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Stay Inspired,

Unchain the Brain

In week eight of the Shattering the Meme novena, we examine the meme of self-limitation.  No matter how much we may say we want change in our lives, we tend to cling white-knuckled to the comfort of the familiar, never realizing how much that is keeping us stuck.

Unconsciously, we believe that we are only allowed a certain measure of success and that anything else is presumptuous.  In our careers, this manifests as a holding back, no matter how unhappy or unfulfilled we might be.  After all, what would your boss think if you said you wanted to own the company one day?  How would a client react if you said at the start of the project that you wanted to have it published?  It is certainly a conditioned response, this self-limitation meme, but did you ever stop to think about what would happen if there were no big thinkers?  We might all still be living hunter-gatherer existences.  It is not presumptuous to think big, it is wasteful to limit yourself.

In our lives we have a total of four resources; time, energy, relationships and money.  Everything we need is acquired by spending one or more of them.  The money thing is pretty self-evident as we live in a cash based economy.  But what about the others?  Well, much as having money wouldn’t do you any good at all if you buried it in the ground and didn’t spend it, you have to spend your other resources in order to enjoy what they can bring into your life as well.  Notice that I said spend not squander and also realize that these four resources are interdependent.  To live at your highest potential you have to understand that these resources (in effect all that you have) must be leveraged by actively investing in the life and career you want to have.

Well, that didn’t work
Failure.  That would mean that we had squandered our big four resources, right?  Wrong.  We operate in such fear of failure that it is easy to forget that it is the only means to success.  Our brain shuts down around the idea of risk-taking, or we dream big, but only at a really fuzzy global level and don’t see how their are opportunities for action all around us that would set us on the path the realizing those dreams.  Part of unchaining your brain from that rock is to cultivate resilience.  Failure of a task or venture is not failure of you as a person.  It simply means that that particular thing did not work out.  You may even be on the right tack and just need to allow for a different variable.  Find out why what you tried didn’t work, make the necessary adjustments and try again.  Even something as big as losing a job or a client does not make you a failure, it simply means that something wasn’t a good fit.  Resist the urge to extrapolate that event to your whole life and let pessimism and “I told you so” limited thinking kick in.  Instead, realize that you always have choices and resources.  Commit to moving forward and take control of the situation instead of being a passive victim.

Kick the “but”
When I work with clients and make suggestions that take them outside of their comfort zone, it is not uncommon to hear the “yes, but...” response.  What they are really saying is that their fear of the unfamiliar is stronger than their desire to succeed.  When you put it like that, all those excuses sound downright silly.  But we don’t very often put our “yes, but...” statements in that context, do we?  Instead, we buy into all of them, we turn our fears into pseudo-facts and talk ourselves right off that ledge.  Did you ever notice the relief you feel in those moments when you can convince yourself NOT to make a bold move?  However, what do you really get by staying stagnant in your life or career?  It’s easy to think that you are conserving your resources of time, energy, relationships and money by playing it safe, but the exact opposite is true.  No matter how much it may cost you to take a risk, think about what it costs you to stay stuck.  Is your energy sapped?  Are you upset all the time?  Do you harbor resentments?  Are you really enjoying and savoring life? 

Stay Curious
Instead of fearing change because you are focussing on what you may lose, think instead about change being the gateway to endless possibilities.  In nature, change is the means of generation.  Do you feel depressed that it is autumn and the leaves are going to fall, or do you enjoy the splendor of the trees cloaked in shades of yellow, red and orange?  You, too are part of the universe and the events in your life are meant to constantly evolve and change. There are cycles of growth. Even when you are in a “winter” it is only in preparation to regenerate again in a “spring.”  Recognizing when your fallow period is related to being stuck or that you are just between leaps evolves cultivating a curiosity and sense of wonderment.  In short, an appreciation of change.  Instead of shutting down your potential with “yes, but...”  reframe that response to say “what if...” and see what happens.  Stay open to all of the possibilities instead of focussing on the problems.

Shatter the Meme:
As human beings, we would be nowhere if we didn’t have a sense of wonderment and the desire to experiment.  It is your birthight to embrace the possibilities that come from a world where change is the only constant.  There is no virtue in limiting yourself and not working to achieve your fullest potential.  Instead, you are wasting your resources and cheating the world out of the opportunity to benefit from what you uniquely have to offer. Let your creativity soar- removing all the obstacles to your time and energy you place in your own way.

Minority Report

In week seven of the Shattering the Meme Novena, we focus on how to stop feeling like a victim.  Overcome feelings of being left out or treated unfairly by looking past the superficial differences and finding the more profound sense of connection that is available.

Do you have a chip on your shoulder because you feel that everybody else is ganged up against you?  Do you focus so intently on how you are different from everyone else (race, sexual orientation, gender, age, experience level) that you forget to notice how much more profoundly you are the same?  The minority meme is rife in creative professions because the criteria for success is so subjective.

If you feel insecure or dissatisfied, it’s way too easy to focus on that sense of isolation and to feel like you are a victim.  And minority status can be defined in many, many ways.  For example, you may feel like the young gun misunderstood by the senior members of your firm.  Or maybe you feel like you are more creative and loose in your work process than your hard-driving professional environment and that you are steamrollered, never getting an opportunity for your ideas to blossom.  Even the “usual”  kinds of minorities, based on race and gender  allow you to feel like you are not in control, thereby absolving you of all responsibility for your own success.  How do you really want the world to see you as a (fill in the blank) minority group, or as a talented creative person with the unique ability to (fill in the blank)?  I would suspect that it is the latter, so how do you stop allowing the former to shape your identity for yourself and others you interact with?

Birds of a feather

It’s important to see what you have in common with others in your workplace, to really work to find others with the unique and unusual traits that you share so that you have something to really bond over.  Even if you work at a firm where the culture is very innovation oriented and your co-workers and superiors are equally committed to thinking outside the box as you are, you will find an even greater affinity and sense of connection with someone who shares your trait for say, using storytelling techniques in the design process.  If you don’t feel that there is anyone you can connect with, can you identify others in your professional community who you can form an alliance or mentorship with?  Find your tribe and draw strength and energy (as well as validation) for the point of view and work style that you contribute to the profession. 

Step outside of the box

The less you define your self as any type of outcast, the less others will perceive you in that way.  Understand that what makes you different is what forms the basis of your identity.  You get to choose how you are perceived and defined by either playing into a stereotype, or playing into your strengths.  It’s critical to know the difference.  For example, I am an introvert.  Introverts are not the least bit shy, but we can seem rather aloof, as we tend to be more comfortable with an outside-looking-in approach to the world.  For many years of my life, I let others (first my extroverted mother, then teachers, then colleagues) make that core personality trait wrong.  I fought to push myself to be more extroverted, which of course, only led me to feel more like an awkward outsider.  Then my path crossed with Dr. John McIntosh, who headed up the urban design program for Arizona State University.  I was a young architect on the Phoenix Housing and Neighborhood Commission and looking to make a difference in my community and John saw that.  He helped me see how I could orchestrate the right collection of people in the room to take action on initiatives, not just talk about doing something.  Even more than that, he modeled unabashed introversion, while being a well respected and influential community leader.  I realized through my connection with him that I could do the work I wanted to do without having to change my personality.

Take a stand

As important as it is not to make yourself a victim when you feel less than connected to a group you work with, I am not insinuating that there is not real discrimination of every stripe going on in the world.  And that needs to be addressed, not ignored.  If looking for common ground is still not breaking the ice, or someone is willing to “play nice” and say things you want to hear to your face, but takes actions that show they view you otherwise, call them on that.  Ask them point blank to explain to you why they are not following through, or why the opportunities you have expressed a desire to achieve seem inaccessible.  Then, listen, really listen to their response.  If you receive constructive advice you can take action on, work with this person to put together a success plan with a timetable.  If you hear a response that creates self-doubt in you, makes you feel embarrassed for asking, sweeps your concern under the rug, or makes you feel inadequate, then your feelings of being a victim may very well be stemming from psychological manipulation called gaslighting (read my detailed post on that) or downright prejudice on the part of this individual.  In that case, you need to call a spade a spade and  leave that situation.

