When I first met Dr. Robert Greer, he was going through a combination of spreadsheets and table-sized CAD drawings with the meticulousness of an archaeologist on a work site, hidden behind a pillar of manila folders and three-inch binders.
I had shown up in his office as a new hire engineer, looking for help to get on the path of becoming an EIT. He and I had worked on similar manufacturing projects together, and I had always found his insights fascinating. When I mentioned my EIT aspirations to him, a wry smile crept through his Santa beard and he proceeded to give me one of many morsels of career and life guidance that would form the staple of our friendship. Getting his support for the EIT was so much more than just a signature. Over the next six years we would regularly meet in his office for casual chats or would go seek out a worn bench at a local luncheonette called Bob’s (no relation) for chicken fingers and sweet tea. Each time we chatted, little scenes from his past would come to life like pages in an adventure novel: pieces of history, anthropology, sociology, and engineering all melded into one.
He had grown up in the Boston suburbs and then gotten his Ph.D. in polymer rheology in the U.K. where over a pint (or two, or three) of ale he had come up with the skeleton structure of what would become one of his company’s most successful device patents. He would go on to lead a rather colorful life during his youthful years in Europe and the Americas, whether it was swimming in the Greek Isles with shipping magnates, having champagne toasts with opera divas aboard black-tie yachts, racing Italian sports cars with fellow engineering doctoral candidates through the streets of Belgium, getting ensnared in manufacturing espionage in Mexican factories, all the way to how operating heavy equipment led him to his beloved wife. And he would do all this in time to make it back to the pub to scribble down another calculation or engineering drawing on a beer-stained napkin. I learned that every living day, we are excavating ourselves and actually living the mantra that the act of treasure-hunting is oftentimes equally if not more rewarding than the treasure itself.
Bob’s first piece of career advice to me:
“When it all comes down to it, we all just want to end up on the beach.”
Part of this may have been literal, but the underlying truths were that every human’s life needs are fundamental ones of family, food, finances, safety, and stability. Regardless of how we as individuals might tailor-define each one of these elements to the context of our own world views, these were fundamentals that did not have to, and in some cases were impossible to, be separated from one another as independent pursuits.
He taught me that engineering as a career is the pathway we traverse in order to further both personal and professional ambitions, and that engineering as a discipline, as it did in his life, opens up unique opportunities by which other life fundamentals can be expressed or re-invented.
Personal life and professional life are intimately intertwined and you don’t have to be a controls engineer to see how leveraging their entangled interactions is one feedback loop you do want to keep propagating while on the path to becoming great. His life had been the ultimate engineering assembly drawing of all those things, tirelessly (and to my amusement, cynically) optimized as part of a more refined, more breathtaking whole.
So find a mentor. A good one. And don’t stop there. Return the favor. Push yourself to make your life as inspiring to someone else just as your mentor has inspired you.
There might even be some buried treasure in it for you (I hope you like snakes).
Published October 19, 2009 by Austin Lin