The Possibility of Transformation

In the last three weeks of this novena, we will move beyond our exploration of the limitations that are placed on us by others as well as ourselves.  The focus of these last posts will be on transformation and leveraging of strengths. 

As architects we have to believe in the ability of things to be transformed. An empty parcel of land becomes a building, an old building gets a new lease on life, an interior space is remodeled for a whole new use.  What we do is centered around seeing possibilities in existing circumstances and bringing about a change that goes beyond what our clients can imagine.  Tell us something is impossible, and we view it as a challenge to find a solution.  This is an amazing talent.  Too bad we don’t see it that way.  It’s time to start designing your career and bringing to bear all of the same creative skills you would to a creaky old building on a difficult site.  Be your own next project.

The pre-design analysis
Before you begin design, you collect information, determining all of the parameters and possibilities, schedules, budgets, delivery methods.  Take that same analytical view of yourself (see week five post Be your Own Stage Mom, if you don’t know how to get started).  Do your own mini-report that includes:
1. An assessment of your existing conditions, including strengths and weaknesses.  Don’t editorialize, just state the facts. Include a list of opportunities available and required improvements.
2. Benchmark the careers of others you admire in order to collect baseline performance measures
3. A definition of the problem, including goals and objectives.  Note: this is not a proposed solution- just a definition of what you want out of the finished project (your career).  Make your own career space program and schedule so you can begin to understand the magnitude of the task at hand and what things are the main vs. ancillary “spaces”.  Don’t be afraid of making big bold moves or determining that some existing career element just doesn’t work in your new plan and needs to be “demolished.”
4. Make a bubble diagram of your problem so you can start to identify relationships and critical adjacencies related to your program elements.
5. Code check: are there credentials you should be pursuing?
6. A test fit of how your problem, as defined can be addressed. Design options help clients see opportunities and doing the same for your career path helps you see what’s possible as well.

Design build phase
Now that you have your big idea and goals in place as well as a good handle on the parameters in which you will be operating, it’s time to get to work. 
1. Plan. Using all of the elements you identified, create a blueprint of how things will work.  Just as with a building, you will discover ways to combine program elements, circulation routes and guideposts will emerge and you will likely find that you need to add program elements.
2. Visualize in three dimensions. A building shouldn’t be the result of an extruded plan.  Neither should your career.  Allow the particular choices you have made about implementing your goals to add to the richness of your career design, informing you about further opportunities and really giving you the opportunity to create the form that follows the function.
3. Detail.  Embellish your career design with details that support and reinforce it.
4. Monitor implementation. You can get too caught up in the process of implementing your career design and lose sight of the purpose.  Revisit your goals often to make sure that your efforts stay on track.

Post occupancy
Your career is a work in progress.  You will never stop needing upgrades and remodels, even some radical demolition from time to time.
1. Conduct a post-occupancy evaluation.  What’s working and what isn’t?  Survey others to see if they can see your vision.  The best strategies are the ones that are easy to explain and that other people can understand.  Note: this doesn’t mean that you should avoid the unconventional or stop taking risks, just that your strategy is clear and trackable.
2. Measure your performance results every year.  Assess how well you are doing at meeting six month, one year, and five year goals as well as whether you want to add, remove, or change goals.

You can have the career YOU want, you just need to envision, design and implement it.  Thanks to your wicked skillz as an architect, you already know how.  Nothing is impossible.

Livin' Large

The topic of week six of our Turning Points and Breaking Points Novena is being open to opportunities that can lead us in unexpected and exhilarating new directions.

Life is what happens to you while you are busy making plans.  No matter how much you think you know, how hard you have worked towards a specific outcome, there is often a curveball.  That’s a bad thing only if you lock focus on how you didn’t get what you thought you wanted, aka the conventionally defined career.  Convention, being the gross generalization that it is, mostly proves inadequate to achieving fulfillment. I asked Raul Barreneche, a friend and fellow graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture, to share the story of his very unconventional journey as an architect to inspire all of you to see beyond your limits and start grabbing those brass rings. 

As a student, Raul’s writing talent led him to be an editor of the architecture journal at CMU. Professors encouraged him to pursue writing as well as traditional practice but, like most of us, he had every intention of working at an architecture firm. Raul didn’t go through college thinking, hey, maybe I’ll be an editor for a major architecture publication, and travel the world writing about culture and design.  He didn’t plan to freelance to major magazines published on architecture and design (Architecture, Architectural Record, Metropolitan Home, Dwell, just to name a few), or to publish seven books and have his own interior architecture practice.  But he also didn’t let the plans he did have at any given time get in the way of being open to these opportunities as they presented themselves along the way. The funny thing about taking risks, though, is that you stop being willing to settle.  That’s when you realize that your next great opportunity is probably right in front of you, but you have been too afraid to see it, much less make it happen. 

