10 obstacles that lead to success for early-career architects

Photo by  Gary Bendig  on  Unsplash

Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

If you wanted to speed up your career development, what would you do?

You could try doing things quicker. You could obtain more experience by working longer hours. Or you could get more varied experience by attempting to switch projects more frequently.

However, pedalling faster is not always the most effective way of arriving sooner. Sometimes, it's better to concentrate on the things that slow you down.

What follows are my thoughts on how to overcome ten sources of potential inertia that come up in early career. They may not all be apparent to you right now, they will probably need some thinking about, and they will definitely require you to take action.

“Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”

Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage

1. Many things aren’t discussed

When you start work for the first time, you will notice that everyone has a computer. Because of this, you will quickly develop the impression that to do 'work', you must be working on a computer. There are many things, like this, that are taken for granted. They're not true; they're just taken for granted, and therefore not discussed. The same holds for the concept of 'best practice'. It's all very well doing what everyone else is doing, except when that thing turns out to be wrong. As it does with alarming frequency. And then an entire profession can appear foolish.

What can you do?

Don't assume anything and keep asking questions. Be observant. Be curious. Ask why things are done this way and not that way. Start the conversation that other people aren't having. Find ways to keep it going. Make suggestions. Ask if you can do things differently. Or don't ask if you can do things differently; just do them. See what conversations arise when you do.

2. Important subjects aren’t taught

If I were asked how to become proficient at, say, producing construction drawings, I'd have a hard time explaining in any detail. I certainly wasn't put through any educational programme. I picked it up from doing it, from tips and tricks offered by other people, from studying other people's drawings, from a course here and a lecture there and from a host of other sources that I can't remember. Most important subjects are learned in this way. You won't be taught these things in the traditional sense. But you will learn through experience, and it will take a long time.

What can you do?

Understand how progress is made in these 'black-art' subjects. Read around the subject (books, journals, websites). Learn from other people's experiences. Make the most of your own experiences. Talk to really good people. Ask them what they know and how they know it. Find out what strategies and techniques they use. Encourage them to tell stories.

3. Most text books aren’t helpful

I have an explanatory book to the UK building regulations. It's two inches thick and cost £40 in 2004. It sits on the bookshelf unused, as it always has done. Why is that? Because it doesn't tell me what I want to know. Which is how to comply with the building regulations in the particular circumstance that I need right now. Most books don't tell you what you want to know, because what you want to know is usually too specific or too detailed. They're not very good on practical advice either, which is also what you need. Plus, they’re probably out of date.

What can you do?

Keep looking for better books. They'll be hard to find, and you'll only obtain partial answers. Don’t expect anything to be delivered on a plate. Look in other places too. The internet, obviously. But also talk to people. Talk to contractors, suppliers, craftsmen and other consultants. What do they know? What references do they have? Your knowledge will build from disparate sources. Keep a record.

4. Nothing stays the same for long

When I started working, I made the mistake of thinking that I would be learning the time-honoured ways of doing things. I thought I was joining a profession that had already worked everything out. It was a shock to discover that everything was changing and that I was actually joining a moving train. This, combined with the fact that the pace of change seems only to be accelerating, doesn't make things easier for you. Where are the fixes that will provide you with stability while you develop? Where is the literature that explains what's going on?

What can you do?

Stay alert. You have permission to make one assumption: that everything is changing. For any aspect of what you're doing, question how long it's been done like this. Understand how it used to be done. Acquire some understanding of what's really driving the change. Change isn't always for the better. Are you using the latest information? Are the people that you're talking to, working with up to date methods?

5. Mistakes are often concealed

Everyone knows that you learn from your mistakes. However, there are two related problems with making mistakes in a professional environment. People and businesses don't like to admit that they've made mistakes, and this means that the learning opportunity is often lost. I've witnessed reviews of failed projects turn into corporate blame games, and I've seen public demonstrations of how to put a project right when something has gone wrong. The former approach always made things worse. The latter approach, although still potentially painful, allowed for something positive to emerge.

What can you do?