The purpose of looking past differences and finding common, shared traits is to help you feel less intimidated about building a network, finding a mentor and going for your goals big time.  The superstar of design that you admire is still just an designer and had to deal with the same basic challenges as you do every day.  Looking at them in that way, takes away the unapproachable “aura of success” and lets you see how you can best approach them to form a connection.


The theme of week six of the Shattering the Meme Novena is guilt.  Built into our profession is a need to please and to feel responsible for our client’s decisions and actions.

If you find yourself often “made wrong” by others and feel an endless need to overcompensate for your mistakes through self-deprecation and lavish make-up efforts, you are trapped in a cycle of guilt.  No, you don’t get a hall pass to be a screw up, but you do need to recognize a good meme for what it is.  The atonement meme is all about feeling like your efforts are, at their core, inadequate.  Accordingly, any criticism you receive must not only be accurate, but proof of an inexorable flaw you must make up for at every turn.  The education and internship phase of a career is especially ripe for instilling this guilty mindset.  Modeled for us in the profession is the desire to slavishly cater to a client’s every whim.  Trained by our industry to expect perfection, our clients then pick apart our every effort, becoming cranky if we are not always available, armed with answers and willing to take on all of the responsibility for the outcome, even in the areas where we had no control.  And we not only accept it, we feed the meme by looking for ways to overcompensate. 

Your resources have value

Resources include your time and energy, not just the “project deliverables.”  However, we act as though we somehow don’t feel that our fee or expertise has real value, because we keep giving these other resources away as some kind of “value-add” when instead, we should hold the line.  Here’s a great example: You can’t get the user group to meet at all over the next month due to their busy schedules for a project they consider critically urgent to get done ASAP.   Yet, you accept responsibility for getting the client to have their priorities in order.  Obviously, they aren’t willing to make this project the priority they claim it to be by rearranging their schedule to meet with you.  But the meme tells you that you are responsible for their prioritization problem and that it will be your fault that the schedule for the design phase has slipped. So you over-deliver in the form of offering meeting way outside of business hours at a time totally inconvenient to you, when you should have just reminded the client of their self-imposed deadline and asked them to make the choice about whether to meet with you on designing their project or be available for other obligations.

Who really wants this?
You cannot want the project to succeed more than the client does.  Therefore, if they are not willing to make the commitment of their own time and resources, as well as being open to innovation, you will never succeed in forcing it on them.  You will end up selling them on your big ideas, which involve collaboration, then unilaterally be responsible for delivering them.  I can smell the failure of that from here.  The message needs to be communicated pre-design that your process has benefits, and that it requires their full participation to succeed.  To the extent that they don’t engage with you, spell out clear consequences to the project.  No matter what schedule or budget constraints exists, what client wants to waste their limited resources to build something that is mediocre and only partially solves the problem?

Release the guilt
Distinguish between the job responsibilities that are yours and those that are not.  Make sure that others you are working with, both inside and outside of your office, clearly understand this.  Ask yourself why you would feel bad if things that are not your responsibility go astray.  If it is because you fear being unfairly blamed, think about why you are letting that happen to you.  Do you need to have a meeting to clarify your role on the project?  Do you need to fire a toxic client?  Do you need to leave a passive-aggressive work environment?  If it’s just your own perfectionism and need to be a control freak, work on letting go.  See the ways that you can still contribute the things that you are passionate about to the project and focus on promoting those benefits to those working with you.

Shatter the meme:
Doing things because you feel you have to is a losing proposition.  Doing things because they feed your soul and meaningfully contribute to making people better means dropping the guilt complex.  Stop feeling responsible for holding up someone else’s end of the bargain, and trying to make your efforts enough for all parties concerned.  Let your clients and co-workers be meaningful participants in generating priorities and make sure all involved understand their role as a stakeholder in the outcome.  Make sure that the consequences of milestones not being met are also clearly established and agreed upon.  Then relax and concentrate on your role in facilitating the design end of the equation.  Don’t allow others to offload their responsibilities onto you, trigger the consequence if they don’t meet their agreed to obligations.  And above all, don’t allow yourself to feel bad about it.

Swatting Flies

Week five of the Shattering the Meme novena, explores the link between distraction and fear.   We derail our dreams without even realizing what we are doing as we load up our days with seemingly virtuous activities that deplete us. 

Thwack!  How did that extra meeting sneak into your week?  The planning for it is swarming around your head like a bunch of flies, an endless stream of issues to deal with.  It’s bad enough to cope with the constant distractions of a day, the ping of email (thwack), people walking up to your desk (thwack), and crises real and imagined that never stop rearing their ugly heads (thwackety, thwack, thwack, thwack).  All of these tasks add up to distractions that derail us from achieving the things we really value in our lives.  But while swatting all those flies, you might want to notice that you are the one who left open the screen door.

It’s done with the best of intentions (or so we think).  After all, big life goals are, well, big.  They take time to reach.  And today was exhausting.  This week is an endless stream of meetings, in between which are deadlines.  Better to think about what you need to do next week...month...year. Year!  That’s real time we are talking about, and deferring progress on achieving the things that will lead to your professional and personal fulfillment can’t wait that long.  What happens when you don’t make time for the things that will make you happy is that you begin to define yourself by the things that distract you.  The meme of virtuous distraction draws you in with task lists and deadlines, then starts pulling you ever downward in its spiral.  Other people validate this by demanding “responsiveness”  and instant attention to their issues.  The idea of setting any kind of boundaries seems downright unholy.  So instead of doing our life’s work, we spend our time swatting flies.

Business equals avoidance

Chores are one thing.  Departures from your life path are something else.  I want to define chores here as any of the things you have to do in work or life, whether reading your email or attending a meeting, or dropping your kid off at karate class.  Chores that can be delegated should be and the remainder of them done as efficiently as possible so that they do not consume all your time and sap your energy.  Your day itself should be about far more than the to do list, if it’s not, you have crossed the line into distraction.  Distraction is easy.  It gets your mind off of things.  It alleviates the pressure of seeking fulfillment.  It tricks you into thinking you are making progress all the while corroding your soul.  You keep so busy doing all these “necessary” things that you can justify procrastinating on the things that really matter.  I strongly believe that we make time for the things that matter to us and excuses for the things that don’t.  When we are afraid of what it will really mean to take the risks and do the work to accomplish our dreams, we decide that they aren’t nearly as important as all the busywork.  Resolve right now to add more structure to your day so all these duties and expectations occupy a smaller and more concentrated percentage of your time and  won’t keep pulling your attention away.  If you find that you go to the distraction zone when you feel stuck, it’s especially important that you have a routine that doesn’t allow you to run around with that fly swatter.

Stop settling
You go kind of numb inside and start to settle when you are in the business trap. You tell yourself that this is how life is.  You lower your expectations.  And you probably start to like using your fly swatter.  The mind craves action and will take it any way it can get it.  However, you did not become an architect so that you could respond to urgent emails about paint color.  Ask yourself what you would tell a high school student who was interested in majoring in architecture.  If your first thought was to jokingly give your condolences, you have settled.  Fix that by no longer accepting the premise that professional practice is defined by a whole bunch of chores.  Get in touch with why you love being an architect and resolve to do more things related to that.  Every time you think you have to put those activities on hold because you have too much to do, recognize it as fear of the unknown and make it a priority to open your schedule up.  Some of the most successful people are the busiest, and they never let that little fact stop them, do they?

The meaningfulness litmus test
We have explored the meaning of success in this novena, but you can’t be successful if you don’t pursue things that are meaningful.  Being your boss’s right hand might get you on her good side, but the rush you feel from that “attaboy” doesn’t last very long, does it?  Don’t mistake the stress response for actual creative energy, either.  Meaningful work feeds your soul, and leaves behind a trail of accomplishments that build on one another and take you closer to the things you want for your career.   Ask yourself where you want to be in ten years and whether or not anything you did today helped get you there. The things that did are actually meaningful, the rest was a waste of time in the larger context of your life.  Get a handle on your compulsory activities so you can make some space to freestyle.

