Thoughts on Commencement

Graduation ceremonies are marked by commencement- a ceremony that celebrates not the ending of the educational process, but the beginning of a new life as a professional.  But what exactly are these new graduates setting out to do?  In the spirit of the season, I wanted to take on some of the myths that are born in our architectural education system and carry forward into professional life:

Myth #1 Winning is everything
No matter how many group projects are assigned, the fact that our individual grades make or break us can lead many students to be more concerned with proving their own worth than harnessing the power of collaboration.  That is a lesson that has no place in the working world, where your fellow staff members and you are all on the same team. Yet, many managers, principals and other firm leaders did not get this memo.  So while they pay homage to the idea of interdisciplinary collaborative work, the culture of the firm is set up to reward individual achievement, and the design process is sliced and diced into so many factions that no one has a grasp on the whole project.  As we train young professionals to negotiate their success, are we teaching them to do it through collaboration or compromise?  Schools never discuss this nor do they address the real “career questions” that many young architects face: Will you be placed in the management track, the coveted designer/primadonna track, the business development track or the construction administration track?  Perhaps you are best suited to production, specifications and detailing and will remain a background support person.  Just like choosing a major, pick your specialty now and stay with the program if you want to get ahead. 

TIP: Reject this mindset now, no matter what stage of your career.  Collaboration has been shown to be a much more powerful negotiating tool than compromise, and a collaborative approach isn’t competitive, so it brings out the best in the entire team.

Myth #2 Time + Energy= Creativity
My Dad used to always tell me “work expands to the time allotted” in a scolding tone whenever I complained about the long hours I had to spend getting studio projects done.  Despite many discussions about its abolition, the all-nighter remains a staple of students’ academic experience.  They sacrifice most other coursework for studio and many professors also perpetuate the myth that spending more time on an assignment is critical to a successful outcome.  We whisper about the student who “hasn’t been in studio at all over the weekend,”  or who “left at 9:00 pm” the night before the deadline.This expectation that our time and energy have no value and that creativity is a byproduct of lavish overspending of both moves with us into the work world where interns work long hours, often for no extra pay.  This carries forward- with the expectation that senior staff is available on-call 24/7 and that overtime will be worked to meet impossible deadlines.  While the staff grumbles, they don’t bat an eye because they are conditioned, as are the firm owners, that this is the proper way to work.

TIP: It turns out that Dad was right. The myth that quality, let alone creative or innovative, work is linked to exhaustion has been dispelled in numerous studies from sleep researchers to business performance analysts.  You will be happier and better performing in general, not to mention more creative and willing to try new ventures, when you have a balance in your life and actually take care of yourself.  Your clients and colleagues will notice the change in your attitude and be much more receptive to your ideas.

Myth #3 The task knows no limits
Sure, you can always do more, but didn’t our pal Mies van der Rohe  already prove that to be a blind alley?  This is a bit of a corollary to Myth #2, but how we define the problem goes a long way to what it will take to solve it.  Often, students are not taught how to define a problem at all.  As they toil away during studio class, they are visited by their professor who will often ask a series of questions or react to an unfinished scrap of idea at their drafting table, then move on.  Because the student does not have a clear idea of what to solve, let alone how to solve it, they can’t communicate with any clarity, and the professorial reactions only serve to muddy the waters further.  Instead of developing a concept and building on it through design, the student embarks in a series of tailspins hoping for a eureka moment during one of those all night sessions.  Isn’t that what we do with our clients too?  We freak out and prepare dazzling overkill presentations instead of taking the time at the front end to clearly understand their needs and gather the proper information to define the project properly and in terms of their time and budget constraints.  We get caught in the redesign loop, frantically hoping to impress them, just like we hoped to impress without knowing why during all those crit sessions.

TIP: If you were really paying attention in all those studio classes, you should have learned that aesthetics are secondary to how well you defined the problem presented to you and what design measures you took to address the issues you identified.  If you couldn’t present a good argument for the design measures you took, it was all too likely you were going down in that crit regardless of your impressive manipulation of “architectonic elements”.  This works with clients and employers as well.  Take the time to clearly define the problem, the stakeholders in its solution and what role each, including yourself, will play in achieving the solution.

My congratulations and best wishes go out to all who are graduating this spring, as well as anyone ready to embark on a little career commencement of their own.  With self-awareness, clarity and conviction, you will achieve your  dreams.  Please share updates on your commencement experience with the Patron Saint of Architecture community.