Figure out what you need to do to prevent your own mistakes happening again. What do you need to change? Find ways of sharing what you've learnt with other people. But be aware that mistakes are a sensitive subject. The culture of the organisation in which you work is essential. Put some time between the mistake occurring and the conversation about it. This is a search for better ways of doing things.

6. There isn’t enough feedback

If you've read any books about how experts become expert at what they do, you’ll know that a vital ingredient is feedback. Without feedback, it's easy for your development to stagnate. That's why athletes have coaches. They provide continuous feedback that can be used to determine the next steps in any training plan. But the people you work with have other priorities. There are many other things to think about besides your development needs. If left to natural processes within the office, feedback will be sporadic and ineffective. And when you demonstrate ability, you will be left alone even more.

What can you do?

Seek out people who are natural coaches. You might have several, for different subjects. Recognise when you find yourself working in a vacuum and do something about it. Think about small things. For instance, put your work on the wall. Post a notice saying that you're struggling with a problem and you'd like some feedback. Don't be afraid to say you don't know. The chances are, nobody else knows for certain either.

7. How to’s aren’t written down

As an early-career architect, one of your most significant quests is learning how to do things. All the experienced folk seem to know what they're doing, and it's frustrating that you have to wait for them to explain things. It's also surprising how, after 2000 years of 'architecture', we are still reliant on word-of-mouth. If you were to ask different people how to do something, you would probably receive a range of answers. You should find this interesting for two reasons. Firstly, because there is often more than one way. Secondly, because you can assess which is the best way for you and your particular circumstance.

What can you do?

When you're working on a task, record the sources of information that you've used. You'll be surprised how quickly you forget. When the job is complete, think through how you could have done it better. Start writing things down for yourself. See if you can find other people who will do the same and share with you. Create a culture of sharing. You can accelerate things when there's a collective.

8. Thinking isn’t valued

Businesses tend to be focused on productivity. Which means that you can't do things fast enough for them. They also want things to be right, but you'll only find out about that when things later turn out to be wrong. If thinking were valued, you would be given time to do it. I once worked for someone who believed that it's impossible to get everything right in advance and therefore it's not worth trying. Better to spend your efforts fixing things retrospectively when they've gone wrong. This is not a good approach. Don't be like that. And don't ask me how he got around the quality assurance system.

What can you do?

Thinking is hard and requires effort. Find what works for you. Experiment with different ways of working. Find out what other people do. Keep developing the quality of your thinking even if it feels like it's not being valued. Thinking is a skill; your brain is a muscle. Plenty of other people have explored the subject of thinking. Read up on it. Quality and reliability of thought always trump a shallow view of productivity.

9. Experience isn’t reflected upon

Architects tend to be driven by the next interesting challenge or the next exciting thing to design. They also want to be good at what they do. This results in a dilemma. To get better at the things that matter, you need to reflect on what you've done, how you did it, and how you know what you know. But the next exciting thing usually wins out. Plus there isn't much of a conversation about how best to reflect on experience. Although your professional qualification requires you to keep a record of experience, that's not the same as reflecting on it. Don't confuse box-ticking with doing something valuable.

What can you do?

Keep a development journal. Become conscious of the different tasks that you're being asked to do. When tasks repeat, delve a bit deeper. Think about how you could do them better. Experiment with other approaches. Review them with other people. Things rarely end up worse as a result of talking about them. Develop a discipline for reviewing what you've done before moving on to the next exciting thing.

10. The teachers aren’t taught

Most architects, as far as I can tell, want to design buildings. They don't expect to spend their days training other architects. However, architecture is a team game, and it's crucial that everyone is continually developing. It's generally accepted that the more experienced need to bring on the less experienced, in addition to delivering the project at hand. Which means that your ongoing development is going to be down to people who were never trained to train you. This is going to make for a relatively unfocused and messy experience. Unless you do something about it.

What can you do?

Value and support people who are naturally good teachers. But recognise that people only know what they know. They're like you, but with more experience. Develop a more mature relationship with the idea of the 'teacher and student' than the one you had at school. Set some long term goals. Start sharing your knowledge and skills with other people. Give, and you will receive. You are about to become the teacher.

“If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself, right now, by getting up and getting started.”

Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage

Andy FosterComment