For me, university was about finding the confidence to explore creativity, the notion of self, and determining my own measurements of expectation. Last year I wrote an article entitled “10 things you don’t get taught in architecture school,” which provided advice on how to succeed in an academic setting. Having now graduated, the following article is reflective of my first 2 years working full time in architecture.
My experience in the office so far has required another round of self-configuring: repositioning the value of free thinking, redetermining the notion of self within the larger context of someone else's expectations, and managing my objectives with those of others. The measurement of success is no longer determined by me, but by various organisational objectives and requirements.
Essential to the journey of finding my current job, I have initiated substantial life changes that include establishing a career strategy, reevaluating how I position myself in the field of architecture, and questioning who I am as an individual and what I want to contribute to the profession.
After the break, the 10 things most responsible for my obtaining a job in architecture...
1. Build a supportive network
Jim Rohn, was an author and motivational speaker who famously said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” (1) I have always found this idea incredibly fascinating. In the scientific study, “Nonconscious Mimicry: Its Ubiquity, Importance, and Functionality,” authors Amy N. Dalton and Tanya L. Chartrand suggest that humans unconsciously mimic their social surroundings. It is undeniable, then, that your support network – both near and far – forms an important component in defining not only who you are today but also how your future ideals are shaped.
I have always focused on building meaningful relationships – both personal, professional and hybrid. Throughout my career journey I often turn to colleagues, mentors, friends, and family for guidance. I often speak to them without an agenda, enabling clarity and helping me to better understand myself and what I want in my career. Importantly, such a support network should encourage one’s growth, contribute to one’s creativity, expand one’s thinking, and question one’s preconceived values about work.
The most profound, yet simple question was put to me one morning at a cafe, by Atlassian co-founder Scott Farquhar. As I struggled to define my purpose within the field of architecture, he asked me, “What are you solving for?” as if my problem were algebraic with a clear mathematical structure. After much deliberation and deep introspection, I was able to better define my purpose (refer to no. 2, below), ultimately establishing a set of professional values to compare potential employers against (refer to no. 3, below).
2. Define your purpose
After finishing university, I worked at a high profile international office, under extreme pressure for incredibly long hours (I’d often start at 8am and finish past midnight, as well as work on the weekends). I was investing a large portion of my energy to satisfy the various organisational objectives, leaving me very little time to consider what I wanted to achieve in my own career. As I continued to work under these conditions I could see that the directors of the organisation were striving towards something very different to what I sought for my personal future. I am so appreciative of this experience in my career, yet at the time, I knew I needed to explore a more personally meaningful direction in architecture.
It was important that I take a step back and reflect upon my purpose. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey talks about the importance of beginning with the end in mind (2), by developing a personal mission statement and establishing your desired objectives.
Below is my own personal statement:
1. Create quality: Studies in neuroscience indicate the quality of a built environment has the ability to enhance the performance of the brain and to generate the growth of new brain cells (3). When seeking a cure for polio, Jonas Salk retreated to the Basilica of Assisi. Salk insisted that the design and environment in which he found himself had cleared his obstructed mind, inspiring the solution that led to the polio vaccine. Architecture has the ability to teach, create and expand our understanding of the world and allows for unique opportunities to influence our thinking and broaden our interactions.
2. Create knowledge: The notion of teaching through the environment was developed in the 1940’s by Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach. Malaguzzi explains, “There are three teachers of children: adults, other children, and their physical environment,” including their social surroundings (4).
3. Create meaning: Architecture is produced through a unique understanding and interpretation of placemaking. Architects should be aware of the artistic, social, political and cultural context of site. My current focus in architecture relates to the home: where families grow and contract, habitual routines are developed, and our notions of safety and placemaking are formed. I seek to find meaning through connectivity and by creating a positive impact on the lives of others.
4. Create with principles: Inspired by anarchist punk ethics (5), which rely on the principles of freedom, autonomy and negation of power, I have no desire to be another visionary architect. Architecture, to me, is grassroots, without exclusion, open for interpretation and never dictatorial. Open for interpretation, architecture should not be a commodity, and may be created for anyone by anyone. To expand this thinking, I have written the article, “Architecture and Anarchy.”
3. Form a selection criteria
After identifying what I wanted to contribute to the profession, I was able to recognise that my current organisation was not driven by the same values. Dissatisfied with my current position, I found it quite straightforward to define what was missing from my role in architecture. Having identified the above principles, I was able to reverse-engineer my dissatisfaction into a constructive selection of criteria to which I could compare potential employment opportunities.
