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Minority Report: What Drives Success in Architects? January 31, 2014

Posted by randydeutsch in books, career, education, employment, survival, the economy.
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TripleIt’s hard to become an architect.

There’s education, training, taking the exam.

Retaking the exam and licensure.

Then, once you’ve become an architect, it’s hard to remain one.

And there are so many forces that seem to work against you.

The economy. Fickle clients. Work/life imbalance. The hours. Competition…

I don’t need to spell them all out (because you know them all too well, and Roger K. Lewis has done so here.)

So what does it take to succeed at architecture?

To become and be an architect?

In the airport returning from the AIA 2014 Emerging Professional Summit in Albuquerque, I came across an article in The New York Times, What Drives Success?

The article was written by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, husband/wife professors at Yale Law School and authors of the forthcoming book “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.”

(You may recognize Amy Chua as the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, published in 2011. The Tiger Mom is now Tiger Couple?)

There has been a lot of backlash (a lot) in the days since the article appeared.

I want to focus on one point: What the author’s call the Triple Package.

About a third of the way through the article they write:

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success.

The authors then go on to describe each of the three traits:

The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

The article – and the book it is based on – talks about cultural groups – not professions – but hear me out.

Let’s break out these three traits:

  • superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality
  • insecurity — a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough
  • impulse control — the ability to resist temptation

Wouldn’t you know, these traits not only – as the authors state – describe successful ethnic, religious and national-origin groups, but they also accurately describe architects.


Let’s look at the traits one at a time.

Architects have a superiority complex. They’ve survived the tribunal of education, studio culture, and finding, negotiating and doing projects. They have design thinking and other transferable skills that everyone’s clamoring for on their side. They represent both paying clients and a non-paying one: society-at-large. They’ve put in the time and paid their dues. You would think architects have a right to think highly of themselves.

Architects are insecure. As a profession, architects justifiably feel insecure when compared with other professional groups such as doctors and lawyers, who appreciatively are paid a great deal more for the time they put in and the work they do. Architects are beholden to owners who – on a dime – can stop projects that are progressing in their tracks for reasons having to do with actuaries and their pro forma – things architects know little about. Architects are engaged at the whim of an economy that they can’t influence and have little chance of predicting.

But how can architects be simultaneously superior and insecure?

Let’s look at the first two traits:

superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality

insecurity — a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough

As the article acknowledges:

It’s odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it’s precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself.

Many people who work and/or live with architects will recognize them in that description.

Architects are famously motivated not by money or attaboy gift cards but by intrinsic rewards, as Daniel Pink spelled out in his book Drive, animated here.

So how does impulse control fit into the mix? Again, the article:

Add impulse control — the ability to resist temptation — and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment.

The only architects I know who suffer from impulsiveness are those who are impulsively driven to work harder and longer to achieve more.

Looking at impulsivity in another way: Knowing that it can take years before they see their designs built, architects have no trouble passing the Marshmallow Test.

The article’s authors go on to admit a truism that could not apply to architects more:

We know that group superiority claims are specious and dangerous, yet every one of America’s most successful groups tells itself that it’s exceptional in a deep sense.

Architects, deep down, know they are exceptional.

In fact, I recently posted this in another blog acknowledging as much:

Recognizing that nothing incites a non-architect’s derision, ridicule and ire swifter than to start a sentence “The architect is uniquely qualified to…” here are six qualities that make architects ideally suited to lead collaborative, integrated teams.

That’s Architectural Exceptionalism: which states that architects are unusual (check) and extraordinary (check) in some way and thus do not need to conform to normal rules or general principles.

Others are taken-aback when you point out that any group is exceptional in any way, as I learned myself, when several readers contacted me about the post above suggesting I substitute the word facilitator for the word leader.

One advised me: “No one wants to hear that the architect is the leader.

Are architects a minority group?

We’re in agreement that architects are in the minority.

Architects, of course, make up a tiny fraction of the AEC industry.

There are 1.5 million employed engineers in the US.

The number of architects licensed in the United States?

105,847 according to NCARB and AIA (103,657 according to DesignIntelligence.)

Three quarters of these (74%) practice in architecture firms.

In fact, there are as many construction companies in Texas and California as there are architects in the US.

And there are 7,316,240 construction company employees in the US.

That’s out of 311,591,917 people (and counting) in the US.

So, architects are in the minority.

But are architects being in the minority the same thing as being a minority?

Can architects explain their success in terms of their minority status?

These success traits very well may have implications for a more diverse profession.

But the question remains:

Is it possible that part of what makes architects successful is that they see themselves as a minority?

Let us know by leaving a comment below.