It has always been obvious to everyone that my younger sister and I are very different. While I was studying physics and calculus, she was spending her time in the choral room and rehearsing for musicals. It seemed easy for people to try to compare us – “smart” versus “artistic”, for example. The truth is that I’ve always viewed us on two completely different paths, full of apples and oranges, which are wrong to compare in any hierarchy. And so far I’ve understood those paths to be rather independent of each other, diverging into two separate worlds of personalities and preferences. But recently I’ve been changing my perspective on just how separate those are.
I am now a launch vehicle engineer and she is an aspiring vocalist and songwriter. I spend my days conducting vehicle integration procedures and she spends hers recording songs and promoting them. While I can’t see any alternative future in which our roles are switched, I’ve realized that there are certain aspects of her life and career that draw me in. As an engineer, sometimes it appears that the path is already well-constructed for you, and that your best bet is to follow it as it’s been laid out by the intellects before you. From my side of the fence, her path seems like a blank canvas. There is something exciting about having the freedom to create and reach out in whatever form you like. Perhaps we can build the strongest careers and lives by inspiration from all of those around us – it was Da Vinci that said asked us to “Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” I have given it some thought, and here are five lessons I’ve learned from my sister.
1) Know what you’re good at and what makes you happy.
While math and science may not be her strong suits, music has always made my sister happy. She loves to sing, to play, to write, to listen to a variety of pieces, and every other way it can be involved in her life. Instead of being held back by a lack of technical skills, she has focused on the skills she does have. She is a talented performer and she loves to share her passion for music with others. She knows what motivates her and what traits she can use to excel. As an engineer, these same principles apply. You need to understand which skills you possess that you can take advantage of, even if it involves making a list to remind yourself. You also need to understand why you became an engineer in the first place and which elements of it inspire you the most. And when you find those elements, surround yourself with them.
2) Try all venues and media.
There are many doors to enter the life of a successful musician, several of which have popped up in the past few years. My sister uses Facebook, SoundCloud, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media to promote her songs. She applies for all types of auditions. She’s sung at open mic nights, coffee hours, restaurants, school performances, on the street, in the mall, and even at a Broadway fundraiser in Times Square [update: twice!]. She delivers both covers and original songs. Essentially, she takes advantage of any resource that is available. The same can be true of engineering. While you may be used to relying on whatever you learned in school or in your jobs, there is an abundant resource pool available to you. Free online courseware, LinkedIn, social media, magazines/journals, professional organizations, libraries, blogging, weekend projects, and mentor relationships are just a few of the ways that you can grow as an engineer. Think outside the box and find new exploits to pursue that will aid in your development.
3) Seize opportunities and make opportunities happen.
My sister was once in a NYC restaurant with my parents where a man sat playing piano. She left the table to approach him and ask if she could perform a song in front of everyone. All of a sudden my parents recognized the voice of the girl singing “Over the Rainbow”. Another time she reached out to Tony Award-winning star of Once, Steve Kazee, on Twitter stating that the only thing better than seeing his show would be to sing with him. Wouldn’t you know that night he called her up on stage to perform the musical’s most popular number? That even led to her participation in the Broadway event mentioned above. These are just a few examples of times when she’s stepped out to “take a shot”. She’s constantly looking for new opportunities to advance, to perform, to learn, and this should be true of all of us. Sometimes we’re lucky and opportunity falls into our laps, and sometimes we need to be constantly looking for them and enabling ourselves to be better positioned for them. Cross-training, leadership programs, networking connections, and managing projects are a few of the ways we can open ourselves up to opportunity at work. As a whole, we need to be open to new experiences and be ready to make an effort when opportunities come before us.
4) Learn from and connect with others.
It is rare to be the most talented person in a group, and I expect it would be rather lonely. In the music business there exist all different styles, instruments, and backgrounds. My sister loves to collaborate with her friends and learn from their strengths. She’s studied music and worked with experienced professionals just as much as she’s followed her idols. And for every one of her videos she asks friends to share, she shares their works as well. She’s surrounded herself with a support community that loves music as much as she does. A typical stereotype of engineers is that we are isolated introverts who much prefer data to socializing. But even we need that support system. Friends, mentors/mentees, professional contacts, and advisors can all help in building that network. I am fortunate in that my fiancé is also an aerospace engineer; we can inherently support and understand each others’ careers. Reach out to colleagues when you have a question or need advice. Use LinkedIn and start conversations at events to learn more about people who have interesting careers and knowledge. And be ready to offer them a hand as well. Some of those connections may just help to inspire you.
5) Keep working for what you want.
Getting what you want in life is never easy. There are tradeoffs everywhere and you need to constantly work towards your goals. My sister works in retail by day and performs/records by night. She’s been to numerous auditions where she’s failed and plenty of events that have stressed and exhausted her. But she’ll tell you that it’s worth it, because she’s working at what makes her happy. She keeps at it because if she really wants it, she will make it happen. That lesson is as true as any, and one we should all remember. Use your strengths, use your resources, seize opportunity, form connections, and keep pushing forward because you never know what will work out.
“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. I get most of my joy in life out of music.” – Albert Einstein
Who do you learn from in your life? Feel free to share in the comments below!
This article was originally posted on my blog, Discovering Infinity and Beyond, on 7/10/14.