Throughout this process I was counselled by Paul Dickinson, a leadership coach based in Sydney. Dickinson helped me to extract my ideals and ultimately put pen to paper. I looked to the people I admired, both inside and outside architecture, and began to think about their journey, their role and what they offer to the world.
Based on my core values and purpose within the field, I developed the following criteria:
I want an office that will…
a) Provide mentorship: I seek individuals who will invest their time to teach, listen and guide my direction.
b) Contribute to exciting project roles and responsibilities: I want to be involved in the entire process of building and to understand how things come together.
c) Accommodate and extend on my personal values: What matters to me also matters to the people around me. We must operate within authentic values.
d) Foster a fun and culturally driven work environment: It is important to be around people that I can relate to, that inspire me, and make me laugh.
e) Be a creative firm with a point of difference: I want to work for a firm that has consistently good projects. Knowing which projects to turn down is just as important as knowing which ones to take on.
f) Provide opportunities to upskill and learn: I want to be around a team that is willing to share knowledge in order to help me navigate my way into their system, thus fostering my professional growth.
g) Acknowledge and appreciate my contribution to the company: I want to work with a company that openly communicates and shows appreciation for its employees; a company that is validating and motivating.
h) Allow creative freedom within my role and provide autonomy: I wanted the opportunity to express myself through design and to find a firm that is comfortable enough to let me fail or to guide me through the creative process.
i) Support and encourage extra-curricular activities: I wanted to find a company that sees the value in personal development and that encourages me to have a personal life outside standard work hours.
j) Have purpose-driven projects that extend beyond commercial gain: I want to find a firm that had a greater purpose beyond the commercial aspirations of a project, I want them to have a bigger story, with a more meaningful agenda that I can operate within.
k) Allow input on the company’s direction: I want a company that provides a framework that fosters “ownership thinking” amongst the team members for sharing collective goals.
l) Be surrounded by people that live inspired lives: Jim Rohn in his book, Leading an Inspired life, touches on having compelling goals, discipline, and focusing on personal development as the fundamentals for personal success. It is essential to work with people who seek to reach their potential while maintaining a work-life balance.
If you want to begin the process of developing your own job selection criteria, I recommend watching these videos: Dan Pink: The Puzzle of Motivation and Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, also by Dan Pink. He discusses the three core human motivations of mastery, autonomy and purpose.
4. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
Being introverted by nature means I am often reserved and analytical. I try to achieve a deep understanding of myself, others and the world through listening, observation and study. In the process of finding my current job, my introverted personally often translated into self-directed learning to continue developing, first-hand travel to continue experiencing, and communication with others to continue connecting.
I learn most effectively through reading, music, conferences and courses. Since graduation, I have read broadly about architecture, business, marketing, personal development, science and religion. If you are an architecture student you might find this Archi-Ninja.com post helpful: List of Top 10 Architecture Books for Student Architects.
I often listen to podcasts or TED talks about the most eclectic and exciting subjects. By doing so, I hope to broaden my knowledge and influences.
Through travel I have attained a better understanding of various cultures, history and notions of place making. After university, I traveled around Australia, Europe, Spain, the UK and the US. During this time I toured notable architectural buildings and visited architecture offices, including those of Bjarke Ingels and Frank Gehry. I also volunteered for various events including the Venice Architecture Biennale 2012. The opportunity to take in and "inhale” these new experiences while travelling allowed me to, in turn, “exhale" and reflect upon my position in the world.
Seeking to understand is about deeply and empathetically listening and connecting to those around you. I believe it is more important to deeply understand potential employers not in terms of what their company provides but instead focusing on who they are. I spent time interviewing with many firms that I thought were a fit for me. During my interviews, rather than trying to express my opinion, I focused my energy on listening to what they were choosing and willing to share with me. I sought to establish whether they could provide an inspirational and satisfying workplace.
5. Represent externally who you are internally
Despite external influences, everyday pressures, and dealing with my self-consciousness, authenticity (to myself and to other people) is of great importance.
