Talking with TEDxSydney 2017 speaker, Elanor Huntington, was a bit like pairing certain foods together that you think would never work. But when you do, it blows your mind in the best way ever.
Such was the surprising and exciting contradiction I discovered when chatting with Professor Huntington, who flawlessly danced between a straight-down-the-line engineering pragmatism, and an utterly organic, non-linear approach to life.
Just like Heston Blumenthal’s most unlikely pairings (white chocolate caviar or salmon licorice anyone?), it was a delight to hear the Dean of Engineering at Australian National University (ANU), offering practical advice to her younger self that seemed a tad reminiscent of Indian sage spiritualism.
“The advice I would give to my self of 25 years ago is ‘don’t worry too much about the details’. If you have a clear internal compass about what it is that you’re here to do, and what you’re trying to achieve, no decision you make is irreversible…. it’s entirely possible to take what might seem a meandering journey through all of the positions in life, but actually, they’re not meandering because you’ve got a reasonably strong compass inside of you.”
Engineers are meant to be practical and mathematical and logical. So how does following your “internal compass’’ come into making critical life decisions? And what is an ‘internal compass’ anyway?
Now is probably a great time to remember that Elanor also holds a Ph.D. in Experimental Quantum Optics, so suffice to say she is also a master of abstract or paradoxical thinking (consider the wave-particle duality or Schrodinger’s Cat), and mind-bending schools of thought.
In this light, it is perhaps much easier to digest and celebrate, the seemingly apparent contradictions that Elanor exudes as the scientifically focused realist, flavoured with an almost poetic, fluid approach to the trajectory of one’s life.
“Everyone has their own internal set of motivations, even if they’re not aware of it themselves. And when opportunities come along, even if they’re not consciously doing it, they’re trying to figure out- ‘does this opportunity fit with my internal set of motivations’?… you don’t actually have to worry too much about any individual decision because they accumulate in a particular direction.”
Whilst Elanor is more than happy to have let her own life evolve quite naturally in a particular direction (“I just kept doing things that seemed sensible, and speaking to people and taking opportunities that made sense to me, and not taking opportunities that didn’t make sense to me”), she is far less organic when it comes to the trajectory of engineering.
As we discuss the history of engineering, Elanor identifies that humankind- up until now- has always been engineering ‘things’, like roads, cars, machines, and computers. In today’s world, however, Elanor brings a striking concept to light, “This time we’re engineering our own society. And that’s kind of profound and kind of scary.”
Thankfully, with people like Elanor bringing up the next generation of engineers at ANU, we can rest assured that society is in safe hands for now.