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This Is Your Career on Cracks April 25, 2015

Posted by randydeutsch in architect types.

If you expect to become the next Frank Lloyd Wright leave now

Those were the first words I ever heard as a college student

Admitted to the school of architecture

Attending orientation with my parents

A senior administrator got up in front and said to a roomful of 200 freshmen future architects and their parents

If you expect to become the next Frank Lloyd Wright leave now

A questionable student retention tactic – even then

Had it been a Simpsons episode you would have heard the rear door slam

But as the Simpsons wouldn’t be invented for another 10 years, nobody moved

Next the administrator said the 9 most important words I ever heard

Only 3 of you will ever design a building

This was before everybody gets a trophy

Apparently, back then only 3 of us would get trophies

The remainder would go on to toil away in management

Perhaps our prospects would have improved had we worn shoes?

When the administrator said: Only 3 of you will ever design a building

My first thought was: I wonder who the other two are?

It wasn’t: I wonder if I should double major and get an MBA?

I wanted to design buildings, and while I also wanted a job after graduation

No one will let you design buildings with an MBA.

It’s not as if for me designing buildings was a forgone conclusion

I grew up in a split-level house in the suburbs

The architectural equivalent of living in a van down by the river

We didn’t come from either money or good taste

And we clearly didn’t know any architects

In your career you will spend 5 years sitting at a desk & 2 years sitting in meetings.

No one ever goes into architecture because they want to sit in meetings

Yet apparently this is what all but 3 of us were signing up for

What all but three students would get to do with their lives

Architecture students are a confident and resilient bunch

Every student in that room must have wondered who the other two are?

And yet, we didn’t all go on to design buildings

Some became technical architects, some became managers

The ones with MBAs – became our clients

And about half went on to other fields

And so, at my first career crossroad

I chose the design of buildings  over meetings

And spent 30+ years – a career – doing what I love

And in all that time I never had a bad day.

While I never became Frank Lloyd Wright, I became something even more important for me to become: myself

And I got to do this because at every career crossroad

I again and again chose the design of buildings over meetings

I did this because a life NOT designing buildings – not acting on our world, not making a positive contribution, not adding value – was for me unimaginable

But as importantly, a life NOT designing buildings was somebody else’s life

And as long as I remembered this – and acted on it – everything would work out

And it did, both creatively and financially. And it can for you as well.

You can be one of the three

One of the three who designs buildings

One of the three who creates an innovation

One of the three who experience meaning & purpose in their work

One of the three who makes a difference

One of the three who helps transform the world

But there comes a time in every career, for some sooner, some later

When we no longer see ourselves as one of the three.

Why is that? Why do we give up on our promises and dreams?

There are times when we choose money over our dreams

And work for a paycheck.

Other times when we’ll be frustrated or bored with what we do.

And be dissatisfied with our job.

Our dreams change, or we forget our dreams.

We give up on our dreams. But, as often, our dreams give up on us.

During an internship I designed my first building – before I graduated college

And very quickly realized I had achieved my dream of being one of the three.

Michelangelo said: The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.

Our dreams, in other words, are too small

They’re too easily achieved

They’re not enough to sustain a life-long career

So what does it take to sustain a long, fulfilling career?

Upon graduation, I decided to find out and treat my career as an experiment

In this experiment I would do two things:

  1. Always have two careers
  2. And I would change one of them every 7 years.

You can think of your two careers like majors and minors:

  1. Always have a minor to go along with your major
  2. And change your minor every 7 years.

It turns out that to sustain a long, fulfilling career

You need to have a bunch of short, fulfilling careers.

Think of each as a 7-Year Career

Most careers look like this.

Which really mean they look like this.

We all know people like this.

Following the formula: Work. Repeat. Retire.

If careers were meals, most people’s career looks like this:

all meat, no potatoes

Instead, think of your career as a main career with a side

I wanted a well-balanced career

To major in salmon with a minor in broccoli.

If it works for nutrition, why not for our careers?

I didn’t want sequential careers, one after the other

So I made my careers concurrent. Like this

And yes sometimes they can be really concurrent.

While I haven’t written a play in over 20 years, a day doesn’t go by when I haven’t used something I learned while being a playwright.

You can think of your 7 year careers like microbrews

Only with your life’s work, not beer

The key thing is to stick with it for 7 years

No dabbling, with one thing one day, and another the next

Doing something else alongside your main job has multiple benefits:

  • It guarantees that you are always learning and growing
  • It acts as a relief valve for the pressures and sometimes disappointments of your main job, and
  • It can positively impact your main job, and vice versa

For example, in my own career, when I wasn’t able to design buildings – due to the economy, or a fickle client – it didn’t bother me because I was writing plays on the side. One creative outlet relieved the other, until building design picked up again.

Think of your main job like a puzzle

and your side job like a second puzzle.

Each made up of your skills, talents, interests and passions

You would think having two jobs would just add two lines on your resume.

Or mean that you are working twice as much. It doesn’t.

What happens between your two careers is closer to alchemy

When you have two careers, the overall effect is like taking the two puzzles apart and, using the same pieces, putting them back together again, creating something new and compact.

By doing so, you are in essence creating a better version of your former self.

