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T&M Soft Skills and Alumni Spotlight: Drew Curtis and Emotional Intelligence

By Helen Sun

Last Thursday, Drew Curtis, an alum of Class XX, began the third session in the Soft Skills Series titled “Emotional Intelligence” with a Kahoot survey, and asked us this question to kick off the conversation:

What do you think is the most likely reason for a tree to die in the middle of a healthy forest?

a.) Humans did something to kill the tree.

b.) Something around the tree changed naturally and caused it to die.

c.) The tree did something wrong in its growing process (blaming the tree).

d.) Some other reason (Lightning, flood, parasite, etc.)

We learned that a part of being emotionally intelligent is retraining your brain to refrain from blaming the individual, or the tree in this scenario, which is our instinct. Emotional intelligence is understanding emotions and where they come from, utilizing and regulating emotions effectively in daily life, and identifying and reacting accordingly to the emotions of others. In work, it’s important to manage and regulate emotions to work productively. In leadership, it’s important to proactively face situations with a growth mindset to encourage a positive team environment. After briefing us with a few lecture-type slides, Drew moved onto a slide covered with stock images. He began telling us a story about how he used emotional intelligence at work.

Drew works at MITRE Corporation as a Senior Systems Engineer and performs federally funded research and development to solve large-scale problems for the public good. While working as an entry-level engineer for MITRE, he found a substantially large issue in some Air Force design documents under review. He was excited to have helped save a lot of money, and so were most of his coworkers around him who celebrated his finding. However, one coworker was less enthusiastic and critically cross-checked his work with a cold and accusatory tone. Upset by her actions and behavior, he stepped back to ask himself why he was upset. Drew realized he had been sitting at a computer for hours on end without a food break due to the situation’s urgency, and he began reflecting on how his coworker normally operates. After eating food and going on a hike, he concluded that she wasn’t trying to be confrontational and had good intentions. She was being realistic about the situation as there were billions of dollars and terabytes of data on the line, and she’s just as liable as Drew for any potential mistakes.

After we discussed emotional intelligence, Drew taught us about mindfulness, being aware of your present thoughts and judgments coming and going with a relaxed and focused mind, as a way of regulating emotions. Did you know on average, we spend 47% of our time thinking of something we’re not currently doing? Our emotions trigger chemical responses in our brain that impede our focus on learning. When we feel shame, for example, the amygdala triggers a cascade of cortisol which shuts down our learning centers and shuttles resources down survival pathways. We go into fight or flight responses instead of using the energy to react rationally to the situation. Mindfulness helps train our brains to funnel these resources more healthily. It strengthens our emotional intelligence like a mental pushup, and it’s not something we need to necessarily practice all the time. As Drew and I joked later, once in a while we need to think like a dog, but we shouldn’t be a dog. Focus on catching the ball instead of the scolding you received as a puppy.

Drew’s workshop was incredibly well-researched, organized, and data-driven. He was effective at encouraging and facilitating conversations throughout the workshop. I had the opportunity to interview him the day after to learn about his current job, future plans, and his thoughts on how the workshop went.

Drew has been working for MITRE for exactly four years, one month, and nine days as of this article’s publish date. He’s been working there while pursuing a Master’s Degree in Systems Engineering and continued working with them full time. Why? He wanted something bigger than a profit line and wanted to work on projects that could make life better for everyone. What’s most rewarding for him is the sense of ownership and pride he feels when watching rough prototypes develop and final products coming to fruition over time.

He has a role in many government projects and what he does for each is never the same, from streamlining a supply chain for PPE during COVID to working with Boeing and FAA to innovate new ways to land a plane. Every day is different for him. Some days Drew works for 14 hours in a lab without seeing the light of day; other days, he works for five hours and then goes for a hike. Working with various government administrations required him to frequently travel before COVID, but now he’s working from home every day, which is a strange feeling for him. MITRE plays an essential role in the pandemic response development and vital public operations, so he’s been busy.

Drew has his goals set and his life planned out. Soon, he’ll be returning to school for a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering while working for MITRE simultaneously. Before retirement, he’ll teach at a university. Once he retires, he’ll become a volunteer park ranger. I can’t plan my life past one year, and I’m sure many students have trouble answering the common interview question: what will your life be like in ten years? Drew says it becomes easier to plan your life and future as you grow older. That being said, he advises us to be open to change and to not feel pressured to stay on one trajectory. The person you are when you start your career doesn’t have to be the same throughout your career.

Looking back on the workshop, Drew reiterates how important it is to regulate emotions for higher success and good leadership. “You can become good at emotional intelligence through practice. All it takes is watching a couple of TED talks or reading a few articles to begin understanding it,” he adds. Drew enjoyed listening and discussing our various perspectives so much that he didn’t have time to talk about all the topics he had planned for. He felt that we as students held ourselves at very high standards, and were an attentive and interactive audience throughout the workshop.

Drew’s last piece of advice to us is for us to all do our part. Morale is worsening in this country, and blame is circulating through people across different backgrounds and identities. I felt a moment of anger when Drew said the younger generation is acting invincible with campus parties during COVID, and I blurted out about members of the older generation refusing to wear masks in stores. Then, I realized it wasn’t very emotionally intelligent of me to take that comment personally, and Drew helped me take a step back to understand the bigger picture. Instead of viewing blame as attacks and continuing to redirect it in defense, we should all be the change to shift the blame away so the problem ceases to exist.

Helen Sun

Helen is currently in T&M Class XXVI, a rising junior in Civil & Environmental Engineering, from San Jose, California, and has been interning with Reconstruct Inc as a Customer Success Engineering Intern.

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