If you are comfortable, you are probably complacent
Architecture magazine needed an assistant editor and Raul decided to take the amazing opportunity in front of him right out of college.  Some might fret that they were taking too much of a departure from actually working as a practicing architect.  Raul just took the leap. “What excited me about the opportunity to write instead of go right into architecture practice was that I could see that architecture could be limited as a profession by so many things. My first job writing for Architecture offered so many amazing opportunities at that point in my life- my assignments allowed me to travel all over the world, interviewing some of the most famous architects about their work, ones I’d idolized in school,” says Raul.  Although he progressed from Assistant Editor to Associate Editor; then Senior Editor; eventually Executive Editor, “I decided it was time for a change after working there for almost seven years. It’s important to see the glass ceilings and the limitations of where you are.  Don’t stay so long that you go stale.”  Raul took another huge leap eleven years ago when he left his position at Architecture and became a freelance writer.  “Going freelance allowed me to be a Contributing Editor (for Travel + Leisure and Interior Design) as well as write for may other design publications, doing twice as much work and making more money than I had in my old job.” Then he was given the opportunity to co-author a book for Rizzoli.  The editor liked his writing so much, they optioned him to write a book on his own.  That first book, Tropical Modern was inspired by a trip to Brazil.  Raul just published his fourth book with Rizzoli, the Tropical Modern House in early 2011.  Additionally, he authored a series of three books, New RetailNew Museums, and Modern House Three, for Phaidon as part of their idea series.  But there’s more.  Raul was approached by a friend a few years ago about designing interiors.  While initially inclined to turn the offer down because he hadn’t practiced up to this point in his career, he decided yet again to take the risk.  That job led to others and to the establishment of r. Ltd. Design, his New York City interior architecture practice.

Cast a wide net to catch a broader range of opportunities
Another secret to Raul’s success has been his network of people and depth of life experiences.  “I am always conscious of other things happening around me in order to avoid getting stuck in too narrow of a position.  If you collect experiences and are open to the opportunities all around you, it will serve you at some point later,” he observes.  “At this point, I’m spending about 50% of my time doing interior architecture and 50% freelance writing. If I’d been in any one camp, I would have dealt with more hardship as markets and economies fluctuate.  For example, striking out as a freelance writer as I did eleven years ago would be a much tougher proposition today.”  Raul is enjoying the dual aspect of his career on both the critical and producing side of the architecture fence.  While he didn’t take the obvious path, he is now practicing architecture as he imagined he would all those years ago, but he is also doing so much more.  His office contains both a drafting table and a desk, so he can move easily between both worlds. He also never stops consuming design and architecture, often leveraging information gained on a personal trip to later propose as an article or idea for a book.  “My work is very fluid, encompassing art, design, architecture and sometimes even travel and leisure.” 

Having a great creative career isn’t about pursuing money or fame.  It’s about enriching yourself by being immersed in the people and places around you and saying yes to the things that interest you even if they don’t seem directly connected to your career goals.  Once you stop worrying about what you are supposed to be doing, it’s amazing how life manages to bring you to exactly the right place.

Be Your Own Stage Mom

We further explore how to stop holding ourselves back in week five of our Turning Points and Breaking Points Novena, by focusing on cultivating a personal mission and learning how to market it.

Ah, the stage mom, militantly advocating for her child’s success. While we might feel the poor kid being pushed into the spotlight is a bit of a train wreck, admit it, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone that enthusiastically putting you on center stage and showcasing your talents, fighting tooth and nail to get you noticed? Well, go look in the mirror.  You are your very own self-promotion machine.

Believe in yourself.  A good stage mamma never doubts her baby’s abilities.  You have to know your strengths and be willing to show them off.  Make a list of the ten things you do best as an architect. Choose specific actions, things you feel you are really, really good at doing like programming, research, charrettes with clients, collaborating with your team, sketching or rendering.  Rank them from what you love to do most to least.  For each item, list your single greatest accomplishment.  List three ways you will improve on this skill in the next year. You can say things like publish an article showcasing this issue and my expertise with it, entering a competition, getting a certification, hosting a lunch and learn, speaking to my AIA chapter, anything, anything that allows you to claim a greater level of knowledge and share that knowledge with others.  I don’t care whether you are an intern or own your own firm- figure out at least three ways you are going to show yourself off in the next twelve months.  Give yourself depth of experience outside of work on projects and you will be surprised how quickly projects that match the activities you truly love and have a talent for find their way to you.

