimes. The true asset they had is not only the daring spirit they showed when they said “adios, muchacho” to a formal education. It was also their expanded vision and world view. They didn’t only look at the field of computing, engineering, manufacturing… They delved into different businesses, met weird people with weird ideas, pursued hobbies that definitely made a few Tinder dates awkward. And they gained along the way their creativity, their innovation mindset, their open-mindedness, their analytical skills, and their experiences.
And these allowed them to catch that one spark in their industry that no one else could.
So what, do I go and get a minor in architecture when I’m studying chemical engineering?
Not exactly. We simply take a moment to think how Einstein was a violin player and an avid fan of Bach, and of the recent research that proved the link between musical and mathematical intelligence. We think about how Elon Musk is an anime fan and a certified bookworm. We think of how Zuckerberg is into hunting and Gates likes playing bridge.
Most importantly, we stop to think about ourselves. When it’s the first weeks of the semester and we see all these different opportunities around us that can bring us varied and valuable perspectives, we don’t stop to ask “does it have math though?”. We stop being afraid and finally catch up on the final season of Shinjeki no Kyojin. We go to that book club or art class we’ve always put off. We smile and nod when someone says “would you like to learn about our lord and savior, RuPaul?”. We go to that party, we go and say hi to those people, we join that club… We live that life.
And we wonder what they fed people in the Renaissance era. I mean, who today can claim to know so much about so many things like Da Vinci? That’s impressive, dude.