Shatter the meme:
As creative people, we are often attracted to action and new ideas, but it’s so much wasted effort if you can’t see things through to completion, or lose sight of why you ever started down this path in the first place because you have stopped so many times along the way.  Nature abhors a vacuum.  Your life will fill up with a bunch of activities you didn't choose if you leave the space for them.  Along with those activities will come the expectations of others, and your own need to meet those expectations.  Swatting the flies of distraction can be exhausting.  No matter how many you kill, more will keep buzzing around.  Shouldn’t you redirect your energy in a more meaningful way?

Editing out the opportunity

It’s week four of the Shattering the Meme Novena.  Especially in a recession economy, which focusses on lack and limits, our focus must shift to releasing judgement of ourselves and others in order to be more open to the possibilities that come from less rigid thinking.

How well do you know yourself?  Your real interests and capabilities?  I bet they are in there buried down deep, disconnected from what you actually do for a living, expressed maybe as a hobby, or maybe not at all.  Today, I would like you to ask yourself why.  Why are you so disconnected from what you really love to do?  Go, on, give all your reasons.  I’ll bet you have some really good ones.  Masterful rationalizations, all.  So good in fact, that I bet you have never even attempted to set any of the things that would help you realize your dream life in motion.  Or maybe you did in a halfhearted way, since you didn’t want to take that much risk or invest that strongly in something that wasn’t going to work out anyway.  Yeah.

What you have actually done without even realizing it was to edit opportunity right out of your life, just as a surgeon would excise a tumor.  You never truly explored the possibilities or made many plans.  You just knew you couldn’t or shouldn’t go in that direction.  What an insidious meme, the one that leaves us subconsciously longing and always suppressed, all the while believing that we are better off just doing what life expects of us.

Judge and Jury
When I work with coaching clients, this is often the biggest hurdle I find.  As a first step, I encourage them to do some very introspective work to get clarity about what they love to do and attach that to the reason they want to do it.  Then I ask them why they are not doing it already.  That is a profound question.  The answer, when you stop to think about, it is that you are not allowing yourself.  This lack of permission comes wrapped in all kinds of reasons that seem valid until you dig a little deeper.  Things like, “I have too many responsibilities right now to spend the money it would take to get set up,” or “The market for that is too small to really allow me to earn a living.” When I ask my clients how they know that those outcomes will occur if they allow themselves to explore a particular passion, they often have no answer.  They just know.  Because their conditioning (education, early childhood, work experience) told them so.  Before they even allowed the idea to be fully formed and vetted, all on their own, they shut it down.  Deemed it unworthy of seeing the light of day. 

Make the investment

It can be scary to follow your heart.  But you need to think about all the things you are losing by not doing so.  What is your happiness worth?  What does the stress you are experiencing right now doing work that doesn’t serve you cost in terms of your health and well-being?  What does the rat race do to your quality of life, or that of your family?  In economic terms, this is called the opportunity cost.  What you choose to forgo by playing it safe.  Playing is safe also prevents you from receiving the big payoff in every dimension of your life that comes from living with passion and purpose.  Clients, employers, members of your network, will all notice you in a much more positive way once you choose to invest in acquiring the skill and experience you need to do the work that you really love instead of the work that gets fed to you by default.  When you look at all of the costs of playing it safe (physical, mental and spiritual), it becomes obvious just how precarious of a position you put yourself in by staying stuck instead of making the bold moves towards living your true life’s purpose. Playing it safe isn’t so safe after all.

Beat back the lack
We can all fall prey to focusing on what we don’t have.  Especially in this economy, where we are faced with constant bad news, it’s easy to believe that we need to hold back instead of charging forward.  We want to conserve instead of expand.  To carefully guard our reserves, whether time, money or networking capital “just in case.”  Well, the rainy day is happening right now if you are anything but fulfilled and purpose-driven in your life and career.  The stress of trying to maintain the status quo is what makes you feel like you and what you have to offer will never be enough. Believing that there just isn’t opportunity to be had becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  What’s needed instead is to look at what you have to offer and to whom it will make a difference.  Sharing what you have to offer starting right now and making a difference in the world is far more important than holding back.  I liken this thinking to refusing to make a $20.00 donation to your favorite charity because you want to wait until you get rich and can give them an endowment.  It’s kind of ridiculous when you look at it in those terms, isn’t it?  Every little contribution you make does make a difference.  What’s more, is that they add up and propel you forward.

Shatter the meme:
The number one regret of the dying as reported by nurses who cared for hospice patients was that they had not lived a life true to themselves, but instead tried to meet everyone else’s expectations.  Allow yourself to think about who you really are and what you really want, even if it seems ridiculous or frivolous.  Play with the thought, get comfortable with it instead of immediately filing it away because you can’t see the path to achieve it.  In fact, banish all thoughts of “how” and just focus on why you have this dream.  The more you can get in touch with what motivates you, the easier it will become to not only see opportunities, but to fearlessly pursue them.  Then, choose to take action.  Once you do, you will be surprised at all of the opportunities that start to come your way related to your true life’s purpose.  It’s not a miracle, they were always available to you, but now you no longer have them painted over with wite out.

Pulling Open the Flower

On week three of our Shattering the Meme novena, we explore the concept of creativity.  Creativity cannot be forced, nor can it emerge fully formed from the depths of our minds.  Unlearning the idea that hours spent equals quality of output to force an outcome is the lesson of this week.

As creatives, it’s ingrained in us from our earliest years that we are somehow supposed to be masters of everything.  The image of the superstar sole proprietor who conquers the word is dangled before us and we’re made to feel as if we are doing something wrong if we can’t achieve it.  From those first weeks in studio classes, the all-nighter is introduced. The idea behind it is that we need to work hard, really hard, at being creative.  We are not taught techniques for collaboration, or pulling in ideas from other industries or arts.  We are not taught how to understand the needs of the people we design for.  No, Instead the message is that it all must come from within.  And if the great idea won’t just open up out of our mind and bloom, we need to start picking at the bud, much like an ant on a peony.

Sounds strangely logical, except that creativity doesn’t work that way.  The worst thing you can do is to put performance pressure on it, instead of letting it flow, to close down its sources instead of expanding its horizons.  This meme has never served anything but our collective egos as it takes our self-esteem on a perpetual roller coaster ride.

Stop the suffering
Because we have been taught the behavior pattern of hard work, it feels wrong when an idea comes too easily.  We analyze it, reconstruct it, over-embellish it, reject it.  All in an attempt to make the act of creation something that requires tremendous effort.  We need to recognize that what we have been conditioned to feel “right” about in the design process is actually only what feels familiar to ourselves and our profession.  It gets propagated as “the way.”  In fact, what really ends up being propagated is stress inducing behavior. So, we think that if we are not under stress, we must not be very creative.  This is somewhat like planting a shade-loving plant in full sun, assuming that your shadow as you constantly tend it will be enough.

Live in the now
Creativity is about being present, not trying to predict the future based on the past.  When you are in the zone and are in a state of pure consciousness, nothing except the present moment matters.  You stop imposing past limiting beliefs and letting fears about what might happen restrict you, and you just go with it.  No over-thinking, no judgement.  Just think what would happen if you gave yourself more opportunities to disconnect the outcome from possibility. You might even realize that what you or your client thought the outcome should be wasn’t the best way to solve the problem. Stop ignoring all of the other ideas flowering in the garden in your focus on the one plant that hasn’t yet bloomed.

Allow the unfolding
In our “I am enough” mentality, we believe that we can go directly from intention to outcome.  We think that we control the outcome solely through our efforts, and if we didn’t get the result we wanted, we must have either not worked hard enough or made some mistake.  Not only does this corrode self esteem, it sets us up to shut down opportunities that might lead us to an even better result. You can plant the seeds, and tend the garden, but the plant will grow at its own rate, take its own form.  Building the framework for your intent and ideas to grow and then letting them take shape organically will lead you to the best possible outcome.  Relinquish control of what the outcome needs to look like and trust that you have set the right things in motion.

