Engineers Make and Fix Stuff

In order to answer, "What makes me an Engineer?" allow me to start with my childhood and reflect on key moments that led to my decision to go into engineering.  I will later generalize to the type of person that typically enters this profession.   When I was about three years old, my parents were concerned that I might be autistic because I did not talk. I struggled in social situations and preferred being on my own with building blocks or trucks. Anything with wheels or toys for building were the most appealing.  I learned much later that I was considered a "non-verbal" thinker (more on that later). I did not do well in kindergarten or first grade and flunked second grade. I specifically remember my mom telling me that I was going to stay in second grade and my twin brother was going to advance to third grade. I was given speech therapy and slowly caught up to others my age, but it really was not until high school that I felt comfortable reading and comprehending words. What I lacked in social skills, writing, or reading was offset by considerable skill in making stuff. I built pretty amazing castles and boats out of wood blocks and LEGO bricks. While upbringing specifics will obviously vary from Engineer to Engineer, I have yet to meet one who wasn't master of LEGOS.  

The first time that I heard about engineering was when I was about ten. My mother told me that I would be a good one after I had fixed the back door of our AstroVan. It had two doors that opened like a refrigerator. There was a nylon strap that got disconnected from a steel bar that prevented the door from swinging too far. After fixing this and hearing from my mom, I thought to myself that engineering must be an easy profession. I was also a sort of family mechanic, setting up the new VCR, fixing the phone, taking apart the sewing machine and putting it back together.  Being mechanical takes curiosity to understand how something works, along with the trial-and-error method.  It is not only curiosity, it is the will to do something without help. My Mom would read the manual on how to connect the VCR and then she would worry. I didn't read the instructions, I just tried different plugs. It was actually very simple.  

As a sophomore in high school, I received an assignment to write and present on what I wanted to be when I grew up. I heard from others the typical white-collar professions such as doctors, lawyers, businessmen, politicians, etc. Surprising my teacher but not my family, I wanted to be a car mechanic. I wanted to understand the car engine. Being a car mechanic made sense and was exciting. I loved cars as a kid and still do; what could be more exciting than understanding the car engine and developing the skills to be able to fix it? I was always good at math and physics, but I did not want to do math and physics; I wanted to design and build real things. Math was like a fun puzzle similar to Sudoku, but it was not something that felt real or tangible. 

In college, I continued to excel at math and physics, but I did not really enjoy sitting and solving homework problems. I was a math major but I expressed concern with my adviser after finishing a test on Abstract and Discrete Mathematics. "How does the idea of Infinity or Set Theory relate to real things of this world?  Just refuting the non-existence of infinity, does not make infinity real? It is all in the mind. What is it exactly and where is it constructed in material reality?" He asked me what interested me and realized something more concrete and obviously pertaining to this world would be a better fit, specifically mentioning three options:  architecture, structural engineering, and mechanical engineering.  I changed schools and chose structural engineering. 

My early path in life described above may or may not be similar to that of other engineers, but there are likely similarities in abilities. We all choose a profession that is grounded in material reality and has obvious meaning and importance to humanity.  We are also good at building or making stuff, fixing things, and taking things apart and understanding them; but why is this?

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