While there’s satisfaction from getting an LED to blink five times in a row in response to a button press, it isn’t going to change the world — that is, unless you set your goals higher.
It’s easy to lose track of the fact that electronics have changed human existence in only a few decades. Computers, TV, satellites, space exploration, drones, cell phones, robots, aviation, and modern automobiles are but a few examples. Against that backdrop, there’s a vast vacuum for experimentalists and engineers to fill. What I’m suggesting is that you take your knowledge of electronics — whatever your level of expertise — and focus it towards solving a meaningful problem.
I’m not suggesting you forgo experimenting with the basics such as triggering a microcontroller, but that you have a much larger purpose in mind — something to work toward other than simply acquiring knowledge for its own sake. For better or worse, there seems to be no end of problems to be solved.
Take the recent drought in California that negatively affects everyone in Silicon Valley. How can you leverage your knowledge of electronics to solve that dilemma? I don’t have the answer, of course, but I’d start with looking for energy efficient means of desalination, perhaps some means of remotely monitoring the hydration of crops, and perhaps image processing techniques that can be applied to readily available satellite telemetry to track water consumption.
I’m sure you can think of a few dozen other areas to explore. The point is, there is no end of problems that you can address with your skills as an experimentalist. History suggests that your odds of changing the world are better if you have a clear vision of what you’re going to accomplish, versus simply stumbling upon it. Of course, there are examples of accidental discoveries, but even then you have to be aware of the problems that need solving.
You might be reading this thinking what can you do at night in your basement, armed with a soldering iron and a few hundred parts? Well, others have done a great deal with much less computing power than is available on a common microcontroller. But it’s a fair comment. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet and other communications means available, there’s no need to go it alone.
Start something or find a group with a worthwhile cause and join it. If money is a hurdle, then consider crowdfunding. Look for internships or summer jobs with companies addressing problems you want to solve or that at least get you part of the way there.
Finally, if you’re young, seek out a mentor. I’ve been fortunate to find several over the years — each with a different perspective and skill set. Conversely, if you’re older and experienced, become a mentor. Leverage your experience with a younger, less experienced and possibly more energetic student. Either way, it tends to be a win-win situation. Go ahead, change the world. I dare you. NV