Friday, February 13, 2009

The Born Engineer

When my father was 4, he asked for wood for his birthday and used it to build himself a boat. At 15, he built a working hovercraft. In college, my father chose electrical engineering as a profession, but has always maintained mechanical engineering as a hobby. When I was dating my future wife, I brought her over to my parents' house for Thanksgiving dinner. As we were walking up the driveway, my father came out of the garage with a bicycle with a lawnmower engine attached above the front wheel, started it up, and drove off down the street. My future wife nearly fell over laughing so hard. Before that moment, it never occurred to me that what my father had done habitually, compulsively, his whole life was in any way out of the ordinary.

My father is what I have come to call a "born engineer." I have come to believe that engineering is much more than a profession. It is a calling, a vocation, a compulsion. Some people really can't be anything else. And there is recent evidence that it may be genetic. Silicon Valley is one of several places that have abnormally high autism rates. The original assumption was that there was something in the water that was causing it. But a recent study looked at it a little further and found that the vast majority of autistic children had either a father or a grandfather who was an engineer.

Having grown up in an engineering family, I noticed certain traits that define the born engineer. The first is a way of thinking. The general assumption is that engineers are hard-core left-brained thinkers. After all, scientists discover principles and engineers apply them. An engineer must understand the scientific principles that guide their design. But engineers also solve problems, often difficult ones, and that takes creativity. So an engineer must be both very left-brained and very right-brained.

The second thing I noticed about engineers could almost be described as their hallmark. It is called tinkering. Born engineers tinker. It is a compulsion, really. You get an idea and you HAVE to go build it. You combine disparate parts into a new configuration to see if it will work, and how. The important part is that the tinkering is not about building cool stuff. That's just a side benefit. Tinkering is about learning. It is about testing hypotheses. Through tinkering the engineer learns how natural materials behave. They learn what works and what doesn't. Tinkering leads to understanding. Understanding leads to better design. So is it the compulsive tinkering that leads to becoming an engineer, or that the individual was a born engineer and tinkering is just one of the traits? We may never know.

At the end of high school, I wanted to major in biology in college. But I couldn't really figure out what to do with it or how to make a good living at it. Then I discovered that I could make a good living as a civil engineer and do work I enjoy. But it always bothered me that I am not a born engineer. After all, I don't tinker. It wasn't until I was in my mid-thirties that I realized that I do tinker and have done so all my life. I just don't tinker with mechanics or wood. I tinker with systems of life. It felt odd to find out I was in fact a born engineer, but not for any kind of engineering that had yet been defined. Then I found that magical word, bioneer, and I had a word for it. I guess I am a lot like my father. Professionally, I am a civil engineer, but my hobby is bioneering. Maybe someday I will figure out how to combine the two.


  1. That's a beautiful post about born engineers, and I totally agree with you. Because I guess I am one of those. I only finished high school and I can prove with facts what you have said above, what has given me an answer about my natural skills. Thank you!

  2. I am a born_engineer.. My family and friends say so.. Engineering is not a profession. Its a way of life..

  3. Really great post. I'm sure you'll be able to combine your two passions. My father was an engineer as well, and being a gardening geek he always was able to help me plan and build my gardens in the best way possibly to optimize the growth of my plants. He also introduced some excellent tools to me, such as this woodworking tool sharpener from DMT, which I've been using ever since.

    Best of luck to you!