Disclaimer: This is rehashed from an article I wrote in April 2016 for GineersNow. Some parts are added or edited for clarity.
There are thousands of letters to a young engineer out there but this may strike as the best one among the rest. This is a letter of a father, a professional engineer Bob Breeze, to his son who is graduating in his mechanical engineering degree.
It was published in a collection, inspired by Ranier Maria Rike’s Letters to a Young Poet, called Letters to Young Engineers, which is published by the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and edited by Daniel Hoornweg, UOIT associate professor and Jeffrey Boyce Research chair. The collection was presented to the fresh engineering graduates at the university to spread inspiration and encouragement on their way to become professional engineers. Here is the letter below:
Congratulations on your graduation!
You have good reason to be proud of your accomplishments.
Now take time to reflect: Take time to think about your personal and professional goals. Reflect as well on what it means to be an engineer in this ever-changing world and, more importantly, what it means to be a fully contributing member of society. How will you take your place in your community, this country, and the world? There are tough personal and career decisions ahead that will challenge the very idea of who you are.
Engineering teaches that you can think your way through any problem when it is broken down into manageable parts. But today’s broader societal problems can’t be broken down in the same manner. Our problems are intractable. They are multidimensional. Sound decisions require us to consider the ethical, social, cultural, environmental, and economic sides of any issue. They didn’t teach us that in engineering school.
I can’t help you make the tough decisions ahead. Frankly, I’m not sure what tomorrow or these decisions will look like. But here are some things that you can do to prepare yourself for the future.
Engineering students don’t receive a broad education. The curriculum focuses on the narrow confines of our profession. Many argue that it must focus given the amount of material engineering students have to master. I won’t argue either point, but you need to catch up and develop a broader understanding of the world around you.
Read literature, history, economics, philosophy, biographies, and poetry. Build an appreciation of the arts. Go to the symphony as well as the jazz festival. Listen to TED lectures and download podcasts for those long flights or commutes to work and back.
There are many points of view, and many solutions to any problem. The key to taking a broader role in your community is to understand these points of view, develop sound judgment, and use it to guide you in the future.
FOLLOW CURRENT AFFAIRS
We aren’t just taxpayers. We are citizens first. To be good citizens, we must follow what is happening around us and seek to understand root causes. Take an interest in what’s happening in your community, nation, and world affairs.
What was the “Arab Spring” all about? How are its effects shaping our world? What should we do about it? Can we do anything about it?
And at home, what caused the Lac-Mégantic disaster and the Walkerton drinking water tragedy? Were these caused by lazy or drunk workers? Or by greedy companies? Or by the current focus of our society on profits? It’s up to you to decide and to use this understanding to guide your professional and personal decision-making.
GET INVOLVED POLITICALLY
Politics isn’t a dirty word! Politics is how societies consider issues and make decisions. Being a politician is a noble profession. Yes, too many politicians have been found lining their own pockets at our expense. And political parties have become far too introspective. They cater to the needs of the party base and not the good of the province and country. You can help change that! Politics must focus on the broader public good and not just the good of the few.
It doesn’t matter what political party you choose to support. Just make sure that the vision and, more importantly, the actions of your chosen political party align with your personal views.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Remember the two years your mother and I spent in the African bush teaching science and languages? It was a tough assignment, but in the end we gained far more than our students. It taught us self-reliance and judgment, and it gave us an appreciation [of] how difficult life is in many developing countries. It was a personal growth experience and … we found ourselves!
Your mother and I have done well personally, financially, and in our careers. You could argue that it was because of hard work and good judgment. Yes, but there was a lot of luck involved too. We were born and grew up at the right time and place. Reach out to those who are less fortunate and in need of help. Volunteer in your community. Give back!
BE READY FOR OPPORTUNITIES
You need to have career and personal goals and sound plans to achieve them. After your time of reflection, you need to decide what you want to do with your life and your career. But you still need to maintain a good measure of flexibility and be ready to seize opportunities that present themselves.
This will often mean a move out of your comfort zone. But that’s a good thing. The psychological high after you’ve accepted a challenge and achieved what you set out to do is amazing!
Just don’t be complacent. Keep moving forward. Challenge yourself.
LEARN TO COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY
Engineers are poor communicators! We think once we have worked through the calculations, the solution should be obvious to everyone. But it is not obvious to everyone.
The best ideas are often lost because they weren’t well communicated or the timing was wrong. Senior decision-makers have limited time and are being pressed from all sides. Make it easy for them to see the benefits from their perspective.
Join Toastmasters, or take a course in public speaking and making presentations. And before the big day, practice, practice, and practice!
SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER
Let’s stop building subways to city wards when there is no business case. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to extend a subway to solidify votes for the next election is dishonest! Let’s push for evidence-based decision-making.
It’s easy to follow the path of least resistance, and we all need to do that at times. You can’t keep hitting your head against the wall. But when the issue at stake is fundamentally important, stand up and speak truth to power. Engineers need to let their voices be heard on issues of public importance.
In conclusion, engineers can continue to be small, bit players in community, provincial, and national decision-making by providing technical solutions to narrowly defined problems. Or they can get involved in helping define the problem, thinking through the broader social, cultural, environmental, and ethical implications, considering the broader options, and communicating to the broader society. They can make sure that engineering thinking is part of problem definition, analysis, and solution.
I have a tee-off time this afternoon. Here’s the torch! Let me know how it goes.