Shatter the Meme:
Allow yourself to detach from the outcome and instead focus on the intent behind the work you are doing.  What opportunity for growth can you find in the problem?  What is really motivating your client to take action?  What kind of environments do people really need? By asking these questions of yourself, your team and your client, you are able to ensure you are solving the right problems and building the right framework.  Resist the need to be a control freak and remember that when you pull open the flower, you usually spoil it.  Step back and let things unfold instead of trying, in your impatience, to force the outcome.

What does Success Look Like to You?

On week two of our Shattering the Meme novena, we look at how to tell the difference between illusion and reality, especially when it comes to how we define our success.  Success is not a destination, but a measuring stick.  When calculating how you measure up, make sure you are being honest with yourself and using valid criteria, not other people’s beliefs and agendas.

Mirror mirror on the wall...the evil queen just didn’t get it.  To her, beauty was defined very specifically as physical appearance. The mirror had a very different definition of beauty, or maybe it just changed its mind (since we never do learn of the mirror’s evaluation criteria, it’s hard to say what it was that made Snow White suddenly jump to the top of the mirror’s ranking). Whatever she had been doing to be declared “fairest of them all” suddenly stopped working for the queen and away went the daily affirmation that she had become so used to receiving. The queen was stuck in one definition of success - beauty - that she built her whole life around. When it was taken away from her, she reacted by trying to restore the past. 

Why go on about a fairy tale?  Because I think many of us define success as some version of vanquishing enemies, being a hero and living happily ever after.  Success comes to be an illusion, built on living up to other people’s expectations.  What success is really about is knowing that you are living your life to your fullest potential.  That requires taking the time to discover your true gifts and find a way to live your life as an expression of them.  Some common success memes that get shattered right now:

Letting others define you
Do you attach yourself to heroes and tie your self worth to how much praise or attention you can get from them? The queen could have spared herself a great deal of misery had she taken the time to think about what it was about beauty that really mattered so much to her.  She might have discovered beauty was not a particularly important or necessary criterion for a good queen (pity Queen Victoria wasn’t around until later).  Instead, she let a mirror define her, without even knowing the basis of the definition.  Everything was right with her world until she stopped hearing what she wanted to hear.    Have you lost the ability to know what you want for yourself because you are so busy trying to be something you think others will value?

Trying to eliminate the threat
Change is the one thing you can count on, and you either get out in front of it or get left behind.  In the red ocean view of the world that so many architects have unfortunately adopted, competition is a threat because you believe that it’s kill or be killed.  The evil queen set out to eliminate Snow White, thinking that that was the way to put herself back on top.  She never stopped to think about what her competition might be doing differently or how she might express her own beauty more strongly.  How many times do you think you are doing everything “right” and stubbornly persist in the same behaviors, becoming more and more competitive and cutthroat?  Success is never a static monolithic thing that you can “set and forget.”  It’s a constant state of becoming.  Understand that you need to adapt your strategies for achieving success to the changing factors around you.

Using the wrong criteria
I don’t know if much can be said to redeem the archetype of the evil stepmother, but it’s highly likely that the woman had some other positive attributes besides beauty.  By being stuck on a single dimension of herself, she was in an all or nothing position, where failure at life itself was the only alternative to being the “fairest of them all.”  How many times do you hold yourself to a standard of perfection?  Of all that you are capable of doing, all the things that you are really good at, you focus instead on a single attribute and allow yourself to feel like a failure because you haven’t achieved the fullest expression of that yet.

Ineffectively seeking feedback
Success is not a destination, its a measurement of whether you are on track to achieving personal fulfillment.  That said, it does require some external measures. However, external measures are a bit of a garbage-in/garbage-out proposition.  Let’s look at our evil queen example again.  This woman had a magic mirror, for God’s sake.  It always told the truth.  That’s a pretty powerful tool.  You think she might use it to find out if enemies were plotting the demise of her kingdom, or if a famine was on the horizon.  Instead, she asked it whether or not she was beautiful.  That’s because she was so stuck on being successful in the one way she had defined it for herself that nothing else mattered.  She could have gotten all kinds of useful information that would have made her loved and powerful (which is probably why she thought being beautiful was important anyway), she wouldn’t have had to compete to be “the most” of anything, and could have had everything she wanted just being herself.  But she didn’t trust that she was enough.  Use your feedback sources, be they a mentor, a client, a friend, a list of accomplishments to good effect by not filtering the information you seek so narrowly that you miss the larger message of how well you are really doing.

Shatter the Meme:
Think about what you want to happen in your life in order to consider yourself successful.  Look at those things you think are necessary for success and ask yourself why you think they are important.  Did someone else tell you that they were the only way to “make it?”  Do you think that someone whose opinion matters to you will be impressed?  Are other people expecting that you do these things in order for them to value you? Who said that particular attribute even was important?  Was it your mother, or a professor you admired?  What do they really know?

 Don’t get me wrong, I believe that we need to constantly challenge ourselves, to move outside of our comfort zones and grow.  But when you allow someone else, no matter how well meaning, to tell you what you should value you start to take on an idea of what success should be that is not your own.  You could check every box on their criteria list and still not feel successful because accomplishing those things may not resonate with you.  Success is living the fullest expression of yourself.  It is not living out someone else’s dream.

Shattering the Meme

For the third annual novena at the Patron Saint of Architecture, I want to help you to see all of the unlimited potential you have and start putting it to work for you.  Novenas are an annual chance to look in-depth at issues that affect how we operate in the world.  In past novenas we looked at how we can truly make a difference in the world, and how to overcome the things that drain our creativity.  This year, we will center around all of the things that we may not even know are holding us back, so that you can shatter those memes and become all that you were meant to be.

Memes, those ideas or beliefs that pervade our culture, are hard to avoid.  Like frogs in the pot, we don’t even know that they’re affecting us, they just seem to be the way it is.  As creative people we are especially susceptible to memes because there’s a certain voodoo around the act of creation.  When your work involves acts for which there is no right answer, you can only respond by evoking memes. The memes of a culture and its expectations, the memes of professional conduct, the memes of what a relationship with a client is supposed to look like.  But what if the meme is wrong? 

We can see the short-term effects of memes in viral internet content.  People get caught up in the topic, idiomatic speech may even be affected.  Then it passes.  Observing these micormemes allows us to see how something can be incredibly relevant due to factors taking place at the moment then pass away like a fad. I want to try to look at metamemes in much the same way.  That’s a lot harder to do.  Even if you can see that there may be something beyond, you might not see why it’s even in your interests to pursue it. 

Live outside the fishbowl
It’s important to realize that memes can operate on two different levels.  The horizontal level is what we absorb from our peers and other surroundings. Those memes can be, but aren’t always, easier to identify.  The more insidious memes are the ones that operate on a vertical level through cultural inheritance.  It’s what you learned about the culture of your profession from your professors and mentors, what your employers and co-workers have enforced, even what your parents thought.  If memes are all around us and have helped to form our beliefs about who we are and what’s possible in our lives and careers, that means we are not necessarily aware of them.  In this nine week series, we are going to bust through some common memes and shatter all of the limitations they hold.  I warn you, this will be both challenging and scary.  Your first reaction will be to disagree, but I ask you to sit with it and really think about why you might be unwilling to question a given issue.  We may not arrive at the same idea for shattering it, but just the realization that there could be a different approach is powerful.

Change the Equation

Believe it or not, most of us live our lives as if everything we encounter were a basic algebra problem.  We use the formulas we know to solve for x (ex. 6 + x = 10).  Unfortunately, solving for x means you have used a meme to eliminate the other variables, in our example that would be the number six or even the outcome, the number 10.  This very straightforward approach to problem solving often causes us to have tunnel vision about achieving outcomes.  If you have ever become frustrated about why you could be doing “all the right things” and still not get the desired outcome, you know what I am talking about.  I want to challenge you to think of things in a different way:  what do you really want the outcome to be?  Not the outcome you think you should achieve, but the one you really want.  Then, work backwards to see how you could achieve it.  Allow there to be more variables and less givens about the situation.  Use a little calculus, or even some differential equations.

