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Do You Have the Right Stuff to Remain an Architect? February 28, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, books, career, change, creativity, possibility, problem solving, the economy.
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We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot – Little Gidding, from Four Quartets

Up until recently, before the economic downturn, this post might have been entitled Do You Have the Right Stuff to Be an Architect? And while many in this economy have returned to school to study architecture, the more pressing crisis requiring addressing is the one involving those leaving the profession in droves – either by their own volition or by forces outside their control. In this post we’ll address those who are already architects – of whatever stripe – that want to hold on.

The Missing Middle 50

An exercise I used to do with my graduate architecture students was to have them draw a timeline – placing dots indicating their birth and the day the proverbial milk truck hits them at the end – and a dot indicating where they think they are now on this timeline.

Next I asked them to place dots relative to where they are now, indicating some of their milestones: graduating, getting their license, LEED accreditation, starting their own firms, winning the Pritzker Prize.

Interestingly, year after year, these goals were all cramped – along with marriage, buying a home and having their first child – in a 5 year period after graduation.

That left at least 50 years to contend with – to fill in – with what?

Remaining.

They were so busy focusing for so long on becoming an architect that they gave little thought or attention to how to remain one.

There they were, year after year, doing whatever it takes to get through school and graduation with little idea of what to do beyond their short horizon. To this I ask:

Have you addressed your middle 50?

Becoming vs. Remaining

Although the distinction is subtle – since the world is not a static place, and the status quo in our profession and industry is change – we are all, always, in the act of becoming. You might say that change – not buildings or even creating documents – is what architects produce. Demands on architects to learn, maintain, master and even anticipate changes in building codes, materials, emerging green technologies, virtual construction technologies, collaborative work processes, knowledge management, zoning, site planning, passive heating/cooling, LEED, structures, MEP, lighting, construction methods, cost estimating, fire protection, place making and design are considerable – and one wouldn’t question an architect’s desire to wave the white flag and jump ship based solely on the constant stress to keep-up these requirements.

Let alone while trying to get their work done, as well as the work inherited from those who were let go.

Let alone while seeking out insights on how best to navigate the ever-changing terrain and constant rapids our careers have become.

Let alone while new technologies and work processes raise the bar on the standard of care.

The question of becoming is a familiar one and addressed more than adequately in book form by Roger Lewis and our good friend Dr. Architecture himself, Lee Waldrep, Ph.D. – in book and website and blog.

This question of remaining is another matter – one that normally would not be posed except by and for the most discouraged.

The question of remaining speaks to our current economic condition, to a seemingly disinterested society, to owners who refuse to show appreciation, to uncommunicative employers still searching for their true north, to the indignities of the workplace, to our personal situation, and perhaps also to our psychological mindset and mettle.

Cynical, snide and skeptical comments have been left –  in the wake of industry articles reporting on the condition of the contemporary architect – by those threatening to leave the tsunami of the profession for hopefully higher ground far afield.

To those – I wish you the best in your pursuits.

To those all others who have by choice, necessity, force, coercion, inertia, confusion or fear remained and find themselves today – employed, underemployed or unemployed – architects and wish to remain architects, please read on.

To you I ask, what will it take for you to remain?

Getting a Good R.A.P.

There are many qualities the architect who wishes to remain an architect for the long haul needs to focus on – but perhaps the three that are most critical are Resilience, Adaptability and Perseverance, or RAP. (Note: Please don’t suggest adding Age and revising the order to AARP or, for those golf-playing retiring types, PAR.)

Resilience

Resilience is defined physiologically as the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused stress, and also psychologically as an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.  It is this second definition – one of mindset and attitude – that I feel best serves architects seeking to remain architects in the current terrain. Resilience here is the positive capacity of architects to cope and ability to bounce back after a disruption. It has two parts: exposure of adversity and the positive adjustment outcomes of that adversity.

In The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles by psychologists Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté, resilience is a habit of mind and – with a focus on 7 skills you can learn – a practical roadmap for navigating unexpected challenges, surprises, and setbacks at work. The book’s premise and promise is that you can boost resilience by changing the way you think about adversity. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – adaptive, constructive strategies for dealing with negative thoughts and feelings applied here to the work place & force – is an especially effective way to bring about change.

Adaptability

The word “adaptive” in the previous sentence was not placed there accidently. A key factor in longevity – whether it’s mankind’s survival of the fittest or the last one standing in the workplace – is the ability to adapt to different situations. As I am a firm believer that there is a great, must-read book for all occasions and situations, this topic is no exception.

Such is the case with AdapAbility: How to Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For by MJ Ryan. about money and career issues, this book will help architects adjust to the changes inherent to forces acting upon the workplace in the current climate. Without specifically addressing them, the book will help architects with their ability to adapt to the fragmentation of the architect’s once-familiar world, the increasing demands placed on architects by unreasonable or misinformed owners and even the particular stresses brought about by an increasingly diverse, globalized workforce and industry. A book like AdapAbility can go a long way toward helping architects face the changes they want to see happen in their lives, and the ones that are thrust upon them in unexpected ways and at difficult times like our own.

On the subject of adapting to change, I highly recommend the Heath brother’s (Chip and Dan) new book, (following on the heels of their platinum Made to Stick, Switch – which I cover this week in my other blog www.bimandintegrateddesign.com

Perseverance

In kindergarten we were taught to not give up, trying again and again. That perseverance would take commitment, hard work, patience and endurance. That perseverance meant being able to bear difficulties calmly and without complaint. But how?

Unstoppable: 45 Powerful Stories of Perseverance and Triumph from People Just Like You, yours for a dollar, offers examples for the sort of architect inspired and motivated by stories over lists. If this is more mollifying than motivating you may want to look into reading Keep Going: The Art of Perseverance, a soul-searching book by best-selling Native American writer Joseph M. Marshall III. An inspirational guide deeply rooted in Lakota spirituality, yours here for a penny.

The Right Stuff

Remaining an architect doesn’t mean to sit still in one place. That is not remaining, that is falling behind. The cost of doing nothing is considerable. You must practice instead the art of doing something.

Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path talks about the wisdom of having the right view and intention; the ethics of right speech, action and livelihood; and the mental development of right effort, mindfulness and concentration. Noble indeed – together they may help you remain an architect – but I would like to suggest a ninth path: having the right stuff.

Fear not, architect. There are many spacesuits you can wear as you make your rounds through life on planet earth – and being and remaining an architect is just one of them. Many cannot imagine doing anything else. For them, being an architect is more than a job, vocation, career or even calling – it is a way to go through life, a lens through which they see the world at large, and a mindset from which they can approach any situation – however new and unfamiliar.

There has been much talk of late about design thinking and transferable skills – how the architect has within her arsenal an almost endless supply of strategies, tactics, tips and tricks to overcome any problem. Strategies they can apply to perhaps the greatest problem of all, that of determining a new career.

And yet, you can apply design thinking to your own current situation, in an effort to help find a way to continue. Try this. Design yourself a way out of this box – the box you’ve been put in, put yourself in or find yourself in. And in doing so, you may in fact find yourself right where you started and know the place – really know the place – for the first time. And that is when you will know that you have truly remained.

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