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The role of courage in engineering

So often when we talk about engineering we discuss the technical aspects of the field; we forget about the human side. As a high school student deciding what career to go into and hearing about how hard it is to become an engineer; as a college student facing finals; as an engineer negotiating a starting salary; there are many opportunities to experience fear.
Have you ever been asked to get a job done faster? Has the timeline ever been so fast that you knew quality would suffer? Although this is a rare situation, have you ever been asked to lie or cover something up? Think about emission numbers on a certain German designed automobile or O-rings in cold temperatures. Do you use the best part for the job or the cheapest part that will probably get the job done?
Have you ever had to deal with a bully at work? That individual who puts people down, is arrogant, consistently points out others flaws and then tells the boss how he could do it better. How do you stand up to a person like that and should you?


How far are you willing to go to do the right thing? Do you have a family? A mortgage? There are times when you will be between the proverbial rock and the hard spot. These are tough situations. There are whistle blowing laws. Most companies say they value the person who steps up and does the right thing but in the back of your mind you wonder if you will get put on the short list for the next layoff. Or you might get put on the list to never get laid off, but never moved up.
Without having to worry about the consequencies, most people would do the right thing. But there are always consequences. Why is your boss pushing you so hard to get that product out the door when you know it needs 4 more months’ work? Could it be that he is also worried about his job? Or maybe he knows he will have to start laying people off if revenues don’t raise.

Facing our fears

Without doubt, one of the best science fiction novels of all time is Dune. There is a time in the book where the main character, Paul Atreides, is facing certain death. He is being chased by assassins and his only route of escape it to enter a sandstorm which will also lead to death. In that moment, he recites the following:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

What Frank Herbert is trying to tell us, is that in the moments that we most need all our mind to be focused on the situation we are facing, fear will creep in bringing with it doubt. Either we will freeze up and do nothing or we will be so distracted by what might happen that we will not have enough brain power left to figure out what to do.
As an undergraduate I had firsthand experience with a situation like this one. I had taken too many credits and was ill prepared for a mid-term test. I felt there was no point in going as I could not possibly pass. I don’t remember why I decided to go anyway but I did. It did not matter what the grade was on the test, I had completely written it off so there was no fear, no consequences, no repercussions. Not only did I do better than expected, but I passed the test that I knew I would fail. The lesson was clear, when fear was not allowed to occupy my mind, it was free to work on the problems at hand.

Path to success

Fear is real and it is debilitating, crippling. If you have never experienced it I envy you. As engineers, we have a responsibility and an obligation to uphold the dignity of the engineering profession and to serve humanity by making the best use of the Earth’s precious wealth.
When we do our best as an engineer, when we stand up for what we know is right, it is not always an easy thing to do, but we sleep better at night knowing the type of person we choose to be. There are many who seek fame or fortune and don’t care how they get it. Engineering is not about fame and fortune, but the road to success, that path that we choose to become successful, matters. It is not just about the destination, but the path along the way.

Final thoughts

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