Beyond college

Oct 01, 2018

Statics, dynamics, and mechanics of materials are essential, but for long-term success, you need to educate yourself outside, and after, the curriculum.

Most of us in the AEC industry have some degree of higher education. It was there that we learned problem solving, developed key technical skills, and became more independent (at least some of us).

With hindsight being 20/20, there are many things I wish I knew 10 years ago. Of those, here are three things I wish I would have learned in college:

  1. Education is king. Not school, but education. When I say education, I mean learning something new, something which you do not know. Yes, this can be coursework. But this can also be podcasts, non-fiction self/human development books, other people, mentors, and seminars. While studying books on statics and dynamics helped progress my technical knowledge of items in or not in motion, much more could and should have been learned instead of simply chasing the absolute minimum amount of work to get an A. Education was not one of my goals. I wanted to get A’s and have fun. I succeeded with my two goals, but failed in education. Moreover, education does not stop at graduation. It transforms. I would argue that education beyond the traditional school setting is more critical as individuals learn more about themselves and their career aspirations. It is not until after college that I understood the benefits of human development books, articles, and seminars. Items such as 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or How to Win Friends and Influence People were nowhere on my radar in college, but these books transformed my life far more in two months than did four years of college. Lesson learned after years out of college: continue to educate yourself.
  2. Human engineering trumps technical engineering. The Dale Carnegie Institute states that 85 percent of financial success is due to skills in “human engineering” – the ability to lead, negotiate, and communicate. As students, we spent 90 percent of our education on technical skill building. The facts are in the curriculum; statics, dynamics, mechanics of materials, etc., account for 90 percent of credits required for an undergraduate engineering degree. Even though colleges may say, “We foster innovation and emphasize strong technical, leadership, and entrepreneurial skills,” rarely does this translate into the curriculum or daily applications. Nothing against technical skills, but if my goal in college was to get a good education so I could get a job, wouldn’t it make sense to focus on the skills proven most effective in helping procure a job in my desired field? Let’s be honest, most people select AEC because they are good at math and science and know they will get paid well. Where are the classes that simply state, “How to be Happy and Successful in Life?” Did I miss them while I was buried in the 15th edition of Fluid Dynamics? Human engineering is not defined in college. It is more likely figured out on your own. If I could do things again, every hour not spent in class would have been spent on human engineering skills.
  3. Your priorities will change. What you want now is not what you will want later. In college, we think we have it figured out. We are going to get good grades, have fun, and change the world! Selling myself short by not learning how to set myself up for long-term success, instant gratification was the daily battle. Why study or learn more when I will never use this again in my life? Why not snooze through just this one class? I will make it up tomorrow. We do not plan to fail, we simply fail to plan.

If you can understand that your priorities in life will change, you will think long-term. This can be tough to accept. Advice I would have given myself 10 years ago would have been difficult to comprehend because, at the time, I didn’t have the same mindset. Thoughts of kids, family, travel, health insurance, 401(k) – who gives a rip! I want to make the highest salary! How foolish, that short-term thinking. Design your life for long-term success with off ramps knowing that your priorities will change. They don’t really teach that in college, but it’s something you need to know.

Adam Zach is a project engineer with AE2S in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and a lifetime learner. He can be reached at

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