Engineering Career Advice from Robert Heinlein

April 18, 2014

If you own your own spacesuit and are willing to relocate, EJ has fabulous engineering career opportunities at Golden Rule Habitat, L4 and L5, and beyond. Familiarity with time travel a plus. Serious applicants only. Engineering Career Advice from Robert Heinlein - Engineer Jobs

If you’re of a certain age, it is likely you fondly remember Robert A. Heinlein – The Dean of Science Fiction. The Menace From Earth. Inventor of the Waldo and the Waterbed. Designer of 1776 Mesa Drive, Broadmoor, Colorado – a home still ahead of its time. Worked with Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague De Camp at the Philadelphia Naval Yard as an aeronautical engineer. When pulmonary tuberculosis befell him in 1934, at the age of 27, he began writing science fiction.

And, because he was a kindly gentleman (or perhaps because the bills needed paying), he sold his science fiction stories so that we could read them – and read them we did.

Others have written extensively on Heinlein, so we won’t linger on the details of his life and sizable body of work. Instead, we present engineering career advice from Robert A. Heinlein:

Have Space Suit, Will Travel (1958)

Engineering Career Advice from Robert Heinlein - Engineer Jobs“There is no such thing as luck; there is only adequate or inadequate preparation to cope with a statistical universe.”

Every engineer should have this quote hanging on a plaque behind his or her desk. In fact, one could say that this quote is the very hallmark of engineering. We do not hope that the bridge will stay up, that the fuel lines will not leak, that the guidance system software is bug-free. We iterate. We prepare. We test rigorously and test again. Luck is for horseshoes and dice, not for engineers.

Job: A Comedy Of Justice (1984)

Engineering Career Advice from Robert Heinlein - Engineer Jobs“Wisdom includes not getting angry unnecessarily. The Law ignores trifles and the wise man does, too.”

This one is self-evident. There is a time to dig one’s heels in, to be sure. In between moments of “professional obstinacy” there will be many opportunities to shake one’s head, take a deep breath, and let things go.


Double Star (1956)

Engineering Career Advice from Robert Heinlein - Engineer Jobs“Take sides! Always take sides! You will sometimes be wrong — but the man who refuses to take sides must always be wrong.”

Sometimes, one must make a stand. Make sure yours counts.

Time Enough For Love (1973)

Engineering Career Advice from Robert Heinlein - Engineer Jobs“If you happen to be one of the fretful minority who can do creative work, never force an idea; you’ll abort it if you do. Be patient and you’ll give birth to it when the time is ripe. Learn to wait.”

I tell my editor this all the time. I’m still waiting for it to sink in.

The Rolling Stones (1952)

Engineering Career Advice from Robert Heinlein - Engineer Jobs“Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done. One could write a history of science in reverse by assembling the solemn pronouncements of highest authority about what could not be done and could never happen.”

The airplane, space travel, and traveling faster than 40 miles per hour were all solemnly pronounced impossible by educated people, right up until human beings did them. Just eight years before the Wright brothers took to the air, Lord Kelvin said, “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985)

Engineering Career Advice from Robert Heinlein - Engineer Jobs“The hardest part about gaining any new idea is sweeping out the false idea occupying that niche. As long as that niche is occupied, evidence and proof and logical demonstration get nowhere. But once the niche is emptied of the wrong idea that has been filling it — once you can honestly say, “I don’t know”, then it becomes possible to get at the truth.”

The state-of-the-art will always advance – it is very human to innovate. Remain open and flexible in your thinking, and never be afraid to honestly say “I don’t know.” Read the latest journals, take night classes, and experiment when the boss goes home.

(If your boss asks, you didn’t get that last idea from us!)

Finally, we shall end where we began:

Have Space Suit, Will Travel (1958)

“Dr. Russell, I concede that Washington has an atrocious climate. But you will have air-conditioned offices.”

“With clocks, no doubt. And secretaries. And soundproofing.”

“Anything you want, doctor.”

“The point is, Mr. Secretary, I don’t want them. This household has no clocks. Nor calendars. Once I had a large income and a larger ulcer; I now have a small income and no ulcer. I stay here.”

“But the job needs you.”

“The need is not mutual.”

Remember, a career, while important, isn’t the sum total of one’s worth as a human. As in all things, balance is required.

Have any other authors given advice that shaped your engineering career? Add them in the comments, share with us on Google+, or tweet us @EngineerJobs.