Interviews and portfolios are often impersonal, constructed as a sales pitch representing yourself as the best possible job candidate. Naturally people will hold back their option or agree to something in order to avoid confrontation. Realise that no matter how much you think you want the job, if you cannot genuinely express yourself then it’s probably not the right value fit. My portfolio was designed to represent only a single chapter of my life; a reflection of my personal and professional work during my time at university. It was created as an authentic and honest archive of my history, experience, achievements, and explorations in architecture.
The interview provided a forum to share my larger goals, values, weaknesses and aspirations. Most importantly I wanted to understand how my story fit into the larger story of my potential employer.
I have always argued that you do not need to be serious in order to be taken seriously and to have a meaningful agenda. Though dressing casually I have been asked – and at times told – to appear like a “responsible” corporate employee, I have never done so in a way that goes against who I am and how I choose to present myself. Rather than superficially, the most compelling, influential and approachable stories are often conveyed through the unexpected turn of intellect, energy, humor and play.
6. Make an impression
Your portfolio will be just one in a pile of hundreds, if the firm you hope to work for has a strong reputation. Your first challenge is to establish your point of difference. The best way to make an impression is through your credentials, however, this required me to disregard the most common (superficial) advice on “How to make a good impression.”
Education aside, I have invested a considerable amount of time into attending and speaking at conferences to build awareness and to network with potential employers. To build my confidence, I went through a rigorous presentation training program. This improved my ability to communicate effectively both one-on-one and to an audience. I have also invested in a number of other personal projects including object design, logo design, archi-ninja.com, writing, and curating industry exhibitions.
While developing my portfolio, I also contacted three companies outside the architecture industry, including an online e-commerce store, a builder, and a model maker. I used this time as an opportunity to see how my education in architecture could be applied to other industries and to establish whether architecture was the right direction for me at the time. Having allowed myself to step away from the industry, I was able to look into the profession as an outsider and to truly evaluate what it was that I wanted from it.
I spent about four weeks designing and distributing my portfolio. I wanted to be confident that in a pile of other portfolios mine would stand out. I considered the size, shape and how the user would navigate through the content. Most candidates email electronic copies and this may not be seen by the right person. I considered having my portfolios delivered by a ninja but instead went with a courier, still making sure it was received by the right person.
I sent my portfolio to many companies, even if they were not hiring. The goal was to have coffee with as many potential employers as possible. I sought to make the most of their time: visiting their offices, flying interstate, or talking via video chat. Gaining greater exposure to the different types of interview styles allowed me to be more comfortable when it came to the one I really wanted.
7. Don’t be afraid to pursue change
When I lived in Sydney, I sought to pivot the direction of my career into residential architecture, however, I felt that a few firms located in Melbourne were better suited to the direction that I wanted to move in. Melbourne better accommodates younger, creative firms to explore residential, shop, café and bar projects. Sydney is well known for its tourism potential and urban interface via the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Melbourne, by contrast, is characterised by deep layers of vibrant, urban culture. It is within the latter context that I am most at ease and inspired.
Few things in life are permanent and when making the decision to move interstate, I weighed up the positives and negatives. At times confronting, the move pushed me far outside of my comfort zone as my entire support network was back in Sydney. My existing network is incredibly strong and I am in contact with them daily while at the same time I focus on building new support pillars in Melbourne. During the transition I also reflected upon the story of who I am as projected by other people, moving to Melbourne and re-evaluating what I wanted from my career is largely in-part about defining that story to be more accurate.
It is important to aspire for new influences, mentors, and challenges. We are creatures of habit and so we easily fall into routines that make us complacent and near-sighted – routines that muffle our critical eye. By uprooting my life to a new, perhaps more suitable city for emerging and experimental architects, I welcomed another round of self-reflection, redress, and redefining of my career goals.
Unexpectingly, new and exciting opportunities have presented themselves in Melbourne. By pursuing change, I have grown more independent, boundless and confident. Autonomous in the new city, I have had no other choice but to seek new opportunities, to attend industry events and invest in new social relationships. In so doing, I have presented myself as I am, with the hope that the right people will will be attracted to accordingly.
8. Identify your value
During university, I invested my energy into finding a company that had the ability to support me during my education. Working on exciting projecting, I was surrounded by great friends, teachers and mentors. It was only after leaving my first post-university job that I was able to step back to reflect upon my value contribution.
I believe the most important thing is to set your own benchmark for success, a marker that will often be higher than the expectations of those around you. At the time of selecting a firm post-graduation, I did not seek my “dream job,” for I had very little knowledge of the industry and what being an architect in a practical sense actually entailed on a day-to-day basis. My focus, rather, was to find the right value fit.
