The Thinking Engineer’s Holiday Guide to Taking Time Off

The end of the year is upon us, but before you devote all your free time to catching up on episodes ofLostor making round-trip sojourns to the eggnog punch bowl, consider a few other ways to make the most of your holiday gift of Outlook-calendar free time. Don’t underestimate what some quality time off can do for engineering your career and the challenges of the year ahead. Make these fleeting moments yours while on your path to excellence in self-renewal and self-innovation.

In Samuel Florman’sThe Civilized Engineer, a seminal treatise on enhancing engineers’ and the public’s perceptions of what it means to be a modern engineer, he highlights the need to think broadly, to know that science and the humanities are not as distantly siloed as generally accepted, and that true engineering applies to self development as much as it does to chemical plant optimization and truss dynamics. Maintaining a sharp professional focus is an important element as it provides the foundations on which we can self-broaden. Part of the machinations that drive cross-functional development are the firm groundings of self. Stephen Covey calls this “sharpening the saw,” but from our perspective, we’ll take it a step further and call it “engineering the saw”: designing the shape of the saw’s serrations, optimizing the alloy in the construction of the saw body, making its handle more ergonomically accessible, reapplying the saw to be creatively effective in more applications than just two-by-fours and kitchen refurbishments.

There is something to be said for these holiday moments when your Blackberry doesn’t taunt you as often with that vicious blinking red new message indicator light. Though less frequent, it’s still there, serving as a beating reminder of your forthcoming professional life in the New Year (of course you could just turn off the Blackberry or let the battery die, but that’s just cruel). Just as Jay Gatsby had Daisy’s green light pulsing from across the waters, think of your handheld LED as a metaphysical Rudolph’s nose, guiding you toward a time of self-development, self-reflection, and career enhancement.

Submitted for your approval, below are six ideas to consider when looking for ways to fulfill some quality time off in the name of professional development.

Happy Holidays (and save me some eggnog).

1. Don’t Update Your Resume. Evolve It.
“Updating” implies once-in-a-while fact-checking or the cutting-and-pasting of new job descriptions. Don’t just “update” your resume. Resumes should be continuously evolving documents that serve not only as self-marketing tools, but as live, mercurial records of your own accomplishments. Who better to be a proud, constant steward of your professional successes than yourself? Keep a master document with as much detail as you wish (particularly any minutia you may not necessarily remember a year from now). Don’t worry about being too verbose or superfluous at this point. If it comes time to submit a resume on a job opening, to a head-hunter, or for your own work development, you can always custom-tailor the master document to the opportunity at hand. But always tend to your master version with watchful diligence: visit it often, keep it nourished. Bring it cookies and coffee.

2. Skill-Set Espionage
There are no rules that say you can only visit job hunting websites when you’re looking for a job. Job search sites are snapshots, zeitgeists of the careers and skill-sets immediately being sought after in the present day. The landscape may shift and change as the economy itself changes, but spending a few minutes to see where your skills measure up to your peer’s fields, perusing disciplines which you may one day yourself pursue, or even finding out what the latest needs are in your own area of practice, are all important pieces of knowledge in these ever-changing times. Take this time to understand what you, your field, and your competition need in terms of skills and see where your own educational aspirations fit into the overall context of the marketplace.

3. The Great Library of Alexandria Would Still Be Around If It Had a Starbucks Inside of It
You may have noticed that the super bookstore chains are now beginning to offer free wi-fi in their in-store cafes. The reasoning just may be because they notice that the more internet surfers they can attract free of charge, the more lingering happens, the more lattes get sold, the more book-browsing gets done. More browsing then contributes to a higher chance that actual physical books will end up leaving the store, their fresh receipts dangling from their corners like little permission slips bound for the Land of Net Outside Sales. Just as Louis Pasteur proclaimed that fortune favors the prepared mind, oftentimes browsing the shelves in person allows us to connect our own existing knowledge fields to potential new areas of their application.

So get some coffee (unless you’re a tea drinker, but they have that, too) and peruse the shelves of your local bookstore. Actively peruse—that is, look for areas related to your work or profession, and when you’re feeling adventurous, step into an aisle you typically don’t explore. Look for trends in the business world via the dust jackets of the newest bestsellers. Read a few Introductions that pique your curiosities. Perhaps, like Alice, you’ll find a rabbit hole that conjures further interest and you can leap deeper into the binding. You may score a few hundred new pages for your nightstand, or you may walk out empty handed, spending nothing but time (and the cost of coffee), but don’t underestimate the power of planting ideas in your thoughts, one glossy jacket at a time.

4. Give Your Hard Drive the Augean Stables Treatment
As part of Hercules’s mandated Twelve Labors, he was tasked with cleaning out the massively voluminous stables of King Augeas, which contained nearly all the cattle in the kingdom. One catch was that the stables had never been cleaned at all in their existence and the other catch was that it all had to be done in one day (and, in his own uniquely Herculean way, he simply diverted a few rivers through the place and purged everything squeaky clean).

No matter your industry, you have junk on your hard drive. Devote a significantly solid block of time to doing some electronic file maintenance and general hard drive cleanup (and accomplish it all within one day if you expect to win your own herd of cattle from King Augeas). Clean out that horded in-box of yours in this rare time when the mass balance of messages-in versus messages-out will be drastically in your favor. Defrag. Back up needed files and archive away old projects. You may be officially doing “work” but imagine what you’ll recoup psychologically come the New Year when you have a fresh hard drive waiting for you.

5. Commercial Break Pedagogy
Studying for the EIT/FE or PE? Ready to take the dive into that master’s degree you’ve always pondered about? Finally following up on that Post-It note about an interesting webinar on new environmental codes for your market region?

When you’re working full-time and considering school part-time, the planning process is almost as important as the studying process.

Time off during the holidays is a time you can use to sacrifice an hour here and there to look up courses you might be interested in. You can research schools, programs, degree requirements, your company’s tuition policies. You now have the luxury of time to weigh decisions between online education and on-campus education.

And studying. Those FE and PE review texts are just dying to become reacquainted with you. Do you have fresh batteries in that NCEES-approved calculator of yours? Now you don’t have the excuse of meetings or teleconferences distracting you from studying. If you’re in test-prep mode, find some private time to yourself—early morning before your family is awake, an hour in the evening just before you leave for movie night, the moments during commercial breaks on ESPN. Take it one problem at a time; every one counts.

6. The Lounge Chair of Learning
Raise your hand if you have a stack of newspapers or magazines you are technically subscribed to but are otherwise just collecting dust on the living room table?

As Florman’s “civilized engineers,” we should stay sincerely knowledgeable of current events, modern economies, and emerging sciences, especially beyond the domain of our own professional disciplines. The world is simply too small these days to think that our own lives will be forever inoculated from the events, developments, technologies, and regulations in countries on other sides of the globe.

Now that you actually have the time to sit and flip through your growing periodical collection, take the time to really explore the latent content within. Some of my favorites includeFinancial Times, MIT’sTechnology Review, andSeed. It’s okay to take a nap if you get tired while reading—but that’s why we invented couches.

Published December 18, 2009 by Austin Lin

Filed under: career development, Samuel Florman, resumes,

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.