Jump: A Vertical Path to Design Genius

I remember as an architecture student treading through the crushing hours of work thinking that once I graduated and started work, that things would be easier.  "Once you leave at the end of the workday," I reasoned, "you're done."  Oh how misguided I was.  But not for the reasons you might think.  Sure, clients can be unpredictable and deadlines can loom large.  But really, it's about the quest to improve yourself that keeps the line between work and life so fuzzy, even occasionally unbalanced.  I recently listened to an excellent presentation by Joshua Foer for the 99% entitled Step Outside Your Comfort Zone and Study Yourself Failing about the pitfalls we all encounter in our quest to do great things.  Certainly none of us sets out to be mediocre.  However, the day to day effort of meeting deadlines and being productive can leave no room for visionary thinking.  Unless you make room, that is. 

Foer talks about what separates experts from the rest of the pack and how reach beyond something he terms the “OK Plateau,” that place where we are good enough that we can put ourselves on autopilot regarding a set of tasks.  It was this OK Plateau that I was misguidedly longing to reach because I felt overburdened and overwhelmed by the challenges of architecture school.  But life on the Plateau is, well, boring.  The prospect of an entire career of that is bleak beyond words.  If you are feeling discontent with your career, it’s most likely that you’ve been stranded on that Plateau a little too long, for whatever reasons.  It’s time to jump:

An architects work is never done
No matter how many awards you win or celebrated you become, you are only as good as your last project.  True experts never allow themselves to get in a rut, they constantly challenge themselves to push beyond their comfort zone and explore new aspects of design, whether is experimenting with new materials, technologies or paradigms. They earn new credentials and don’t need AIA or State licensure requirements to seek out continuing education.

Find mentors for your whole person

No one is an expert in the exact same set of skills as another person.  Who you are, the unique perspective you bring to being an architect, needs to be nurtured as much as your more stereotypical skills.  This is why you need to cultivate expertise in all the facets of life that spark your passion.  Get in touch with your inner polymath.  What dimensions can an architect who is also a potter, sculptor and master chef bring to a project vs. one who is a hiker, photographer and karate blackbelt?  What about one who is also a certified nutritionist and has a degree in psychology?Scientific evidence has shown that you actually feed you creativity by indulging in a diverse set of interests.  A trip to the art museum, or the football stadium,  will do more for your next project crunch than spending four more hours hunched over your computer drawing.  It makes you far more interesting at cocktail parties, too.

Take yourself seriously

Architects are often accused of being pompous, looking down their over-designed glasses with disdain at the mere mortals they suffer to have around them who “just don’ get it.”  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about really believing that what you have to offer the world is so important that you never stop finding ways to make things better.  Don’t just design because it feels right, prove that it is right, never stop researching and testing your ideas about how people use space.  Study the people, the micro-culture, the tasks they perform, the preconceptions you all are bringing to the problem solution that you should question and perhaps throw out.  Finally, just like any good science experiment, never stop analyzing your outcomes. What worked (and how could it have worked better)? What did not perform as expected and why?  What new problems emerged through your design solution?  If you need to bring in someone else to help you evaluate your performance do so.  This can be as simple as inviting another member of your firm to do a postmortem for you, or as complicated as hiring and outside expert.  Then, listen to their criticism and use it to make yourself an even better architect.

True experts do not fear failure, they fear stagnation.