23 October 2017

Engineering my future

Looking back to move forward

When I was younger, I remember wishing that I was born with a singular purpose in my life. To be one of those athletes who train and hone a single craft until they are old enough to compete on the world stage or to be a genius inventor who dedicates a whole lifetime to craft technology that makes a positive impact on the world. But, as life would have it, I never really grew up with any talents but I had my hands in a variety of different pies.

I was never a good student as a boy. I distinctly remember my first day of Kindergarten where I was crying my eyes out, shouting and screaming to be taken home instead of being put in the unfamiliar place that was 'education' and 'the outside world'. Even through primary school, I was never a standout performer in my studies. Although I think I had some amount of interest in the Sciences and Maths, I really preferred being outdoors riding my bike, playing soccer with my buddies and just having fun. Instead of focusing on results, I honed my sights on the social aspects of school and made good friends who I still keep in touch with to this day.

An interesting memory of mine was when my brother was finishing up primary school. He was the first child in our family and he was put under immense pressure to do well in his final year exams. For what reason? You'll have to ask my parents that. I remember the late nights he spent studying with Dad as his stern coach, preparing for the end as it inched closer and closer day by day. It was not all fun and games as I recall there were some nights when tensions were high and shouting between both parties were involved.

My brother ended up performing extremely well, with top marks in all five subjects and that was the end of that. The effort, persistency (and pain) paid off. I find this memory very fond because when it came to my turn to step up on the plate, when it was my turn to sit my final year exams, the external pressure was no longer there. My dad did not sit next to me every night, coaching me towards exceptional performance, and I was not even coaching myself.

For all I remember, I was still playing games with my friends and being outside with no worries on my mind. Well, the lack of effort showed up in the end, when I received 2 'A's' and 3 'Doesn't matter' on my report card. And you know what? I think nobody really cared either, including me. In hindsight, my parents were gearing up towards making the big move to Perth and I guess why should my primary school results even matter if I was going to be leaving the country soon..

So what was I even doing with my childhood? I spent a lot of my time outdoors. I rode my bicycle practically every day, explored the hidden nooks and crannies around school and my neighbourhood, went camping with a group that was equivalent to the Scouts here in Australia and I was also part of a swimming club with a few close friends.

I liked the regimen and the fitness I gained from being in a swimming club in primary school where we trained in groups on a weekly basis. It was an environment where I could thrive and be successful in as well, as the gradual improvements I made were recognisable by myself and reinforced by our coach.

Once I left Malaysia, I continued to enjoy the adrenaline rush and sense of freedom from cycling where I would ride with my friends to and from Ballajura Community College and I found belonging and a love for the outdoors through the Ballajura Police Rangers where we hiked and camped as a unit through the bushes in WA.

A few years ago, I picked up photography where I developed an interest in capturing everyday life in the streets of Perth and when it was within my capacity, I started putting aside some money to travel the world with a backpack to places I had always dreamed of going.

So, even to this day, I still feel that I relate more to the stories of a wanderer more than a scientist studying behind closed doors or an athelete who spends years and years training a single craft.

When it came time to pack up my high school books and to start a new chapter in university, it was no surprise that I had no idea what I was doing when I selected 'Chemical Engineering' as my preference before the deadline. The justification I made for myself was simple. In high school, I grew a genuine interest in chemistry and mathematics but I knew I did not want to be a scientist locked away in a laboratory but rather a scientist who went out to apply theoretical concepts to solve problems in the real world. So when I stumbled upon the engineering profession, I thought it was the perfect fit.

Little did I know that Chemical Engineering actually had significantly less chemistry than mathematics but I found over time that this was to my taste (thanks but no thanks Organic Chem.). I began to enjoy the struggle and technicalities of chemical engineering and the four years were immensely vigorous but a rewarding experience overall.

My key takeaway from university is less on the technical details of industrial unit operations, process flow diagrams and fluid phenomena but more on the way I now confront new problems and the way I go about overcoming this. It equipped me with an extra set of skills for my life toolkit and more importantly, the academic experience gave me an extremely positive mindset and I now feel as though you could put me into any technical field or job position and I'll be able ask questions, make do and adapt. Although this is probably not the case realistically, it at least positions me to be optimistic, resourceful and confident when facing tough challenges in the future.

As 2017 is coming to a close, so is my one year anniversary of successfully graduating from university, with First Class Honours in Chemical Engineering at the end of 2016. Since saying my final goodbyes to the Curtin campus, I have gained a total of 7 months of full time work experience in cement, quicklime and plastic pipe manufacturing, learnt how to code in HTML and CSS, read a book a week for the past 5 months, backpacked with my brother for a month through Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam, put myself in initially uncomfortable but immensely rewarding professional networking environments, put my 1995 Mitsubishi FTO back to a reliable state, took on photography gigs for friends, raised money for combating childhood cancer through cycling and grew my EWB Spokes in the Wheel team from a one man army to a strong knit team of four. So, all in all, I think when it comes to 'engineering my future', I am really embracing with both hands the challenge of uncertainty and never really knowing what is ahead.

At university, I was one of those people who had complete certainty in securing a career in engineering but looking back at the past year, there really has not been much certainty along the path. I am adopting the 'problem solving mindset' of taking successes, challenges and opportunities one at a time with optimism and seeing where I can go from here on.

A friend of mine recently, after sharing the story of how his technical engineering career beautifully evolved into years and years of international adventures in the humanitarian sector, shed some light on this: “I think that young people are often pressured to make major decisions at a very early stage and to lock things in. My advice to recent graduates and people just starting out would be to not rush things and to realise that opportunities will sprout no matter which direction you go.”

My key takeaway from all of the above is this: even though it has been almost a year since graduation and I am not sitting comfortably in a secured graduate position within a company, it does not mean that I stop learning and growing as a person.

More importantly, my failure of not being able to follow the well worn path of graduate success does not mean the failure of myself as an individual or that the past four years have all been a waste.

For anyone reading this having the same thoughts, my advice is this: Keep trying. Keep doing. Keep learning. Have belief in yourself and you will find a way. The world will never give you a wholesome sense of fulfillment, only you can give it to yourself.

Engineer Your Future.