And when you do this every 7 years, you’re assuring that you are growing and transforming throughout your career.

Why 7?

Besides the 7 days of creation

We regenerate our skin every 7 days

Our body’s cells renew every 7 years

We’re essentially a new person every 7 years

Allowing land to lie fallow every 7th year

returns moisture and nutrients to the soil, restoring productivity.

As a professor, it takes 7 years to achieve tenure

7 years to earn a sabbatical

There’s the 7th inning stretch and the 7-year itch

But there’s a more compelling reason you change your career every 7 years

People have a hard time thinking more than 7 years into the future.

Here’s a case in point demonstrated by this career timeline exercise

The career timeline is an experiment I do with my students

With birth at one end and the proverbial milk truck on the other

I ask my students to place their career goals along this timeline:

  • Graduation; Employment; Taking exams and licensure;
  • Falling in love; Getting married; Finding a home;
  • Starting a family; Starting a firm; Winning recognition

Here’s what I discovered: They inevitably placed all of them in the first 7 years

Who can blame them?

Who can really say what will happen beyond the 7-year time horizon?

No one knows what will happen in even a decade ahead

The future is fuzzy

Creating a career is like writing a novel

E.L. Doctorow said that Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Careers are long – it makes sense to break them into chunks

To break them into chunks, it helps to think of your career in terms of successive sigmoid curves

Each chunk of our career has an arc

We start by learning something new, then get gradually better at it

Then we become something of an expert

There comes a time when we peak – and our output becomes less and less effective

At the same time our interest wanes or we get burned out

And we’re looking for something else to keep us – and our interest – active

You cannot earn a high income just by showing up on time and doing an average job. So you must constantly improve.

The goal should be to jump off onto something new, starting the whole process over

Ideally you would do that before your effectiveness starts to decline

And your expiration date arrives

The problem with successive sigmoid curves is knowing when the inflection point (crossroads) occurs: You can’t

No one knows when that pesky inflection point occurs

A lot of times you don’t know until after you look back in retrospect and say

I should have gotten off (the second red x) and it is just too late

Since you can never know when the best time is to move on

I decided to jump off and onto a new interest every 7 years.

As an architect, I like to think of a career path like a concrete sidewalk

This is my walk home from the train

In 20 years I made this walk 6000 times

Those keeping score with fitbits that’s 60 million steps

Sidewalks aren’t made in one long ribbon

Why should our careers be?

Now lets look a little more closely at our career path

Not quite as smooth as you were led to believe

We build sidewalks over all sorts of things: roots, utilities.

Metaphorically what are the roots underneath your career?

Ever-shifting technological trends

Fickle employers

An unpredictable economy

We’re building the foundations of our careers over roots!

One of the dirty little secrets I share with my architecture students is this:

All concrete cracks

We confront microscopic cracks everyday

Like a concrete sidewalk, our careers need to accommodate these cracks

Otherwise they’ll take over

Cracks will sometimes appear in your careers due to

  • Your interests waning
  • You get burned out doing one thing
  • Your salary prices you out of a position
  • Emerging talent steals your place

When cracks do occur in our careers we can try to hide or mask them

Crack what crack? I don’t see a crack…There’s no crack here. Just us birds!

And sometimes there are just too many to try and hide them.

This is what your career looks like when you don’t control the inevitable cracks

This is your career on cracks!

Cracks appear when

  • We aren’t happy in our career
  • We can’t be ourselves
  • We can’t speak our mind
  • We are playing by someone else’s set of rules
  • We’re biting our tongues
  • We’re swallowing our pride

Constantly addressing these forces drain our psychic energy and take its toll

Concrete cracks – but you can control where they occur

We do this in architecture by creating control joints.

By creating a break, we induce a crack

The crack goes where we want it to go, not randomly where it can catch us by surprise

In your career path, it leaves you in control

You can saw cut a seam in your career path

Think of it as creating a career control joint

You can relieve these tensions by creating a career control joint every 7 years

Before I leave, let me leave you with this.

If you are working toward one career, start planning for your next

Either once your current one has played out or to run along side it

Careers are long. To assure that yours remains that way, do these 2 things:

  1. Always have two careers, and
  2. Change one of them every 7 years.

You change your side career every 7 years

  • to avoid an existential crisis midway through your career
  • to keep from becoming complacent and bored
  • to keep from falling behind and becoming obsolete
  • to keep from falling into the trap of living someone else’s idea of who you are

You can look at having two careers two ways:

As an unfortunate economic and social reality, or you can view it as an opportunity to expand meaning, purpose and possibility in your life.

By changing your career every 7 years you are in essence, with each iteration, creating a better version of your former self.

And in that way you assure that you are always evolving and improving

Always doing what you love

Always doing what it takes to sustain a long, fulfilling career.

While you may never became Frank Lloyd Wright, you’ll became something even more important for you to become: YOU!

Author’s Note: This is a transcript of my TEDx talk delivered on 041915. Due to technical difficulties, nearly half of the slides were projected blank (white on white); and since the speaker’s clicker didn’t advance the slides, but instead the stage monitor, the advancement of slides were not in sync with the oral presentation according to those present. Thus the representation of the content here. Hope you enjoyed it!