A Nugget of Wisdom: Not All Who Wander are Lost

Posted on November 8, 2008

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost”
Lord of the Rings, 1954

It was one of the best days of my life – right up there with my first kiss (in the third floor stairwell, by a girl who smelled of strawberries), and my first moments in Middle-Earth. I was orgasmically happy – slowly but surely, the constituent components of success were falling into place, and right into my lap. The guidance counselor had just called me into her office, to let me know that I had just been accepted to one of the top engineering schools in the country. From that moment, my future seemed luminous and certain – I would graduate near the top of the Class of 2007, and become an Electrical Engineer, painting with wires, thinking in capacitors and op-amps.

You can understand my eagerness, then, to tell everyone I could about this good news. My twelfth-grade English teacher was young, pretty, and believed in me, so of course, she was the first one entitled to this news. Just before the first bell rang, I slipped up to her desk, my face as bright as a florescent bulb.

“Guess what? I just got into school!”

She smiled. Already I can feel dizzying ripples of satisfaction. “Congratulations! Did you get into Columbia?”

I scratched my head. “No…it’s this place called Cooper Union. One of the best engineering schools in the country.”

She narrowed her eyes, and looked at me blankly. “Engineering? Why?”

Culturally speaking, save for a few parents who recognize its earnings potential, Engineering is not exactly a glittering profession. Those honors would have to go to the preeminent fields of law and medicine, popularized through the public media, admired for the high pay and personalities that stereotype the fields. In the public eye, engineers are a rare species, remarkably similar to vampires – rare and elusive, they are most often found in dark citadels (offices), living and breathing in dank coffins (cubicles), surviving on blood (money and paperwork). They’re always the dull guys with thick, horn-rimmed glasses, who can bore someone at a party quicker than a wall of drying paint.

Of course, there’s no denying that engineering is not for the faint of heart – there are a couple of tough years of hardcore calculus, chemistry, and physics to get through, not to mention an environment that doesn’t exactly hold your hand. There is very little glitter in the life of a Sophomore engineer – it consists mostly of learning Fourier Transforms, Gram-Schmidt orthonormal sequences, and double integrals in poorly lit rooms, with only Taco House and dreams of graduation to nourish you. And yet, what we learn in those four years is truly gold. Maybe it sounds like a chop sockey film, but our learning goes further beyond Butterworth Filters and Poisson Distributions – we learn the Way of the Engineer. To put it bluntly, we are the unsung heroes of our civilization. Like Batman, we lack any preternatural powers but those we were given – our minds, and the irrefutable Laws of Science, which can be made to work for or against us. We learn to solve problems – those beyond the realms of medicine and jurisprudence.

I learned these nifty facts about our unglamorous profession as I grew older and a bit smarter, to boot. Why do you think engineers can be found in so many diverse fields? Alfred Hitchcock was an engineer, as was Michael Bloomberg, and even Herbie Hancock. When the job fairs come along, liberal arts majors, as well as tightly-specialized Pre-med and pre-law majors, may have trouble breaking into other fields, but engineers are always in demand, from engineering firms to consulting to some of the world’s richest financial institutions. It may not glitter like other careers, but as Tolkien pointed out, glitter is not really a requirement for lasting value. There is real success to be had in engineering – if you’re willing to take that important step, and ignore the fact that it does not glitter.

We are more than the choices we make, but there is little doubt that the choices we make are part of who we are. The person who chooses correctly most of the time seems to be a rarity these days, but unfortunately, so is the person who admits this to himself and reverses course. Oftentimes, we view our lives much in the way an inexperienced trader would take a look at his stocks – we are unwilling to change, simply because we have so much invested in the portfolio of bad decisions. Which brings me to the second line of the aforementioned quote, and the part to which I can relate most personally – not all who wander are lost.

Do you feel as if you’re in an inescapable rut that seems to be widening to the abyss? To feel secure is one thing – to feel happy is quite another beast. Our four dimensional minds, as they ripen with the years, naturally long for new experiences, even those that seem to run perpendicular with our current life’s course. Not too long after that scene with my English teacher, I began to realize why she had questioned my decision – my true strengths lay in the liberal arts. The humanities courses at Cooper were my favorite, and made up the meat of my GPA. But besides that, I liked to write. As a matter of fact I still do – drawing upon everything I’ve learned about Manhattan and the East Village, and people in general. How do I reconcile that love with being an engineer? The answer is that it already is – I leave myself free to wander onto many other interests, not limiting our minds to that which we do from 9 to 5. And if our career leaves us genuinely bored, unfulfilled, and loathing ourselves, it’s time to switch. Your job, and the security that comes with it, can be taken from you anytime, but they can never take away my achievements as an artist – the worlds I create as a writer will forever remain, if not on paper or my laptop’s hard drive, in my mind. Your intellectual wanderings do not immediately render you as lost, and even if you are, keep looking, and you just might find the self you are stumbling after. The important part is in the search itself.

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