YOU WILL SAIL
Professor Dr.-Ing. Jürgen Trost disarms you almost instantly with
a warmth and smile that is infectious. Trost is visiting the Rajagiri School of
Engineering and Technology in Kochi from Germany’s Aalen University where he is
Professor of Autonomous Systems and Measurement Engineering. Elegantly turned
out for a hot and damp mid-morning meeting, Trost is a methodical man who says
to pick the “right balance between work and life is important” as he settles
down to a conversation with Pallikkutam.
In an earlier life, Trost was responsible for quality management at Daimler Chrysler, the German automotive giant, for 17 long years, where he looked after research and development, with particular focus on advanced engineering systems involving driver safety and human machine interaction.
Trost’s work took him to the European Commission (EC) where he chaired a committee for safety systems for trucks. Later, he also served a technology committee on safety and security systems for UNDCE. His work was widely recognised with EC introducing a legislation in 2015 making Trost’s recommendations on trucking safety part of mandatory norms across Europe. Interestingly, Japan, in the distant Asia Pacific Rim, too adopted a similar legislation.
Trost stepped into the corridors of academia in 2011 when he first joined Reutlingen University. Soon after, he moved to Aalen University, where he had had the opportunity to not only teach but also carry out and guide research in his area of expertise.
Trost isn’t the regular teacher. “At the beginning of every semester, I form two groups, one consisting of highly motivated students and the other, of slightly less motivated ones. And I ask the highly driven ones to first find the right balance between work and life. You know, they may not really be able to survive under additional pressure. Balance is of the essence.”
So, studying also means “managing time and learning to relax”. Trost believes that to be able to perform at a high level of proficiency and competence, it is necessary to relax. “Be it in sport or life, we need to relax our soul,” Trost says, focused intently at a distant something.
Returning to the question of the less motivated group of students, Trost says, “I explain to them how they have progressed through the academic year, with statistics. Statistics offers great insights.”
Trost uses a colour-coding mechanism with this group to further his understanding. Green represents the top performers. Red, the low performers, and Blue the average performers. “My target is get 50 percent of the group in the top performing category.” On the other hand, the average group needs to be brought up to speed. “They have deep fears and, therefore, demand my time outside my office hours, which I generously give,” Trost says.
Motivation is key. “Even if someone has low grades, s/he is often sure they want to do engineering.” However, motivation needs to have an internal locus of control and shouldn’t be driven, for example, by parents, he adds.
It’s only human to be frustrated. Trost is no stranger to that overpowering feeling. “I also have my moments of frustration about student performance. I regularly ask my students’ one constant question: ‘Why do you study’?” For Trost revisiting the organising principles brings clarity to a student’s mind and soul.
Is German society deeply competitive? “Yes,” says Trost emphatically. “In fact, we have noted a steadily increasing number of mental diseases.” Mental attrition among the young has been on the rise globally, owing to a multitude of factors, not least of them being academic stress and the need to perform. “Twenty to thirty years ago, mental diseases weren’t talked about, but today we are talking about it. Competition comes at a price.”
Aalen has institutionalised mentoring programmes for students, says Trost, particularly for female students in engineering. “We should have at least 50 percent women in engineering leadership,” says Trost, who strongly believes in gender parity in all spheres of life.
PARENTING & FAMILY
So, we come to the inevitable: Parenting. And the choice of courses and careers, challenges, and changes that 21st century parenting involves. “In my case, I tried to develop a mechanism whereby both my children and I could understand what their strengths and weaknesses were. For my son, who is the eldest, I designed a pyramid and we wrote down four distinct categories of professional choices he could make on the four sides of the pyramid. The four categories broadly included support services, engineering, and the creative sectors. In fact, I handed over the ‘pyramid’ to my three children, asking them to find out their aptitudes and strengths.”
The pyramid was about visualisation as to how did they visualise themselves. “So, my first two kids, the boy and a girl, chose to go abroad.” Trost’s son travelled to Spain and today is an ace biological researcher while his daughter, his younger child, went on to become a veterinarian.
“My youngest child, again a daughter, is too young to be sent abroad right now. But she can take a year off after schooling to find out what she really wants to do. But, you know, she might just find it difficult to make a choice because she is an engineering aptitude, she excels in music, she loves teaching, and she cares for people. In fact, she plans to work with children at a children’s home,” says a beaming Trost.
Trost’s wife is also an engineer with a Ph.D but chose to stay at home to look after the children. “Each child is different and one might wonder if they belong to the same set of parents,” Trost says with a laugh.
“But what we did was to allow our children to find their way with no pressure from us whatsoever,” says Trost of the parenting mantra he embraced.
“However, what keeps us together, though we do different things, is we often do things together. We play music almost every day. I need to relax and so I play the guitar. In fact, all my children play some instrument or the other,” Trost says with childlike pleasure.
So, the summer is at hand and we speak of vacations. Trost warms up instantly. “I developed a hobby in sailing on the chilling North Sea. In fact, I bought a yacht, which we named ‘John B’, named after ‘Sloop John B’, a traditional folk song from the Bahamas, also known as ‘The John B. Sails’, and is from a 1966 folk-rock adaptation by the Beach Boys.”
The idea of a vacation is sacrosanct for the Trosts. “We get on to the yacht, sail out to the sea, switch off the motor, and hoist the sail,” says Trost. “That moment of the sudden dead silence is epiphanic and is the beginning of our voyage — the voyage of our soul.”
The yacht takes away Trost and his family from “daily life” and “relaxes both body and soul”. John B is 40 metres long, 20 metres tall at full mast, and 4 metres wide.
“We sail as a family. We are at sea for nearly a month, we sail by day and return to harbour at the fall of dusk and rest. We do not plan for our trips. We just go with the wind…”
Come August, Trost is unavailable to the world, come what may. For it is that sacrosanct part of year for him and his family, where they meet the horizon and contemplate themselves.