Enter the World of Innovative Transformation
Innovative transformation is about challenging yourself to have a game-changing response to the opportunities in your life, instead of your automatic one.  How often do you start a new project the same way you start every other project?  I’m willing to bet you have all kinds of reasons why this is the best or only way to approach things.  You might be open to tweaking your process, but probably feel resistant to throwing it out wholesale.  But what if you did?  Silence all those limiting beliefs and just think about that.  What could happen?  Now think about all of the little things, the small and large decisions you make every single day.  Instead of making them on auto-pilot, start being conscious of them, and start asking yourself what assumptions are tied up in your typical actions.  Change your thinking and change your life.

For the next eight posts, I’m going to present common metamemes that we all deal with and give you strategies for looking at them in a whole different way.  I hope you’ll share your thoughts and experiences as you work to shatter each one.  The Patron community supports you and I know that you are unlimited.

Feast Day 2013: You are Unlimited

Today the Patron Saint of Architecture celebrates three years of helping bring inspiration and creativity to the forefront of what we do as architects.  What started as a personal need to affirm that architecture could and should be so much more than the professional opportunities that I was experiencing has now become a worldwide network of people who share that same purpose.  Each year, I build on the original intent and expand the content offerings; going from this blog to a facebook page, Pinterest account and, in this past year, a book.  As I challenge myself to experiment with new media and outreach efforts, I hope to not only build a community of creatives, but to encourage all of us to stretch outside of our comfort zone. 

I’ve come to realize that the comfort zone is a pretty deceptive place.  It’s what we know.  So we operate within a set of self-imposed constraints that limit our thinking about what’s possible.  Many of these constraints come from our education and professional experiences, and have permeated our understanding about what it means to practice architecture.  That’s why this year’s novena will be Shattering the Meme.  We’ll spend nine weeks exploring things about the profession of architecture that we just assume “have” to be that way and work to stop accepting the limiting premise of each one. 

In conjunction with this novena, I am launching my first ever series of teleclasses.  Based on my book, Career Crisis, which launched in April, the teleclasses begin next week with a free introductory session.  I am excited to bring the theme of applying your passion and purpose meaningfully to your career alive in an interactive way.  It’s one thing to read something, but nothing compares to actually being able to work through issues in a more direct way.  As architects, we often feel that we can and should be able to do it all, from graphic design to marketing to management, so it is natural for us to  think we can be our own coaches as well.  But coaching by its very nature is not a DIY endeavor. A coach can help you to understand your unique situation in a whole different way.  You need someone to encourage you to think beyond what you think is possible and challenge you achieve things that you really want (because that's the scary stuff you won't ever push yourself to do).  Someone who will tell you when you are allowing yourself to get distracted by being “too busy”  or when you are losing focus. 

You can begin to experience what it's like to work with a coach in the teleclasses, where we will spend an hour on each career theme and also do some individual “laser coaching,” where I will take questions from participants and provide targeted advice live on the call. 
Eventbrite - Overcome Your Career Crisis
If you want more, you can always work with me one on one in my career coaching program, which is a three week long intensive process.  I’m also pleased to announce a new coaching offering this year:  I Need a Quickie is specifically tailored to architects who really want to seek out coaching, but are still afraid to invest in themselves in this way.  While nowhere near as intensive as a coaching program, this new offering will let you buy an hour of one on one time with me to talk about career issues important to you.  I’m hoping that by offering this bridge to coaching, many of you will see how valuable it really is to work with me or another coach to up your game.  Wherever you are in your career, however much or little you have accomplished, you can always set your sights higher and achieve even more. 

We kicked off last year with the Change the World Novena, where I profiled architects who have taken it upon themselves to make the world a better place through the built environment.  Many of you viewed those architects as people who were somehow different from you.  You thought, “What they’re doing is great, but I can’t do that.  Who am I to think I can change the world?”  This year I’m not accepting that excuse- you are a gifted, creative, person, or you wouldn’t be an architect.  Who are you not to use that talent?  Get unstuck and shatter all those memes that are convincing you otherwise!

Avoiding the Architecture of Fear

Wow.  My post on the limiting beliefs of architects grew legs, stood, up and ran out the door. It was being chased.  While I never expect that readers of my blog will agree with me wholesale, reactions to this post fell very strongly into two camps.  The camp that agreed with me and said "Right on,  we need to overcome these limiting beliefs," made me feel that I had written about a meaningful and timely topic.  The camp that threw cold water on the very premise of the post confirmed it.  I noticed a very specific pattern that emerged among the naysayers.  It was fear.  Fear of being irrelevant,  seen as extravagant or uncooperative by clients.  It is this very fear that is being manifested as a reality in our profession.  Therefore, I have taken these comments, condensed them into some major themes around fear and share them with you today.  Since most of the discussion was generated on the American Institute of Architects Linked In Group, you can visit this page if you want to see the comments and discussion chain firsthand.

Fear: I will play into their worst stereotype

This one is tricky because no one wants to be typecast as the black clad ideologue with funky glasses who is using their client as a vehicle for their own artistic license.  Many comments I received were concerned that architects are our own worst enemy and that by pursuing a higher level of design, we were alienating our clients, showing them that we weren't listening to them and running up the costs.  It wouldn't be a stereotype if there were not some grains of truth here, mostly born out by Starchitects and their wannabes.  However,  being an advocate for solving the right problem and innovative solutions instead of being a waitress is not the same as being out of touch.  If anything, it shows you are more in touch and are providing the service they hired you to perform, instead of being a rubber  stamp.

Good design is too expensive, or too risky
Maybe it's because the design magazines are filled with examples of exotic materials and systems.  Maybe it's  because we don't really believe that you can be creative on a budget.  I was astounded at the number of people who lashed out at the very idea of bringing a higher level of design to their projects.  It truly saddened me to see architects with the mindset of a low level developer, believing that they were  providing value to their clients by delivering the staus quo.  Rather than meeting client expectations for adequacy, meet their expectations for a truly amazing space that meets needs they were heretofore afraid to state. Good design is carefully considered and responsive, and can absolutely be done with basic materials and on a budget with only the premium of creativity on your part.  A better thing to consider is how much you are paying to play it safe and add to the already bulging inventory of unremarkable buildings.

The profession can't afford this
Talk about fear-based thinking.  These commenters thought they were taking the high road by adopting a lofty, philosophical position about risk management and responsible architecture.  No wonder our profession is struggling.  What a limiting mindset to meekly take a backseat,  hoping to just be of some usefulness.  This only buys into a developer driven mentality and frankly, shows you already believe that architects are obsolete.  What the profession cannot afford is a bunch of synchophants who are afraid to be creative.  I had to chuckle that the most controversial comment in my post was a quote, "If you know it will work, it isn't creative,"from Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.  This quote to me captures the very essence of creativity: being unafraid to take on a new challenge, to think outside of the box, to stop recycling ideas from past projects.  Isn't this what our profession needs most?  Yet, many took that comment to mean that taking a risk meant abandoning functionality.  True, form should follow function, but how to best house that function is what the act of creating architecture is all about.  It's called a practice because it is an experiment.  Otherwise, we are just drafters.

To me, these fears underline the reason so many of us feel we are in a career crisis.  We have accepted the premise that we are lucky to have work and therefore we had better not rock the boat.  We are playing it so safe that it becomes doubtful that we are actually producing architecture at all.  I can empathize with my post-dissenters because I have worked for firms that propagated these fears and the limiting beliefs that spawn them.  I felt completely demoralized in my work during those years because I felt like I was not making anybody better as a result of the projects being produced in these conditions.