Never stop smiling. How can your top five best and most loved skills make a difference to your community, company or your clients?  What do these skills say about your architectural personality?  Write your own personal mission statement.  Keep it to a single sentence that captures the essence of who you uniquely are as an architect.  Make sure it is a life-affirming positive statement. Communicate it to clients and co-workers through everything you say and do in the design and construction process as well as in your extracurricular activities. Let it be what helps guide you to the volunteer/community/professional activities that most reflect your values as a person and as an architect.  As you toil away on a big deadline, deal with a difficult client or experience a setback, remind yourself of your mission statement and let it keep you on track.

Talent is only part of your score.  Charm, style and grace factor heavily into the judges score as well.  As a former boss once wisely remarked on the subject of getting work, “first, they have to like you.” So while you might really want to focus on twirling those flaming batons, that kind of intensity might just lose you points with a client, colleague, boss or co-worker if you fail to connect. The best performers know how to connect with their audience, their focus is outward not inward.  To successfully connect, you need to know yourself and your abilities, your mission as an architect so well that you don’t need to worry about your performance.  You need to live your best talents in everything you do, including volunteer work and personal projects (like writing a blog).  If you walk the talk in this way, there is an honesty and an integrity in what you bring to your work that is beyond reproach and it will resonate with everyone around you.

For God’s sake, get a mentor.  Every stage mom’s goal is to get her kid a good agent.  While she never stops riding herd on the process, she knows she doesn’t have access to all the networks, or knowledge of all of the opportunities.  Neither do you.  Mentors introduce you to more people, help you stay focussed, talk you up and maybe even nominate you for an award now and again.  The need for a mentor is ageless.  No matter where you are in the spectrum of your career, you can use a little coaching and encouragement, someone to encourage you to reach outside your comfort zone and take some risks to stay fresh and at the top of your game.

If you want your career to take off, don’t wait to be discovered.  Take a cue from stage moms everywhere and start promoting your talents.  Please feel free to contact me if you’d like some coaching to help you hone those stage mom skills or a virtual mentor.  I invite everyone to also share their best self-promotion story- your success can become someone else’s inspiration.

Halos and Horns: How being bad makes us good designers

So far during this novena, we’ve looked at external things that affect our creativity; manipulative coworkers/bosses, life events that affect our health or well being, the personal and professional demands of daily life.  In week four, we will begin looking at ways we limit ourselves.

For architects, every day is Judgement Day.  We constantly measure our work and ourselves against everyone else, endlessly critiquing, even sometimes feeling threatened by others’ success. We style ourselves after our heroes and forget to be introspective enough to build our own true, original identity. How many personal armageddons have arisen from pure ego and a desire to “make it” getting in the way of true happiness and success?  My wise little teabag gave me a reminder today of just how much opportunity we miss by doing that. The paper on the end of the string contained this statement, “When ego is lost, limit is lost.  You become infinite, kind and beautiful.” So if we are stuck in a world of ego imposed “shoulds” which hold us down while paradoxically making us feel that we are doing the right thing, how do we know when/which obligations and expectations to let go of?  How bad can (not should) we really let ourselves become?

The devil made me do it
This was one of my favorite claims when, as a child, I was caught doing something like, say,  writing with a Sharpie on my parent’s designer wallpaper.  The “devil” prompted me to some very instructional, creative and fun projects, which unfortunately often also caused some level of damage or destruction.  Oops.  But who is this devil?  We’re not talking Lord of all Evil here in any sense.  No, this imp was simply my creative mind asking “what if?”  The child’s mind is not so strapped down by a feeling of what should be that it judges itself.  Free from expectations, and often unaware of all of society’s rules, it explores cause and effect, linking seemingly disparate elements together to make something that never was.   Our ego is the source of should. Challenge yourself today to do one thing that you normally would consider deviant and see what fun, and revelations, result.
Know what you want and claim it
Our biggest faults as creatives are guilt and self doubt.  When was the last time you really explored your motives for living life?  Chances are that if you did, you would find a whole lot of activity spurred by a sense of obligation or the beliefs and expectations of others.  The deceptively simple question: “what do I want to do?” is one that most architects find almost impossible to answer. Knowing what you want frees you from the destructive competitive cycle that was introduced to us in school and is reinforced in so many professional practices. Take time to actually know what you want helps you to overcome the self doubt and give yourself permission to take the steps that will help you live your dreams, not someone else’s.
Let go of ego
Our own judgements and beliefs, our ego holds us back more than anything.  It is what makes us stubborn, rigid, unaccepting, insistent, all of the things that cut that rut and keep us firmly entrenched within it.  Therefore, we comply with the world’s rules, the things we know we should do, while secretly resenting the fact that we have to do so.  Our ego is the source of should, one way to be our most inspired and best creative selves is to let go of all those expectations and give ourselves permission to be bad.

How have you explored the virtue of living outside of expectations?  In what creative freedoms have you allowed yourself to indulge? It's self-restorative, not selfish - and that allows you to give even more back to the world because you can and not because you should.