Up until now, you have been on a well-worn track where the next step is known in advance: graduation. From this moment forward, your life is like a path through the trees that the falling snow has covered over; the one clear course is now a memory, and in its place are many possible paths. You will have to rely on your internal compass to navigate, like so many before you. This annual rite of passage has been made all the more unsettling by the pandemic. Not fair, I know. Life has thrown you a curveball, but it won’t be the last time in your career that conditions suddenly change—so get used to it. Learn how to hit curveballs.
Architecture school teaches you how to be a good student, but it doesn’t teach you how to be a good architect. Your first job in architecture is the most critical one because it shapes your understanding of the field when you are most impressionable, and the habits you pick up there will serve you (or dog you) for a lifetime. Think of it as an investment, not a dividend. Put yourself in an environment where everyone is better than you, because it will make you better. Here are suggestions to help you avoid some common missteps and hopefully make seeing your path a little easier.
Passion is overrated. About 90 percent of the cover letters we get from entry-level job applicants include some version of this phrase: “I am passionate about architecture.” Frankly, I don’t care about your passions; I only care what you are good at. I would rather hear you say that you are passionate about opera, or stamp collecting, or golf (OK, maybe not golf), but that your talents lie in architecture. To illustrate: when I was your age, I was passionate about literature, but I didn’t become a novelist, and, to this day, I am passionate about football, but that doesn’t mean I could play in the NFL. You get the idea. Assess what you are good at, and become great at it through hard work and perseverance. Chances are that if you are good at something, you’ll be happy doing it and your resulting success will allow you to indulge your passions, whatever they may be (hopefully, not golf).
Beware desire. Architecture school conditions students to “want” to be a designer, but only a fraction end up there (the numbers don’t lie). Do you really need that to be happy, or are you chasing someone else’s dream? Philosopher René Girard is credited with the theory of imitative desire, which basically states that you want what other people want. Put a kid in a room full of toys and her curiosity will direct her to a toy; put a second kid in the room and watch what happens: the second child will ignore every toy in the room except the one the first child is enjoying; conflict ensues. Be like the first kid and liberate yourself from the constructs of others.
Avoid goals. Conventional wisdom states that you need to have goals to be successful. This is the dumbest advice you’ll ever receive. Strive for specific outcomes and you will live your life in partial failure every day until you reach that goal—or don’t, in which case you’re a permanent failure (of your own making). Reaching a goal feels good—for about 10 seconds. Then an emptiness creeps in which you fill with some new goal to restart the cycle; either way, you lose. It is better to develop good habits and build up good karma that moves you in a positive direction, while staying open-minded about what success might look like.
Failing is good. Just as a good design is the result of many discarded inferior versions, your life should be a trial-and-error process. Each failure brings you closer to what you were supposed to be doing anyway. So fail early, fail often.
Be an onion. Someone good at a variety of things is more valuable than the person who is only good at one thing. There are few people in life who succeed by being supremely gifted at a single thing, and you know their names—Tiger Woods, Luciano Pavarotti, Michael Jordan. They’re so good at what they do that other skills don’t matter. The bad news is that you’re not the Michael Jordan of architecture; the good news is, you don’t have to be. Your chances of success increase with each new skill you develop (as long as those skills are complementary), so become good at other things (speaking, writing, technical knowledge) and layer your skills like an onion.
My first boss in architecture once told me, “To be a good architect, you have to be optimistic, and you have to overcome all kinds of forces lined up against you. It’s a killer field.” The problem is that he didn’t bother to tell me this until I’d had a firm of my own for 20 years and I already knew it through lived experience. So let me not repeat that mistake: the path you travel is not an easy one, and you will get knocked down from time to time. But life is less about what happens to you and more about how you respond to what happens to you; persevere. Our world is changing rapidly, and soon we will need you to lead the way. We’re counting on you.