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Follow your own career interests

Guest Column/David A. Honig

This column is addressed to the engineers and scientists of 1990. A lot of people want to tell you why you ought to practice your profession. "Science for the people/our country/our economy/our God," and "Science because problems exist, not just because they are interesting," has often been shouted by people who usually are neither scientists or engineers.

Let me suggest a reason to do science. It's the best reason in the world: for your own gratification. Your life is your own responsibility; it is your natural right to do what pleases you without harming others: You can't be a "hit-man" or a thief.

You are not a slave of the masses, your country or any "problems" that exist. Scientists and engineers receive satisfaction by earning a living working in their fields, and that is why they work. They find enjoyment in solving problems that are interesting to them. Problems would not get solved otherwise.

Some topics are more captivating than others. For your own sake, and for the sake of that area of knowledge, you ought to follow whatever is most attractive. This applies to any career and any other activity into which you may put effort.

Freshmen, you will find that what makes a class hard is not really the amount or difficulty of the work, but rather your disinterest. Motivation is more important than genius. Whenever possible, take the classes you like. Warning: if you devote most of your time to certain fields, it may be difficult to find people willing to pay you to do what you want to do.

I do not advocate playing scientist or engineer for the money, though some do. It is better to work, even doing something undesirable, than not to, but it is best to work at something which one chooses. Quality of life is not synonomous with wealth, but income is important. Can you be happy without a Porsche? a stereo? a college education for your kids? shoes?

You must weigh all factors going into your choices. I prefer to keep my artistic interests, for example, as a serious hobby, and earn my living doing other things that interest me, too. I make trades in managing my life, beneficial exchanges of values (having a stereo versus the leisure forfeited to earn it), not sacrifices.

If I valued a hobby that much more, I would do that and live differently and would still want to spend some time doing what pays better. Mozart wasn't in it for the money, though he practiced his craft for employers often. If he couldn't have made a living he thought acceptable, he would have had to work on something besides music, and music would have been a hobby.

There are jobs that I could do which would pay more, but I don't want to do them. I want to do something else, something that interests me.

Do not worry that those questions that you find uninteresting will go unanswered. Others find them as utterly fascinating as the questions that enthrall you.

If you were assigned to work on uninteresting problems, areas that aroused no curiosity, or at least not enough investigative personal motivation to pursue the matter, do you think that you could perform well? Can you imagine what your life would be like if you were assigned a major by a committee? Your enthusiasm and self-esteem would die.

Perhaps some have not gotten satisfaction out of their lives and think, or would have others think, it a virtue. I think it is to be avoided. Knowledge for knowledge's sake is good, because it is fun to understand, and because it is useful unexpectedly sometimes and may be needed in the future.

But those who explore knowledge (or do anything: build bridges, write, start businesses, act, build irrigation systems or ski) want to live by doing what they like, "just" because they like to do that, not simply because some patch of ignorance remains unerased.

Normally the limited number of positions and funding available and the methods and materials available to probe a field constrain engineers' and scientists' topics. You try and get an "interesting" job, one in which your interests and those of the company coincide, or you try and do research with someone who has similar fascinations.

If you were, say, a dancer, you would try and get into a troupe that performed your preference of pieces, which would have to appeal to enough people sufficiently to motivate them to trade you their money for your performance.

If you couldn't do this, you would have to earn your living in some other way. People have no obligation to suport you; but your integrity will prevent you from selling yourself to whatever is "in" this year. If you demonstrate great skill and energy in your work, someone may pay you to work on your own projects.

Your career is profoundly your own, the product of your labor and thought, and it is you who will suffer or benefit from it. You should do what your reasoned self-interest indicates. When you do, only then is the world gifted with the talents that you exercise for yourself, for your own purposes in answering questions that interest you.