How luminous life is

03/03/2016
 
Dean Andreas Cangellaris gave a talk for Engineering Council’s “Last Lecture” series. Entitled “Emotions Are All We’ve Got,” the topics ranged from his personal life and coming to the United States to observations he’s made and advice he has.  
 
“What I have here is an incomplete list,” Cangellaris said of his lecture.  He referenced Nikos Kazantzakis’s quote, “We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life.”  (Zorba the Greek, anyone?)
 
“This captures many of the things I want to share with you, in a way that I hope [helps] you appreciate how exciting life is,” Cangellaris said of the quote. 
 
“Emotions are all we’ve got” is also a quote, this time from the movie “Youth.”  “If I were to share with you one thing, I want you to remember that,” Cangellaris said.  “Emotions are all we’ve got as people.”  
 
Cangellaris is the Dean of Illinois’ College of Engineering and a professor in ECE.  He was born on the Greek island of Kefalonia.  “[Kefalonia] is the island where Ulysses comes from,” Cangellaris said.  “Recall the curse of Ulysses: you have to leave [the place you are from] and go around the world and hopefully one day find your way back.  I am on that same journey.”  He and members of his family have collectively visited or lived in places across four continents.  
 
“We have our roots, and they are very important,” Cangellaris said.  “But we are citizens of the world, and the world benefits from the diversity that each one of us brings to the table.”
 
Dean Cangellaris and his family have lived in or visited places across four continents.
Dean Cangellaris and his family have lived in or visited places across four continents.
Cangellaris first came to the United States to study at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering.  He then got married and began working in industry, but was soon persuaded by his graduate advisor to go into academia.  He now has three kids, who he says have taught him patience.
 
“My parents never believed I was going to be a patient person,” he said.  “I am a teacher and I spend a good deal of time with people, but when those young people are your children, that’s when you learn how to be patient.”
 
In his view, life has the same set of constraints as most engineering problems: initial conditions and boundary conditions.  “Throughout life, you set [your own] boundary conditions,” Cangellaris said.  “The initial conditions, someone else takes care of. I hope you all appreciate how important initial conditions are.”    
 
The biggest life challenge Cangellaris faces is learning how to be calm under pressure.  A self-proclaimed football fan, he talked about Joe Montana and the 49ers in Superbowl XXIII against the Bengals (they were down, but Montana completed a touchdown pass with 34 seconds left in the game).  “The moment before [the touchdown], everybody was nervous except for Joe Montana,” Cangellaris said.  Instead, Joe Montana noticed actor John Candy in the crowd.  “His team was behind, they could lose the Superbowl, and there he was, talking about Candy in the audience,” Cangellaris said.  “That’s being calm under pressure.”
 
Thirty years in engineering has given Cangellaris an appreciation for free thinking. “Freedom of your mind is the most important value you have,” he said.  He gave the children’s book “Goodnight Moon” as an example.  “It is important for us to embrace the luxury that young minds have of thinking about really impossible things,” Cangellaris said.  “Thinking about something like the cow jumping over the moon, as if it’s a no-brainer.”
 
Many students here, Cangellaris has observed, end up focusing most of their brainpower on the next homework assignment or project, and as a result fall into a very structured way of thinking.  “We want you to be disciplined and we want to make sure that all the fundamentals are there,” he said.  “But sometimes we overdo it.  Allow your mind to learn, but at the same time don’t be reluctant to think of the impossible.”
 
At the end of his talk, Cangellaris asked students for two favors.  The first was that we all run for some sort of office, be it Congress or otherwise.  “We need diversity in Congress, not just race or gender diversity, but also in ideas and experience,” Cangellaris said.  “[Very few] members of Congress are scientists and engineers.  I tell my students, my success as an instructor is going to be measured by how many of you run for office later in life.”
 
The other thing he urged us to do is to engage with people in face-to-face interactions.  “You cannot engage in empathy with anyone over the internet or phone,” Cangellaris said.  “You need to be there to see their expressions.  I think some of our problems begin because in our engagement with people, empathy is not part of the equation.”
 
He closed with a final word of advice. “As you set your boundary conditions moving forward, embrace luck.  Embrace risks,” Cangellaris said.  “You’re getting your life on the way.  Risk is one of your best friends.”