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.