Six months ago, I walked into the Department of Arts and Humanities at the University of Tennessee as a Computer Engineering major. When I left that department an hour later, I was an English major, and I haven’t looked back since. Many have disagreed with my decision. Some have laughed and scorned, and quite a few have expressed the unoriginal but provocative concern, “You won’t make any money that way.”
Even fellow writers have given me cautions. “Books feed your soul,” an administrator of the Tennessee Author’s Guild said to me. And as I turned to leave, she quickly added, “But you have to feed yourself too!”
So why have I persisted on this path? I’m not afraid to answer an unoriginal dilemma with an unoriginal answer: because there’s more to life than money, and I love writing.
But I am pretty sure this sentiment is no more satisfying than the question it responds to. In fact, questions and answers posed in this way tend to be weak by their very nature. When it comes to choosing a vocation and making significant life choices, more often than not, we turn from calculated reasoning to role models. In these matters, we look to parents, teachers, celebrities and famous people as guides; their stories, failures and successes shape our paths.
As such, I’ll begin by briefly describing some famous people – both living, and dead – who started their careers in STEM fields, before leaving it behind to become influential artists.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky is without a doubt one of the greatest writers of all time. His many works include the Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment and Notes From Underground. Although sometimes dealing with obscure themes and set against the backdrop of 19th century Russia, these works have been translated into more than 170 languages, and are broadly studied by students of English as essential works of literature.
But the world might have missed out on the genius of Dostoyevksy if he had continued in his first occupation. To fulfill the wishes of his father, Dostoyevsky studied to become a military engineer at the Saint Petersburg Nikolaevsky Engineering Academy.
Dostoyevsky was evidently unsuited for such an occupation. … Not long after completing his [military engineering] degree (1843) and becoming a sublieutenant, Dostoyevsky resigned his commission to commence a hazardous career as a writer living off his pen.¹
Thankfully, Dostoyevsky hated every second of his studies and his work, and made the unpopular decision to leave it all for his true calling. If he’d made the easy choice to stay, Dostoyevsky – who struggled with money all his life – would have been richer, and the world would have been poorer.
Rhett McLaughlin and Charles Lincoln “Link” Neal
We jump more than a century ahead to some of the most influential ‘internetainers’ in the world. Every day, upwards of four million YouTube subscribers take their morning coffee with the latest episode of Rhett and Link’s comedy show Good Mythical Morning. With warm personalities and eccentric senses of humor, Rhett and Link have established a tremendous platform as comedians, musicians and entertainers.
But things weren’t always so. Although the two always managed to make their friends laugh, they had never intended to make a career out of it. Together, Rhett and Link pursued degrees in Civil and Industrial engineering respectively at North Carolina State University. For some time, Link even worked for IBM, and Rhett for Black & Veatch.
Fortunately for millions of people, R&L both had spouses who realized engineering wasn’t going to work out forever.
They saw that we weren’t happy in our engineering jobs and encouraged us to follow our dreams. ²
Sir Alfred Hitchcock
The contributions of Alfred Hitchcock to cinema were so significant that he was appointed Knight Commander by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980. Known for his masterpieces in the genres of thriller and horror such as Psycho, The Birds and Rear Window, Hitchcock was a revolutionary and historic filmmaker.
But as the reader will suspect, Hitchcock was not headed in the path of a movie maker, nor an artist of any kind, but began studying at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation at the age of 15. He went on to join the Royal Engineers during WWI, but quickly realized through experimentation that his talents were better suited for the silver screen.
He began to write short stories for The Henley Telegraph, and soon became its editor before going on to join a film company.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Even if you aren’t an avid comic reader, you are bound to have encountered Scott Adam’s ‘Dilbert’ at some point. Adam first published a Dilbert cartoon in 1989, and continued to draw them throughout the 1990s. By the year 2000, the comic was being published in 2,000 newspapers across multiple countries, and Adams was able to pursue a career as a full time cartoonist. Since then, Adams has written influential satirical works which have been tremendously influential on the white-collar business landscape in the United States.
Adams did not study engineering, but after receiving a degree in Economics from Hartwick College, went on to work in various fields of expertise, including Computer Programming. He worked closely with Telecommunications Engineers at Crocker National Bank.
After the tremendous and unexpected success of his comics, Adams was able to leave behind his office job for good, and continues to create comics for his international fan-base.
One-time engineer and World War I aviator who became one of the film world’s most prolific directors
Not many people will immediately recognize the name of Clarence Brown, but I’ve included him anyways, not only for his achievements as a motion picture director, but as a nod to our shared Alma Mater. In the course of his prodigious life, Brown directed over 50 pictures. His films received a total of 37 academy award nominations, and 9 oscars. Classic movies directed by Brown include National Velvet, The Yearling and Anna Karenina.
Brown also began his career as an engineer, graduating from The University of Tennessee at the age of 19 with degrees in Mechanical and Electrical engineering. He spent some years of his life working in the automotive industry, before he left engineering to study directing under Maurice Tourneur.
So, why do Engineers leave STEM for art?
My answer is simple: because the wrong people have the wrong role models, and some of them realize it after starting down a path they weren’t made for. And it may be that the next Beethoven or the next Ernest Hemingway grew up believing that they should be the next Steve Jobs, or the next Stephen Hawking.
Even though there is as much room in the world for a Hemingway as there is for a Hawking, our culture has made the questionable assumption that there are simply not enough Engineers or Scientists to go around. As a result, our universities are flooded with too many mediocre Engineers and Scientists who are not motivated so much by aspirations to make the world a better place as they are to make a fat paycheck.
Now the point about money stands, but it’s easier to answer. It’s probably true that more engineers are rich, and more artists are poor. But it might be a better thing to find happiness doing something that is important and fulfilling to you than it is to make twice the money doing something monotonous and miserable.
I always remember the author who told me that books feed the soul. I’ve realized that if one path feeds my soul twice as much as the other path, half the food is worth the compromise. If you feel that you enjoy studying Aristotle more than you enjoy studying Calculus, don’t worry too much about money. Hard workers can get that anywhere. The world needs you, and it will be just fine without one more Engineer.