There is a better way and I have made it my mission to help other architects find it.  You can choose to follow along with my blog posts and facebook community, but if you are looking to get on the path to career transformation, you need to look at a more immersive experience.  I invite you to consider one on one career coaching, or to take part in my new telesminar series.  Based on my book, Career Crisis, the teleseminars will explore themes of finding your passion, understanding where you are in the creative cycles of your life,  and how to best position yourself to work in the way that is most fulfilling to you.  It is time to stop practicing an architecture of fear and move forward into producing meaningful, enriching spaces that allow us to work at our highest creative potential.

Eventbrite - Are you having a Career Crisis?

What my house taught me

As an architect, it’s kind of interesting to me that I have learned several major life lessons from a
house. This structure was our family home for eight years. We bought it less than a year after relocating to Cleveland, OH from Phoenix, AZ in order to be closer to my ailing parents. Just the fact that we had relocated at all meant staring down some of my biggest fears, saying goodbye to a city we loved, good friends and professional opportunities, resigning from boards and commissions. So, I thought I’d done it. Made my big leap. But the house had more lessons in store for us. It seemed a pleasant enough house, cheerful and light-filled, with a big backyard and an attached garage. Built in 1942, it was a “newer” home for the community. But we passed it up, citing the too small kitchen and dining room. Only after looking for several more weeks and finding nothing did we come back to it after we noticed that its owners, long moved away, had decided to cut the asking price for their vacant house significantly. We bought it conditionally, with every intention of putting on an addition, adding central air, and on. Fast forward eight years, no addition or central air and we were faced with the need to relocate for work after spending several months unemployed. We put the house for sale in the worst possible market, it sat empty for a year, was broken into by a copper pipe scavenger, and finally became a rental. Two years after moving away, I think I have finally learned the final lesson I needed and am willing to let it go. This is a huge step for me because I want to at least break even, but know that whatever it costs me to be free of this house, it will be nothing compared to the cost of continuing to own it. What a great metaphor for all the things we hold on to in our lives. We are afraid of losing things we think we should want, but in truth offer us very little value.

Lesson one: Never, ever settle
We had become weary of looking. I let the fact that the house was “OK” and cheap due to the price cut lure me into saying yes to something when my gut had originally said no. I passed up the house the first time because it really wasn’t what we were looking for. Instead of having faith that we would find a great house, I almost felt obligated as an architect to transform this one. We had completely remodeled our home in Phoenix, I reasoned, so why not this one? Well, for starters, the level of addition we would have needed to undertake was not financially worth it, and even if we could have done it, we would still not have had the home we really wanted. While there are many life situations that require a little extra effort on our part, there is a difference between the effort to make a good thing great and the effort to improve something that even after being improved will never be what you want. We do this not just with homes, but with our jobs, even relationships. When you invest your energy in the “good enough” opportunity, you stop being open to receive the amazing one.

Lesson two: Place yourself in situations that bring you joy
Parts of this house just downright irritated me. I shudder to think about how much negativity I carried around. Every time I had to carefully open the dining room door to avoid hitting a chair or maneuver around the too small kitchen or deal with the lack of counter space in the bathroom, it annoyed me, if even on a subconscious level. Even though we bought new high end appliances and decorated and painted, everything about the home’s limitations subliminally said to me that my life had limits, had lack, had need. I might have realized it sooner if the situation with my ailing parents, raising two small children and having a stressful and demanding job had not been looming so large in my life. Given all those things, my home needed to be a positive affirmation and regenerative environment, and yet it was only reinforcing all of the other stress. What things in your life are you “putting up” with that are actually draining you? The things in your life should feed you and affirm not only the person you are, but the one you wish to become. Choose wisely.

Lesson three: Know when to walk away
When the time came to put the house up for sale, I knew the market was bad. While I was willing to price the house aggressively, it was important for me to be able to at least break even from the sale. Although it would have been well below comps, one realtor I talked to suggested pricing the house at about $2000 higher than we owed on it to really make it move. I chose the realtor who suggested that we list at only $15,000 below our original purchase price instead (that the house had lost that much of its original value considering all of the improvements we made was shocking enough). I had tapped out all of my savings and was fearful of getting into debt. Two months in, we dropped the price another $10,000 and still nothing. I was hemorrhaging money. Debt, the thing I had been so afraid of, began to pile up. It was not sustainable to have two households, especially when one of them was vacant. Finally, a year into this ordeal, we were able to get renters, which covered the cost of our mortgage. However, it’s hard to manage a property in a city far from where you live and our maintenance costs for their months in the house have exceeded that of the entire eight years we lived there. Operating from that place of fear, I considered my self lucky we at least had the mortgage covered. What I now realize is that even if we had sold the house at a $10,000 loss and had to be in debt in order to pay off the outstanding portion of our loan, we would have been so much further ahead financially. What seemed like practical and sensible thinking was really fear in disguise. Fear costs you so much more than the risk of losing. It traps you in a situations where you can never win.

Lesson four: Question your assumptions
I had an epiphany the other day. I don’t want to own this house any more. It’s that simple. There is no value to me in being a landlord. I need to let go. I started talking to realtors and learned that the Cleveland market is starting to turn around and that people are actively home shopping again. My fears had caused me to make assumptions about the market, based on the past. Making a fresh inquiry brought me facts. While property values are still abysmal, the market is moving along briskly. I can list this house and I might actually break even or come out just a few thousand dollars ahead on the sale.

I’ve moved on in my life to a great new career in a city I love. No need to be tethered to anything that might limit me. The sales agreement will be my diploma. It’s time for my house to teach a different pupil. Lessons learned!
You don't always have to learn the hard way.  My new book Career Crisis helps you to uncover the fears and assumptions you may be making in your own life so you can unblock them and move forward to what you really want.

The Limiting Beliefs of Architects

As a profession dedicated to making our clients’ vision a reality, we do a lousy job of realizing our
vision for our own careers. Maybe that’s because so few architects have taken the time to have a career vision. They think they do, because they have embraced the thinking of their teachers, mentors, co-workers and friends. It’s a surprisingly pessimistic and monolithic point of view for a profession that prides itself on its creativity. As I was working on my book, and thinking about my career coaching sessions over the last few years, I realized time and again how much of the problem we have in getting fulfillment from our careers comes from limiting beliefs. These beliefs are so deeply a part of our “architect culture” that we don’t even recognize them. I teach people how to realize their passion, and the biggest challenge I encounter when working with them are these experiential lessons which are reinforced throughout our careers unless we break the pattern:

Competition is the path to success
We are primed from our days in the studio during college to compete with one another. To believe that there is a winner, and by default, losers. The RFP and interview process underscore this idea, leading firms to undercut one another in a race to the bottom. This commoditizes our work, which causes the design process and resulting building to have less value to both the client and society as a whole. It is a mindset of lack, believing that there is only so much pie to go around, and we better do whatever it takes to get our piece. It leads us to settle for less than we deserve in terms of compensation and design effort, to focus on bringing service instead of true innovation.
Danger of this belief: you feel your time has no value.
Overcome it by thinking differently about what you do and why. Don’t accept the premise of winners and losers, instead focus on the unexpressed needs you see in the situation and how you are uniquely qualified to meet them.

It’s fame or shame
I recently read an article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, where he makes the incredibly profound statement, “If you know it will work it isn’t creative.” How many firms actually embrace a culture of experimentation? Even the ones that do have a pretty low threshold for failure. No one thinks that a scientist working in the lab on experiment after experiment, each result building on the knowledge to improve the next experiment is a loser because it may take years, even decades to discover something. But in our “creative” profession, we grovel with our tail between our legs whenever the client or contractor finds fault with us. Paradoxically, we are always looking for the project and opportunity that will be our “big break,” while secretly stewing over the successes of our competition.
Danger of this belief: you are afraid to take risks.
Overcome it by taking a step back from the everyday steps in the process and start to look at the big picture. Ask why not more often and don’t be afraid to have, then fully vet, big ideas.

