Four Years In: All Experiences Are Not Created Equal

There are many arts among men, the knowledge of which is acquired bit by bit by experience. For it is experience that causeth our life to move forward by the skill we acquire, while want of experience subjects us to the effects of chance.
— Plato

After a little over a years' hiatus from blogging here, I thought it was about time I get back to writing about architecture. A LOT has happened (and changed!) since my last post and I'll save most of it for another time. But today, after four years of practicing architecture, it's time to reflect on my professional experience in contribution to the #ArchiTalks topic for the month of June.

Experience - it's a fitting first topic to tackle, since it is both because of and despite my unique experience that I am where I am now. Experience is also something I've spent a lot of time lately trying to understand from the perspective of a leader, both in a work environment and as a volunteer and mentor. What I know for certain is that we all have very different backgrounds. And, while there’s certainly work to be done to ensure all young professionals seek out and are given equitable exposure to diverse areas of practice in order to become licensed, architecture is a complex and comprehensive profession and it is stronger because our experiences are so disparate from one another.

One of my favorite things about working with so many people is hearing their stories – who they are, why they are, how they got to where they are now, and where they want to go (and how I might help them get there!). So, this post kicks off a multi-part blog about experience; it’s a reflection on my own path, my own story. Each post will cover one of a handful of significant professional experiences that have shaped my career so far and will have an impact on a long career yet to come.

Part I: Building a Framework for Intersections
Pre-Architecture Experience – Becoming Interdisciplinary

A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.
— Steve Jobs

My resume is always a conversation piece and not necessarily in a good way. For a long time, I felt defensive about my previous work and I’d scold my past self for not taking internships earlier, graduating sooner, or focusing on finding a position with a prestigious firm right out of college. My experience on paper didn’t look the way it should, what you would expect from someone pursuing a life in architecture, and I was ashamed about being different (this is a theme in my life, but I won’t get into that…).

I always knew I belonged in this industry for some reason, but the strange part was that I didn’t love architecture or necessarily want to be an architect. Confused, and lacking the passion of my peers, I took positions for many years that allowed me flexibility in schedule and freedom to explore – retail, food service, healthcare, e-commerce, and more. But when it came time to finally dive into the profession, that sort of background didn’t look compelling to hiring managers at most architecture firms, so I started at the very bottom.

During an uncomfortable transition period where my age and skillset didn’t match my experience level in architecture (and frankly, it still doesn't), I realized there was tremendous value in growing in non-architecture industries before jumping into the AEC world. Because architecture is such a challenging profession with so much to learn, growing and taking on leadership roles can take a very long time and many never even see the business management side of the industry! But the positions I held before were simpler, with fewer barriers to advancement, and I grew into management and leadership positions quickly where I gained invaluable skills, like accounting, operations, and business administration, that most of my architecture peers now (and even superiors) don’t have yet. Not only that, but I had the opportunity to tackle tough problems by developing unique solutions unburdened by influence of over a century’s worth of practice legacy, which gave me what my colleagues call my “rebel spirit”. I see fundamental flaws in practice and management and immediately innovate, looking outside of the AEC industry for inspiration, connect dots from a larger picture, and prototype new ideas without hesitation or fear.

There are experiences I’ve missed that many licensed architects consider the basics, the fundamentals of practice. Some of them, though a little out of order, I’ll still pick up along the way. Some I won’t. But given my current place in practice, I wouldn’t change a thing about my path and past pre-architecture experiences. It is that unique mix of experiences that gave me a broader understanding of the world, which is an essential skill in the practice of architecture.

For everything you have missed, you have gained something else.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Some closing advice for aspiring architects out there, or even experienced architects who might feel stagnant in their professional growth: become experts in anything (and everything) but architecture. Don't just dabble, but really invest yourself in areas of knowledge and practice that are of interest to you outside of the building industry. Chase random passions, chase those things that set you on fire. The more dots you create, the stronger your network becomes, and the bigger and better things you'll be able to catch and tackle in the future. Not only that, but your balanced, diverse, and unique understanding of the world yields better design and stronger personal interest in everything you do. 

I have never regretted stepping off the path (or starting one my own) to get lost in the unexpectedly inspiring.

. . . . . . . . . . 

Coming soon: 

Part II: Strengthening Strands
Equitable Experience – Exploring Differences with NCARB and the WIA

Note: This article is my first entry in the #ArchiTalks series organized by Bob Borson of Life of an Architect.  Every month a group of archi-bloggers gather to write about the same topic.  This month the topic Experience was provided by Lora Teagarden of L² Design, LLC.  Check out the links below to explore posts from the other #ArchiTalks bloggers!

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
experience comes from experiences

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Gaining Experience As A Young Architect

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
knowledge is not experience

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
That's Experience -- A Wise Investment

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
You need it to get it

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Channeling Experience: Storytelling in the Spaces We Design

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
The GC Experience

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)