Diversions: Be the box

May 2014 » Web Exclusive
Andy Sciarabba, P.E.

Wikipedia defines “thinking outside the box” as “a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective.” Supposedly, it was invented by a bunch of management dudes in the 1970s and 80s promoting “lateral thinking.” I think the timing was good. Picture the engineers of the 70s and 80s. No, really. Close your eyes and what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Exactly! Revenge of the nerds? Mike Brady? (OK he was an architect, but close enough!) Urkle? Bill Gates?

The public perception of what an engineer is hasn’t changed much since the 70s. We have been stereotyped for years as “square,” linear in our thinking, and fashion challenged. Well, it’s time to break the mold, embrace the box, soften the edges if you will, and make engineering exciting again! What we need is something new and refreshing. Something that captures the attention of the younger generation. We need a new recipe — a cool-contemporary “engineer cocktail.” Let’s mix one up right now. It might look something like this:

Start with a half-full (or half-empty?) glass of Rowan Atkinson. More popularly known as Mr. Bean, the English actor received a degree in electrical engineering from Newcastle University before obtaining his Masters of Electrical Engineering at Oxford University. While at Oxford, he met a screenwriter and composer with whom he wrote and performed comedy revues. Life is too short not laugh and enjoy what we do, so don’t skimp on this basic ingredient.     

Next add two parts Steve Jobs. Read the biography by Walter Isaacson or, if you don’t want to wade through 600 pages of “love him/hate him,” rent (or download, stream, whatever) the movie. Instead of thinking outside the box, he jumped into the box, looked around, criticized it for its lack of usefulness, complimented it for its simplicity, then figured out what we as impatient, information-starved human beings wanted to get out of it. 

I get exhausted just opening the box, let alone reinventing it. And, at the peak of his career, he did so wearing jeans, t-shirts, an iconic black mock-turtle, and no socks! Never be afraid to reinvent yourself. 

Now, add just a dash of Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher played Steve jobs in the movie and was never really an engineer, but he tried to be. He enrolled at the University of Iowa to major in biochemical engineering but partied too much, dropped out, and pursued a career in modeling then acting. Not a bad career move all things considered. A little spice in life is good, but best done in moderation. So remember, just a dash!

Finally do not shake…stir. 

And garnish with a slice of Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr, an Austrian-American movie star of the 1930s and 40s, appeared in films with Spencer Tracey and Clark Gable. As smart as she was beautiful, she co-invented a remote-controlled communications system for the U.S military during World War II, which now serves as a basis for modern communication technology. Can you say Bluetooth or Wi-Fi? Who says engineering can’t be sexy?

Now we need someone to help us serve up this most potent of elixirs. Hmmm…we need someone famous, but not arrogant; approachable, yet suave. James Bond? No — too risky. Johnny Depp? Nope — too out there. Chevy Chase? Yes! But in character as Ty Webb from the classic movie Caddyshack.

There is a famous bit of dialogue in the movie between Ty and Danny Noonan that, slightly modified, would be a perfect platform for reimagining the engineer. It goes like this:

Ty: I like you, Betty.

Danny: It's Danny, sir.

Ty: Danny. Danny, I'm going to give you a little advice. There's a force in the universe that makes things happen; all you have to do is get in touch with it. Stop thinking...let things happen...and be...the ball.

Maybe this new recipe will take off and be the Red Bull of its time. 

But only if we start thinking…make things happen…and be…the box!

Be the box, Danny.

Andy Sciarabba, P.E., is a principal with T.G. Miller, P.C., Engineers and Surveyors in Ithaca, N.Y. T.G. Miller, P.C. (www.tgmillerpc.com) is a consulting civil engineering and surveying firm that serves municipal, commercial, institutional, and private clients throughout central New York. He can be contacted at ajs@tgmillerpc.com.


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