Being provocative means you are smart
No, it likely means you’re an out of touch pompous ass, who’s had a few brilliant ideas. Our “upbringing” as architects tends to reward those who are unconventional just for the sake of being unconventional. Maybe because we buy into that fame or shame mentality so much. The provocateur is usually trying to overcome the conditioned risk adversity by putting so much out there that people will start to feel that they are unenlightened clods trapped in conventional thinking if they shut down the ideas. Unfortunately, this approach only reinforces a negative stereotype and is rooted less in a willingness to help people think differently about their needs than it is about the provocateur’s desire to get attention.
Danger of this belief: solving the problem is not as important to you as making a statement.
Overcome it by investing more insight into your effort. I believe that big ideas are not only important but necessary. However, the idea needs to have relevance to the situation at hand and be tied to solving a problem. Even more important the big idea needs to feel inclusive and allow others on the design or user group team to build upon it.

You can’t get rich and be an architect
Oh, look how hard you’re working, you poor burned out thing. Procrastinating out of exhaustion until the rush of adrenaline at the eleventh hour gives you that flash of brilliance you need to triumphantly complete the task. This reinforces a competitive culture, where burning the candle at both ends is a badge of honor. There is a kind of nobility in being the misunderstood artiste engaged in a valiant fight against the system. The truth: All nighters were a bad idea back in school and they are an even worse idea once you enter the working world. Vision and clarity don’t visit the exhausted. What’s more, if you are working long, crazy hours, you likely are going off on your own instead of collaborating.
Danger of this belief: you believe that individual effort matters more than collaboration
Overcome it by working smarter. Engage your team both in and out of house. If someone else can do a task even 80% as well as you can, it’s worth delegating it to them. Be a mentor and seek out mentors of your own. You don’t have to do this alone, and the end result will be better than if you burn yourself out trying.

Our profession desperately needs to become a lot more introspective. We need to reposition ourselves for the future like we mean it if we want the relevance we so desperately claim to seek. So as you look over these limiting beliefs (and we are all guilty of all of them to some degree), ask yourself, “what’s holding you back?”
For a more in depth look at how you are limiting yourself and strategies to fearlessly pursue the career you really want, check out Career Crisis.  Let me know what you think and how it helps you unbind your creativity.

Homemaking: Urban living meets affordability

Top: the Micro-Unit Prototype
Above: The What's IN team: from back moving left to right: 
Ben Stracco, Mika Gilmore, Lisa Walden, Marcus Hamblin, 
Fred Kramer, B.K. Boley, Tamara Roy, Blake Goodwin, 
Zach Pursley, Ruthie Kuhlman, Meredith Powell, 
Melissa Miranda, Aeron Hodges, Derrick Nickerson, 
Michelle Kim, Quinton Kerns, Dan Connolly, Chris Neukamm.
We take for granted the amenities around us.  We are (mostly) warm, safe and dry, yet often feel discontented with our space, not because it fails to provide for us, but because it fails to enrich us.  Whether it's that cookie cutter subdivision home with its oddball "feature" spaces, the dreary big city walk-up apartment that barely meets any kind of building code or something in between, so few of us have the opportunity to live in a space that really supports how we want to live in it.  But what if the reason our living spaces fail us is because we don't have the right expectations for them?  What if you could throw out everything you thought you knew about how to live in a home and started over?  The subject of my master's thesis at the University of Arizona was the impact of telecommuting on our understanding of the home.  Part of the research I did involved looking at the evolution of our understanding of a home.  Most of us are stuck in a model that comes straight out of the Victorian era, where urban equaled bad and the domestic sphere needed to be clearly separated from the sphere of work.  But we don't live in the Victorian era anymore, so why should our spaces?

What's IN is trying to answer that question.  This exciting urban housing research project includes the Boston design groups ADD Inc and One-In-3 as well as MapLab and local mosaic artists Artaic and has undertaken a study of the demographics and sociographics of urban housing today and proposes ideas on how to best meet the live/work needs of young professionals.  It's a national trend that young college graduates are looking for the urban lifestyle in ever increasing numbers.  So are aging baby boomers.  To the extent that a city can provide the housing they seek, that city can prevent a "brain drain" of young, innovative and educated professionals.  So what stops them?  Affordability and amenity are the two big issues.  This group is attracted to the vibrant, culturally rich and diverse environment found in urban neighborhoods, but not the price tag that necessarily comes with it.  What's IN's solution: the Micro-Unit.

Defined as a single family dwelling unit ranging from 250-300 square feet, the Micro-Unit has stripped living down to its essential elements; bathroom, kitchenette, storage and living/sleeping areas.  Borrowing a page from European and Asian models (and ancient Roman city life for that matter), What's IN offers the larger spaces we have been conditioned to believe we need within our dwellings outside of them in the form of communal social spaces.  This not only allows the units themselves to be more affordable, but fosters the kind of neighborliness that studies show keep our communities safe and vibrant.  Says Quinton Kerns, one of the group's founders, "With minimal/durable use materials we can minimize cost of construction and with the re-imagined unit sizes we can provide more density within a floor than what is currently offered with most market rate units. The Micro-Unit seeks to tackle the ongoing problem of affordability in urban housing coupled with the opportunity to foster a social revival in our local communities."

This is real research- the group conducted polls, looked at product options, studied prefabrication techniques, investigated design precedents from all over the world, and looked at real estate issues.  They also partnered with business and civic leaders to talk about the issues involved in making their concept take off.  What did they learn?  Affordability trumps all.  In perhaps a crushing blow to most designers, futuristic, gadgety, multi-tasking furniture was soundly rejected by the focus group.  Based this information, they determined an ideal unit size (300 sf) and features to include in a prototype microunit, with smart features important to urbanites, including bike storage and casework that could be user-built a la IKEA to save money.  A mockup of the unit was then constructed by the What's IN team.  To get the widest possible range of feedback, the mockup went on tour at prominent Boston venues ABX 2012 at the Boston Convention and Exposition Center, the Atlantic Wharf lobby adjacent to the BSA Space, and The Modern Theater at Suffolk University. The group created a survey to allow mockup viewers to weigh in on how well they think such a living arrangement would or wouldn't work for them, in addition to providing key demographic information to help inform the development of future microunit initiatives.  "The unit has been donated to Suffolk University so that students and faculty can utilize this model to engage the business and academic communities in and around Boston as this movement for approachable living becomes a reality," says Kerns. "What's IN is currently venturing into a deeper research initiative focusing on the social/community impacts for this new housing typology by means of further crowd sourcing, community surveying, community outreach, and a continued discussion with policy makers at City Hall. We are looking at displaying our findings at this year’s ABX 2013 with the ultimate goal of having some solid development in the works by the year’s end." 

The group's Tamara Roy presented What's IN's work to date in late March 2013 at a housing Forum at Suffolk University. Her presentation powerfully illustrates just how much a shortage of affordable housing impacts the city, and the innovative approach to solving this problem that the group developed.  "We believe in the power of tiny things and the Micro-Unit speaks to that idea," says Kerns. "Through our research we found that city dwellers are not only willing to share living, eating, and social areas within their living environments, but they really want these amenities to be more social! And through this call for more social living we are faced with a great opportunity for innovation. Diversity + Density + Interaction = Knowledge the nature of what they are, micro-units foster innovation!"

Key What's IN Players:
Tamara Roy: Senior Associate Principal at ADD Inc and “Mother of the Micro-Unit” in Boston.
Aeron Hodges: Designer at ADD Inc, Co-Founder of the WHATS IN initiative and target demographic of the emerging families.
Quinton Kerns: Designer at ADD Inc, Co-Founder of the WHATS IN initiative and target demographic of the single young professional.
Fred Kramer: President of ADD Inc, Supportive Powerhouse and target demographic of the empty nester.
Chris Neukamm: Designer at ADD Inc, Committee member of WHATS IN
Michelle Kim: Designer at ADD Inc, Committee member of WHATS IN
Dan Connolly: Project Manager at STA, Committee member of WHATS IN and member of ONEin3
Blake Goodwin: Director of Operations for Artaic, Committee member of WHATS IN and member of ONEin3

What’s your Mountain?