When looking for a firm, spend time to evaluate your relevant, unique and compelling value contribution. The next step is to find a firm that fits what you are looking for; a firm that understands your contribution and will in return gain value from what you can offer to them.
Many organisations have a nice sounding value statement: Enron, whose leaders went to jail for fraud, displayed their values of “integrity, communication, respect and excellence” in their building lobby. By contrast, I believe true company values are shown by action: Who receives respect within the company? Who is promoted or let go? Seek out these inquiries and make note of these individuals as representatives of the company’s behavior and valued skills.
Many students or recent graduates undervalue their position in the industry by voluntarily working overtime hours or offering their services for free, in turn creating unhealthy culture and expectations within the industry. Social theorist Slavoj Žižek argues that modern organisations fabricate a culture to empower the employer while denying the employee the right to vocalize and protest dissatisfaction. These organisations are devaluing the profession, creating an environment that is difficult to resource or manage without relying on cheap (or free) labour.
Netflix released a great presentation on adding value to a company by seeking to be a “rare responsible person;” self motivating, self aware, self disciplined and self improving: Netflix Culture: Freedom and Responsibility. Once you recognise your value and rare responsibilities, you should seek to engineer a role that allows for your attributes to be implemented.
9. Your job is only one part of what defines you
Understand that your career is only one component of what defines you, and it’s the remainder of that definition that provides the capacity for you to uniquely contribute to your job. The most important thing for me as a recent graduate was to find a good work-life balance.
Architect Andrew Maynard wrote a great article about work-life balance,”Work/life/work Balance,” in which he describes the commonality of employees to neglect other components of their life by believing they will find happiness and contentment at a later time. This is identified by Clive Hamilton as the Deferred Happiness Syndrome.
My own imbalanced life was isolating potential opportunities, both personal and professional. Working extreme overtime was mentally and physically exhausting. It was debilitating to my creative production, my ability to look at my work critically, and to my social stamina. It is alarming to learn that overworked, low-rung employees (and even unpaid interns) are rampant throughout the architecture world. How can we, as architects, assume responsibility for resolving fragile social, urban, and environmental issues if our workforce is performing out of desperation and without a clear perspective on both their professional work and their personal relationships?
University life exposed me to egalitarian culture, “all-nighters” and over-valuing the importance of the architecture industry. Initially this translated directly into the workplace. I burnt out, and after reflecting upon this my focus has been directed toward finding balance. I finish work before 6pm, allowing the opportunity to find greater pleasure in life. New opportunities have begun to create a meaningful life-balance, allowing me to bring more energy and focus into the office and to better contribute through my unique experiences beyond nine-to-five.
10. Know when to quit your job
The corporate world is directed towards keeping employees in their current roles rather than matching the individual with their ideal role. I realised that I needed to take ownership over my own role. When interviewing I was very clear about what I needed from the office including what I was willing to take on.
Staying in the wrong role can have a negative impact on your confidence. We tend to internalize the false-expectations of others. It is important, especially as a recent-graduate, to present yourself as you are: with minimal professional experience (which is gained naturally with time and effort), but also an individual with innovative ideas and technical abilities that are unique. No employer should expect you to know how to seamlessly project-manage the entire process of building right out of university. Your employer should manage their expectations to suit. In turn, you should offer your fresh perspective and technical agency in exchange for their experience, mentorship and guidance.
I have always been a long term employee, and so leaving the organisation that fostered my growth was no easy decision. Make sure you leave an organisation for the right reasons (6). Look for the signs that your job is no longer in line with your personal goals, or that perhaps the position is not in line with your skill level or skill set.
Leonard Schlesinger, in his book, Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future, establishes a series of questions to ask yourself when you are considering leaving your job, and also to recognise the difference between ordinary, occasional dissatisfaction and a genuine mismatch.
After leaving my job in Sydney, I took on part-time employment to support my living expenses, allowing me to decline a number of positions in order to follow my heart and intuition when selecting a firm. Of the positions that I did accept, I negotiated a trial timeframe to truly evaluate whether the organisation was a value fit. If not, I walked away quickly and on good terms.
Recognising the shortcomings of my past positions allowed me to redirect my journey. This experience has been one of the most rewarding and gratifying successes in my life.
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