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.