Every engineer knows that we learn more from our mistakes than when things go right.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways. You must understand yourself before you can hope to understand and be empathetic towards others.
But too much empathy can be paralysing. Concern for the feelings of others can hinder much needed change. There’s a time for emotional empathy, and a time for more rational, emotion-free decision making. Emotionally intelligent people appreciate the limits of empathy, putting it to use when the situation calls for it.
How to do engineers develop emotional intelligence?
Through fiction, we observe characters driven to extremes as they give in to impulse or miss opportunities, lose their temper or fail to speak up, fight for what they believe in or acquiesce to those in power, buckle, betray, disappoint, cheat and lie.
Characters in fiction get things wrong, often spectacularly wrong, so we don’t have to.
My recommendation – The Starlings of Bucharest Sarah Armstrong
Set in1970’s Europe, at the height of the Cold War, Ted moves to London to get away from the working-class fishing community he was born into. Hoping to train as a journalist, he moves to London and slides into debt. Things look up when he is given an opportunity to travel east.
But others are watching him. And listening.
The threats people hold over us are most often imagined. We even create them for ourselves.
There has never been a better book on the art of listening, a masterclass in the art of manipulation.
For most of us, the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions stopped or severely curtailed all travel, especially international travel.
The joy of fiction is that it transports us to new places without ever leaving the comfort of our own armchair/bath/bed – wherever you do your most relaxed reading.
Of course, I can pick out snippets of useful information from travel guides, scour articles for the do’s and don’ts of business etiquette in other countries, or dip into non-fiction travelogues, but for me, a good story will always stay longer than bare facts.
Make me care and I’ll come along for the whole journey, good and bad.
My recommendation: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate …but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.
In the early 80s, Gregory David Roberts, an armed robber and heroin addict, escaped from an Australian prison to India, where he lived in a Bombay slum.
According to Mary Ann Sieghart, most women read books without considering the gender of the author, but many men in UK and USA will only read books by men. She called this The Authority Gap (and wrote a book about it – but we’re focussing on fiction here).
In Europe and North America, most engineers are men, so I challenge you all to check your own reading balance and if you find it skewed, to consciously set out to embrace diversity.
When I go to a real live bookshop and tell them what fiction I enjoy reading, the good booksellers will recommend something new, often something that takes me out of my comfort zone.
Try it; you might be surprised at what you’ve been missing.
If gender denotes a range of identities that do not necessarily correspond to established concepts of male and female then reading fiction is a great way to explore those ideas in complete safety.
My recommendation: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, first published in 1969
I don’t mean love… I mean fear. The fear of the other.
A human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter and struggles to come to terms with a host society where where the inhabitants’ gender is fluid.
Fiction enables you to walk through your world in someone else’s shoes. The finest writers of contemporary fiction hook you, reel you in and place you firmly inside the head of one or more of their characters. You see what they see, hear what they hear, touch and smell and taste what they sense, and experience everything that they feel. Does it help you to see familiar things in a new light?
Joe South wrote a song in 1970, made famous by Elvis Presley
‘Before you abuse, criticize and accuse Then walk a mile in my shoes‘
If empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person then fiction is a great way to do that without a full brain transplant.
All in comfy shoes.
My recommendation: Try Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession and see if it doesn’t change the way you think about someone you know.
The uplifting story of friendship between quiet men, a story suffused with gentleness and kindness.
“As sometimes happens with boys who prefer games to sports, Leonard had few friends but lots of ideas.”
A man in a blue T shirt began shouting at the families frolicking in the shallows, beckoning them to the shore, urging them to leave the water. We’d seen the same man earlier, helping a swimmer to safety through crashing Atlantic surf. A lifeguard, tour guide or restaurant owner, he clearly knew his patch.
After a morning visiting the Sapiranga Reserve – a secondary Atlantic rainforest in Bahia, Brazil – we were relaxing over a beer and plate of grilled fish on the beach. Intrigued by the commotion, we joined the crowd gathering at the water’s edge. Perhaps an anaconda had slithered down from a cashew tree, an alligator had emerged from mangrove roots, or a sloth had traversed the zipwire.
But the danger was far more insidious.
On the seaward side, rolling sand dunes slope steeply into Atlantic surf. A stranded purple jellyfish shimmered on the fine, golden sand.
Creamy froth bubbled where the fresh water from the lagoon met alkaline seawater and precipitated its cargo of dissolved organics, bubbling into the sand.
We’d been swimming in waterfalls a few hours earlier. The same river cascaded down to the sea, trapped by windblown sand dunes to form a long lagoon where little silver fish darted in the shallows.
One minute the sands of Imbassai were pristine.
The next minute the shallows were alive with droplets of oil. Little gobbets, about the size of a medal, wobbled on the beach like polished jet-black stones. Writhing fat slugs of crude oil sailed in on the ripples to join them.
Where had the oil come from?
A cargo ship perhaps?
There are almost 10,000 oil tankers on the sea, about 10% of the world’s shipping is ferrying oil, or its products, from one place to another. A single super-tanker can carry 2 million barrels (84 million US gallons, 300,000 m3). Most oil spills come from shipping accidents – collisions and groundings. There were three major releases in 2018 – two off the coast of China and one in the Persian Gulf. But there has been no accident reported in the Southern Atlantic.
An accident on an offshore oil rig?
Brazil is the 12th largest producer of oil in the world. Its current output is more than a supertanker’s worth of oil per day, with plans to triple production over the next decade by extracting oil and gas from 6 km below the surface of the South Atlantic sea. The pré-sal oil fields lie under 2 km of water and 2 km of sediment sitting on top of a 2km layer of salt. To get under it requires some ambitious new drilling technology.
Can Petrobras, the nationalised oil producer, mired in corruption cases and financial scandals, be relied upon to tell the truth?
Or has the oil spill, washing ashore on the coats of Brazil, come from further afield? The president, Jair Bolsonaro, has already pointed the finger at Venezuela. The right-wing, business-friendly populist Brazilian president does not have the strongest environmental credentials right now, but Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world and is a country in chaos.
What is clear is that there has been a serious accident somewhere.
With a full understanding of what has happened, the size of the spill, it might be possible to limit the damage to marine life and protect the tourist industry on which much of Bahia depends.
Someone knows what happened.
Fiona Erskine’s debut thriller “The Chemical Detective” is published by the Oneworld imprint, Point Blank Books, available in all good bookshops and online here.