How is being an architect like scaling Mount Everest?  I always read accounts of climbers with a sort of sick fascination, part of me wondering what would ever possess anyone to take on this task.  You can’t even see very far from that high up, and your body is so ravaged by the lack of oxygen and extreme cold that you can’t hang out up there and enjoy it.  As someone who is not athletic and is proud of myself that I attend yoga class three times a week, I don’t have a refined appreciation for the physical.  Especially an extreme sport like mountain climbing. I didn’t see the appeal of putting your life on hold for nearly a year to train, then scale this mountain.  Why, why, I thought would anyone risk their life like this?  Why would they make themselves so uncomfortable, put their bodies through such a grueling experience?  I recently read Mark Inglis’s story of how he scaled Mt. Everest as a double amputee. Mark’s account helped me to see that it was about more than just the ego. 

It’s easy to take the concept of scaling Everest as a totally literal pursuit.  The man vs. nature plot at its finest.  But that would be getting it wrong.  You don’t climb the mountain to conquer the mountain.  You climb to conquer yourself. It’s about setting a challenge and devoting yourself single-mindedly to meeting that challenge with every resource of your physical, mental and spiritual being.  If you are going to climb Everest, you cannot let anything stand in your way, especially not yourself.  You clear out your life to train and then make the climb.  And then you let go, you work with, not against the mountain.  You respect its seasons, weather patterns and above all the advice of your guides.  Depending on the year, you may not make it up and the fact that by waiting, you live to make the attempt another time has to be enough.

So back to life as an architect.  What’s your Everest?  What big goal do you have that you would devote yourself to achieve?  What matters so much to who you are that you will make the time and the space to realize it?  If you don’t know, or came up with some wimpy goal like “get a promotion,” you are not alone.  Maybe just thinking along these lines made you feel slightly depressed because your career is so NOT going the way you hoped it would.  You may even be rolling your eyes right now and thinking that having a goal as big as yourself is as ridiculous as it is unattainable.

I’m here to tell you that it’s not.  You can have a career that is life-affirming because it reinforces your sense of purpose in this world.  But first, you have to be deeply in touch with what that purpose is.  You have to have a personal mission statement and a plan that includes steps you can do today that align you with that purpose.  You have to clear away all the fears and all of the rationalizations that are holding you back.  Like the mountain climber, you have to eliminate all the waster activities in your professional life that are not directly moving you towards your goals. 
As a reader of this blog, you aren’t content to have just an average career.  You want to make a difference.  You want to operate as an inspiration to the world.  And I want to help you get there.  In addition to my blog posts, I offer career coaching services that allow you to work with me one on one on your individual career quest.  I’m also so excited to announce that I will very shortly be publishing my first book, Career Crisis.  This book contains many of the strategies I use with my coaching clients, but it let’s you use my techniques and act as your own coach.  It’s not very long on purpose because it’s not meant to dictate, but to guide you.  You have to do the work, but if you do, I promise you’ll be amazed at the transformation you see in your career and in your life.

Find your career mountain and know that you can get to the top.  Get ready to challenge yourself to your greatest potential, to concentrate your efforts to a single purpose, to push through hardships, and finally, to stand up on that summit and say, “Yes, yes, I did it!”

Remedies for Healthcare Design: Major industry directions you need to address

Sometimes as architects, we get so myopically focused on what we do, in the process of design and project delivery, we fail to see the biggest picture. Our clients and colleagues often suffer this same malady, leaving us in need of a new place to go to seek perspective, and get out of the healthcare design echo chamber. One of my sources of choice is MedCity News. Founded in 2008 by Chris Seper, MedCity is a clearinghouse for information on all things related to healthcare and life sciences (which I often find includes many other aspects of design as well). Precisely because of his vantage point as a journalist, not a designer, with his finger on the pulse of macro issues impacting healthcare world, Chris has some amazing insights into what we’re missing:

There’s been a lot of focus lately on the patient experience. How do you see these trends impacting healthcare spaces themselves?
Patient engagement is emerging as a big issue, as healthcare consumerism rises. This will include a bigger emphasis on wayfinding, guiding patients around the hospital, as well as designing hospitals to provide more information through integration of data and organization of the space. It is also important to make the hospital feel less institutional and more welcome. Hospitals are the least inviting of any buildings, but now they are the largest buildings being constructed in most cities. For example, when you compare past architecture and current major building projects here in Cleveland, you are comparing structures like Symphony Hall and Playhouse Square to the University Hospital’s Seidman Cancer Center and Cleveland Clinic’s Sydell and Arnold Miller Pavilion or the Medical Mart. Healthcare will sculpt the face of many of the metropolitan areas of the country, it’s where the jobs are and the donors. There is an external aesthetic, and a legacy that will be written by hospital designers, something that was not even thought of seven to ten years ago. City planners will wake up too late to understand how to integrate them into the urban context. In 50 years, these hospitals will be the historic buildings we will be looking at. It’s an unknowing legacy.

How important do you think employee satisfaction will become in healthcare? What are some ways that amenities offered in the work environment will affect this?
You hear about shortages of high quality talent, but the indicators are that this is a buyer’s market. Many physicians are running to be acquired by health systems. Nurses have suffered notoriously poor treatment and are being laid off. Unless you are a rock star clinician, most systems will treat you like a widget. Any changes to your environment will be based on how it will extract value to patients because of the emerging reimbursement model and business model. The answers for shortages are to leverage technology and increase productivity, i.e. telemedicine.

How can design work to support the technological change taking place in the way healthcare is delivered?
There’s a lot of product fulfillment going on, leveraging RFID, sensors, wireless networks, better inventory management. There needs to be a level of consideration of how you manage and supply these systems. How patients flow matters, but so does inventory management to avoid over or understocking of supplies and correct delivery of drugs. Security will also be a bigger issue. How do you design a hospital where these are no visiting hours and people come and go all day?
I was at the Digital Health Summit this year and came away realizing that there were three major issues impacting healthcare; changes to government policy on reimbursement of sick care vs. management of wellness, the food people consume or are forced to consume (i.e low income residents of food deserts), and unlocking the desire of human beings to be healthy. Most people who need health and wellness don’t seek it or can’t do it. Most people who do seek healthcare are the worried well. Therefore, hospitals are dealing with managing the seriously ill or crisis conditions, while at the same time trying to pivot their focus on wellness.

We are a third of the way at most to achieving optimal healthcare delivery. Despite the resources out there for people to manage their own health, no physician is going to trust information gathered by a patient. Technology is still in the background. Mobile apps are useless when it comes to the clinical diagnosis of your problems because the rules and regulations and ability to quickly scan or tag information is still not there. There is also still a tendency to look to a clinical solution instead of a lifestyle one. For example, they are inventing all of these high priced ways to deal with sleep apnea when the number one way to deal with it is weight loss.

As architects, we often have to place design in the context of a hospital’s value vs. cost propositions. How many of these emerging value scenarios will actually improve quality through innovation in delivery of care or process?
Innovation is the biggest challenge. If there’s one thing healthcare is panicking over, it’s how to change their innovation and interface. Motivations have changed. How do you leverage data, and keep it accurate and of high quality, much less tap into big data potential? Everything has been structured for silos. Healthcare over the past ten years has moved into a real overall ROI through cross pollination of ideas. A hospital will spin off and partner with early stage companies in ways they never would have in the past and pharmacy companies will pursue a mobile app as aggressively as they would have a molecule. The whole ecosystem is changing, but the structures have not changed with it. An triumvirate of healthcare has emerged; patients/customers, clinicians, and the B to B side. One of the things we have been able to accomplish with Med City is to provide a forum for all sectors to interact, especially the underserved B to B side of healthcare.

Chris Seper (chris @ is the CEO of MedCity Media, which publishes Chris drives the culture, oversees business and editorial directions, and manages the governance of the company (he also writes periodically for Chris is a former journalist turned media entrepreneur who launched MedCity Media in December 2008. He sits on the board of directors of The Civic Commons and the advisory boards of Spoke Software and Your Teen Magazine.